Have Regard For Your Neighbor's Property
HAVE REGARD FOR YOUR NEIGHBOR’S PROPERTY
A Midweek Lesson
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: May 15, 2019
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
If I truly love my neighbor, then I will want my neighbor to flourish in every way.
First, I will want my neighbor to be safe and sound and satisfied in his person, which corresponds to the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13) I must be resolved not only to not undermine his life, but also to proactively protect, preserve, and promote his personal well-being.
Second, I will want my neighbor to be safe and sound and satisfied in his marriage, which corresponds to the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14) Here again, I must be resolved not only to not undermine his marriage, but also to proactively protect, preserve, and promote his marital happiness.
Third, I will want my neighbor to be safe and sound and satisfied in his property, which corresponds to the eighth commandment: “You shall not steal.” (Exodus 20:15) In this also, I must be resolved not only to not undermine his possessions, but also to proactively protect, preserve, and promote his enjoyment of those things that the Lord God has given to him.
In all of this, of course, our highest allegiance is not the good of our neighbor, but rather the glory and honor of God. And as we endeavor to glorify and honor the Lord our God, we must look at our neighbor through the lens of the God-centered reality that is set forth in the Bible.
So, we want our neighbor to be safe and sound and satisfied in his person because our neighbor is an image-bearer of God. God created this neighbor of ours, and this neighbor of ours is created in the image of God. Therefore, and for God’s sake, we hold our neighbor’s life in high regard.
In the same way, we want our neighbor to be safe and sound and satisfied in his marriage because marriage is the handiwork of God. God designed marriage, and when a man and a woman are joined together in holy matrimony, God is the One who joins them together and seals their covenantal union. Therefore, and for God’s sake, we hold our neighbor’s marriage in high regard.
And the same logic is in effect with respect to our neighbor’s possessions. We want our neighbor to be safe and sound and satisfied in his property because God is the One who has loaned that property to our neighbor. God is sovereign over the increase or decrease of our neighbor’s wealth, so who are we to inject our selfish agenda into our neighbor’s estate?
We need to be very clear that our neighbor’s right to his or her property is not grounded in social conventions or in human rights or in man-made laws or in governmental decrees. While property rights should be recognized by government and by society at large, government and society are not the source of property rights. Instead, God is the source of property rights. God is the One who says: “You shall not steal.”
WE HAVE NO PROPERTY RIGHTS BEFORE GOD
As we consider property rights, we must understand that our property rights are rights that we have in relationship to one another and in relationship to society in general. It is very important to understand, however, that we do not have any property rights before God. God is the sovereign Creator and Sustainer and Owner of all things, and He can do whatever He pleases with anything, for any reason that He in His perfect wisdom sees fit. Since He is the rightful Owner of all things, He doesn’t need to check in with us before He disposes of our property.
The truth of God’s sovereignty over all things is expressed throughout Holy Scripture:
- “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” (Psalm 24:1-2)
- “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” (Psalm 50:10-12)
- “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 5:19)
- “And he [Job] said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”” (Job 1:21)
- “The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.” (1 Samuel 2:7)
- “At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”” (Daniel 4:34-35)
- “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own we have given you.” (1 Chronicles 29:11-14)
- “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25)
It is God’s prerogative to make one rich and another poor; it is God’s prerogative to destroy the wealth of the Egyptians and enrich the Israelites; it is God’s prerogative to give the land of Canaan to the children of Israel; it is God’s prerogative to give enormous wealth to Job and then to take it all away and afterward to restore it; it is God’s prerogative to appoint locust and moth to consume our possessions; it is God’s prerogative to grant a bumper crop or a recession, a promotion or a demotion, unexpected gifts or unexpected bills. Our God is sovereign over all wealth, period, and He distributes it, multiplies it, withdraws it, or makes it evaporate, in accordance with His holy will. We have no property rights before God. Everything that we have is on loan from Him, and He can take it away without a moment’s notice – and when He does, He will have done us no wrong.
WE HAVE PROPERTY RIGHTS BEFORE ONE ANOTHER
But even though we have no property rights before God, we do have property rights before one another. We ought to fear God, and humble ourselves under His sovereign hand. If our neighbor prospers, we ought to pay homage to the divine hand that prospered him, and not be envious. If our neighbor suffers loss, we ought to pay homage to the divine hand that struck him, and not gloat. And whether our neighbor prospers greatly on the one hand or suffers catastrophic loss on the other hand, or experiences anything in between, God calls us to always love our neighbor and always seek our neighbor’s good. If our neighbor rejoices in increased wealth, we ought to rejoice with our neighbor. If our neighbor grieves over severe losses, we ought to grieve with our neighbor and do what we can to help. Thus we ought to see our neighbor and our neighbor’s property with an eye of love, and not with an eye of greed. We ought to relate to our neighbor’s estate with a heart of humility that wants our neighbor to prosper under God’s blessing, and not with a haughty spirit that sees everything in a self-absorbed and self-exalting way and that wants to seize my neighbor’s stuff. We must hear the Word: “You shall not steal.”
