The 10 Best Ways, VIII: Throw Me the Idol, I’ll Throw You the Whip.
Bible Text: GENESIS 27:6–27 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
“You shall not steal.” — Exodus 20:15
As we continue this sermon series on The Ten Commandments, today we turn to the 8th commandment: Thou Shall Not Steal. At the heart of this commandment is a path toward life: for those who have the essentials, but little more, it is a calling toward knowing that what you have is “enough.” And for those who have the essentials, and much, much more, it is a call to share what you have, so that all might have “enough.”
As for the stories in scripture that point toward this commandment, there are many. You are about to hear a core chapter to the Jacob and Esau drama, but really, the turmoil began before they were born. They wrestled in their mother’s womb. And, as they were born, Jacob grabbed his brother’s heel, as if trying to pull him back into the womb so that Jacob could be firstborn. As they grew up, the sibling feud did not end: one day, Esau came home from working in the fields, and he was so hungry he almost fainted. The kind of hunger that makes you think, surely if I do not eat now, I will die. Jacob had just finished making a lentil soup but refused to give Esau any, unless Esau gave Jacob something valuable. Jacob asked Esau to hand over his birthright—his inheritance. Quite a price for a bowl of soup, and not quite theft, per se, but certainly close: Jacob swindled Esau, he defrauded Esau, he fleeced Esau, he cheated Esau. Now, as their father lay dying, Jacob and his mother scheme to steal Esau’s blessing—a thing of tremendous value, a “symbolic action with abiding power,” a blessing that once given, cannot be undone.
I can easily pcture the scene: Indiana Jones is in Peru. He has made his way through a maze of traps, deep into a well fortified sacred Peruvian cave. He makes it to the center, and a gold statue, an idol, stands ready for him to grab.
But Indiana knows better than just to take it. He pulls out a small burlap bag and fills it with sand. He weighs it in his hand to make sure it’s just the right size to mimic the golden idols weight, and then he carefully makes the exchange: the golden idol is in his hand. His clever ruse has worked.
Until the walls start crumbling. And as he and his partner make a run for it, a boulder the size of a semi-cab comes barreling down the cave’s only path of escape. They run. Indiana’s partner makes it across one of the trenches but breaks the rope swing as he swings across.
Indiana is trapped. His partner could easily throw him his whip, but his partner balks at such generosity. Indiana still has an invaluable ancient golden idol in his possession. “Throw me the idol, I’ll throw you the whip.”
Indiana can’t help but see through this ploy, but time is running out: he has to trust his partner. He throws the idol, and his partner nonchalantly tosses the whip to Indiana, but it easily falls to the bottom of the trench.
It’s tricky, right? Technically, Indiana has just stolen the idol. It wasn’t his to begin with, even if he does desperately argue, “It belongs in a museum.” In the case of ancient artifacts, who is the rightful owner, anyway? Who are you stealing from if the one who set up the booby traps is long dead? And then, technically, his partner didn’t steal the idol from Indiana, did he?
Just like Esau needing a meal, and Jacob negotiating Esau’s birthright, his inheritance, in exchange for a bowl of soup, Indiana valued his life in that moment more than he valued possessing the golden idol. Indiana gave it to him in a moment of desperation, when he needed something life-saving in return.
The boundaries of what is theft and not theft are sometimes hazy. In May, Ryan Turk, a middle school student enrolled in the free-lunch program in Virginia was charged with petty larceny for stealing a sixty-five cent carton of milk. You know the kind: a square blue box of milk that you unfold carefully at the top using both thumbs, and if you drink straight from the carton, the milk tastes ever-so-slightly of paper or cardboard.
According to police and school officials, Ryan stole the carton of milk during lunch. According to Ryan, his family, and his attorney, he forgot to get his milk when he went through the lunch line, and he went back to pick one up.
He was handcuffed and taken to the principal’s office, where he was charged with criminal wrongdoing. Sometimes, the lines between what is ours and not ours is blurry, and a misunderstanding can turn a glass of milk into an expensive court case.
Ryan Turk’s sixty-five cent carton of milk was not the only dairy theft to make the headlines this year: in New York City, police reported a string of ice cream raids: in the course of 11 robberies, more than twelve hundred cartons of ice cream were stolen. They would come at night, two or three people, with bags, fill them up and run out of the store. They would transport the ice cream in freezer bags filled with dry ice and sell them for twenty-five cents on the dollar to local mom-and-pop stores, bodegas, and delis.
Just like Jacob walking into his father’s bedroom and stealing the blessing that was meant for his brother, these ice cream thefts seem morally cut-and-dry. The ice cream did not belong to them. They stole it.
But what about this way of thinking about it: Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s classic moral dilemma. “In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $400 for the radium and charged $4,000 for the small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about $2,000 which was half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So, having tried every legal means, Heinz gets desperate and considers breaking into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz steal the drug?”
Or, finally, what of Robin Hood, and other righteous “bad guys” who steal from the rich to give to the poor? One comedian put it this way: the hero thief handed a bag of gold to a poor farmer, saying he’d just decided to rob the rich and give to the poor, just like Robin Hood. The farmer was overjoyed. He started shouting “I’m rich, I’m rich.” And so, seeing how rich the farmer was, the robber thief promptly stole the bag of gold back from him.
Why steal? One person said that “theft is something as old as the existence of the word ‘mine’” To steal: to pilfer or ransack, to abduct or embezzle, to plunder or loot, to swindle or kidnap or keep what is not yours. It is pervasive across every culture and every era and every part of the globe.
The commandment “Thou Shall Not Steal” is part of just about every ancient legal code. The Code of Hammurabi from the 18th century B.C.E. includes punishments for various kinds of theft—steal something from your neighbor, repay him 10-fold for it. Steal something from the gods or the government, pay 30-fold for it. Stealing someone’s child, however: that is punishable by death.
The Assyrian laws from the 15th century B.C.E. went a step further: theft of someone’s wife was also punishable by death. And the Hittites in the 13th century B.C.E. generally only fined people for theft, unless you were foolish enough to steal one particular item: the bronze lance from the palace gate. That crime was, again, punishable by death.
Biologists tell us that stealing is an adaptive trait in animals: animals who steal can provide better, more quickly, and in a greater variety of ways for their offspring, spending more time doing things to advance their families, like mating or building their nest. The only thing, biologists say, that separates hyena, grackle, crow or raven theft from human theft, is that “we’re the only species who determine whether stealing is good or bad culturally.”
Our rules about stealing tell us much about the boundaries we establish as a culture: “the lines we draw between civilization and barbarism, madness and sanity, the appropriate and the inappropriate.” In the United States, an estimated 27 million people—or 1 in 11—shoplift each year, and given that there are more than 11 of us here, you can see the scope of the problem. That makes up 13 billion dollars worth of merchandise or 35 million dollars per day. And, while you might suspect that big ticket items like electronics would make up a large portion of theft, according to the food marketing institute, meat has been the most shoplifted item in the United States in recent years.
A security expert—one of the smart people trying to reduce and penalize theft—once claimed that Eve was the world’s first shoplifter, adding that being banned from the Garden of Eden and cursed with mortality was not too severe punishment for petty theft.
So, what is the spiritual impact of theft? What happens to us, body, mind and soul, and community when we take what is not ours—either through trickery or deception, fraud or lying or just simple shoplifting?
This is where our 10 commandments begin to intermingle, yes? Indiana Jones’ partner, by only half-fulfilling his promises, and tossing the life-saving whip into the trenches, is dooming Indiana to death. He has certainly stolen the golden idol from Indiana, but in the process, is intending to commit murder.
And what of Heinz and his wife? Is the druggist doing the same? Dooming the man’s wife to death, and in so doing, driving Heinz to steal? Or is theft unethical at all costs?
And what of the ice cream theft? Are the robbers motivated simply by the desire to have “more” even if it is not “more ice cream” but “more money” after selling the hot item? Is their drive for one more thing, just a little more cash, a denial of life? Or, is there a system-wide problem, by which none of these ice cream thieves can find honest work, and are driven to steal?
At the heart of this commandment is a path toward life: for those who have the essentials, but little more, it is a calling toward knowing that what you have is “enough.” And for those who have the essentials, and much, much more, it is a call to share what you have, so that all might have “enough.”
What does “enough” look like? For you? For us? For us as a nation and as a global community? What can we do, as Christians, as people who are called by Christ to love neighbor and enemy alike?
On this Stephen Ministry Sunday, when we honor those who stand with us in our darkest of days, when it seems as if nothing is “enough”—when we grieve, when we stand in fear, when we wonder how life might ever bring joy again—we know what is most important what is enough: enough is to be loved, enough is to be known, enough is to be heard, enough is to be cared for, and to have someone to care for.
Jesus spent much of his time preaching “enough.” With loaves and fishes, just a few, spread across a crowd of 5,000—there was enough.
The Apostle Paul was, too, always seeking to have and to be “enough” in the eyes of God, leaving us these words: “God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)
In this, there is trust. In this, there is hope. In this, there is an act of generous love toward the neighbor who does not yet have “enough.”
This week, in our Friday Parenting and Faith discussion, in the midst of wondering if the time we’re allotted might be enough to care for those we love, and to care for ourselves, we read a quote that gets to the heart of our hope for enough. It is a prayer from Julian of Norwich, a prayer that can stand with us in any number of needs. She says: all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
In this, I hear a cry for enough. That what today brings might be enough. Not only that what we have today might be enough, but that all those who mean anything to us might also have enough—even the widow and stranger and orphan among us—especially the widow and stranger and orphan among us.
And that with enough, we can patiently abide by the 8th commandment, for: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” May it be so. Amen. Walter Bruggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, 1982, p. 228.  Washington Post, Teen accused of stealing 65-cent carton of milk at middle school to stand trial
September 30, 2016 by Victoria St. Martin. New York Times, Stolen, Sold and Savored: Ice Cream Is a Hot Commodity in Manhattan
September 4, 2016 by Michael Wilson. Lawrence Kohlberg – an Introduction, By Detlef Garz, p. 55.  The Sydney Morning Herald from Sydney, New South Wales, August 29, 1992, p. 35.  John C. Horbert, A Preaching Commentary: The Ten Commandments, 2002, p. 99.  John C. Horbert, p. 99.  Rachael Shteir, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, 2011, p. 13.  Rachael Shteir, p. 2.  Bromleigh McCleneghan and Lee Hull Moses. Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired Anxious People, 2012, p. 61.