THE MEANING AND SIGNIFICANCE OF “YOU SHALL NOT STEAL”
To steal means ‘to seize for myself something that rightfully belongs to someone else’ or ‘to seize for myself something upon which I have no rightful claim’. I ought to look with contentment upon the lot that God has chosen for me, and I ought to look with contentment upon the lot that God has chosen for my neighbor. Such contentment under God’s sovereign hand doesn’t nullify God’s command that I should work diligently and invest wisely, but it means that all my labors are undertaken with dependence on God and in submission to His sovereign will. If my book becomes a bestseller, blessed be the name of the Lord! If my book never gets published, blessed be the name of the Lord! It is my business to trust the Lord for my own welfare, and to look with love upon my neighbor and genuinely desire my neighbor’s prosperity.
Scripture makes it clear that the heartfelt mindset of the eighth commandment goes way beyond the simple avoidance of property theft, and actually means that I should seek to protect and preserve that which belongs to my neighbor.
In Exodus 22:1-15 we encounter the principle of restitution. If we have stolen something, we ought to make restitution twofold, or fourfold, or fivefold, depending on the circumstance (v. 1-4). If our conduct has resulted in property damage or property loss to our neighbor, we ought to compensate our neighbor for it (v. 5-6). If we borrow something from our neighbor and it is broken or destroyed while in our possession, we ought to “make full restitution” (v. 14).
In Exodus 23 we learn that if our neighbor’s property is ‘getting away from him’, we ought to do what we can to return it. Here is what Scripture says: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him.” (Exodus 23:4) If we ought to seek to preserve and protect our neighbor’s property when that neighbor is an enemy, then we certainly ought to seek to preserve and protect our neighbor’s property when that neighbor is a friend.
THE MINDSET OF STEALING IS AN ANTI-GOSPEL MINDSET
The mindset of stealing is to take what belongs to someone else and leverage it for my own personal benefit. In other words, the mindset of stealing is a fundamentally selfish mindset; it is the mindset of seizing and possessing for my own advantage. To put it another way: the mindset of stealing is a fundamentally anti-gospel mindset – because the gospel is all about Christ’s self-giving love. The robber takes; the Redeemer gives.
What is the gospel? “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) Likewise in Philippians 2: “… though he was in the form of God, [Christ Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7) Whereas the thief seeks to enrich himself at someone else’s expense, the Lord Jesus Christ came in order to enrich us at His expense. Thus the logic of robbery and the logic of redemption are total opposites.
The logic of robbery can be seen in the sin of our first parents, when they sought their own selfish advantage by eating the forbidden fruit. They reached out and seized something that had not been given to them. They stole.
By contrast, the logic of redemption can be seen in Jesus when He was tempted in the wilderness. He was hungry, and the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread. While Jesus, being the Lord of glory, could have done so, He hadn’t become Man in order to live a ‘superhero’ existence on earth. Instead, He had come as Man to be a true Man who humbly depends on His heavenly Father. He wouldn’t reach out and seize bread from the stones in order to immediately secure His physical comfort. He wouldn’t do something that the Father had not authorized Him to do. Instead, He would wait patiently for the Father to supply all His needs, and He would feed on the Father’s Word in the absence of bread. While the devil tempted Jesus to possess the world without suffering, Jesus knew that suffering was the divinely appointed pathway to glory. And the suffering Savior whose body was broken on the sacred tree is, in fact, the Bread of life who gives life to spiritually hungry people like you and me.
Robbers are always coming to take; the Redeemer came to give. As Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:10-11)
THE LARGER CALL: SHARE GENEROUSLY
When we experience the grace of the Redeemer’s self-giving love, we are rescued out of the mindset of selfish taking and transformed into the mindset of generous giving. As John taught us, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16) Laying down our lives for one another includes meeting the practical needs of our fellow Christians (1 John 3:17).
One of the most powerful verses related to the eighth commandment and its full-orbed significance for our lives is in Ephesians 4. As those who have “learned Christ” (Ephesians 4:20), we are called to display the character of Christ in our everyday lives. This call to follow Christ touches every aspect of our life, including our attitude and conduct toward possessions.
Paul instructs, “Let the thief no longer steal” (Ephesians 4:28). That would be a good start, of course, but as I said earlier, there’s a lot more to the eighth commandment than just not stealing. So Paul doesn’t stop there. Paul says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Ephesians 4:28) Isn’t this a powerful verse?
Think about it: the robber’s mindset is to provide for himself at someone else’s expense without that someone else’s consent. The thief is a taker, plain and simple. It might be overt acts of stealing, or it might be subtle or even manipulative acts of freeloading. But instead of being parasitic on the wealth of others, we are called to be diligent workers who exercise appropriate responsibility for ourselves. If I am able to work with my own hands and bring home an income, then I ought to do so – or at the very least, if I’ve fallen on hard times, I ought to make an honest effort to find gainful employment. I ought to understand that God created me to work for a living, and then I ought to set out to do so. Do not be parasitic on the wealth of others, but instead be a producer of wealth for yourself – always in humble dependence on God.
However, we must not stop there. There is a kind of rugged, proud, independent and self-enclosed mindset that is quite happy not to steal and quite happy to provide for one’s self, but is not quite happy to share generously with others. This deficient mindset is: I don’t steal, I pay my own way (and you pay your way!), but I keep my wealth to myself. It’s mine, thank you very much! Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t have this mindset?
What is the call? Not only to not steal, and not only to provide for your own needs, but also to meet the needs of others. And this call to bless others at your expense shouldn’t be an afterthought, but should be built into your very motivational framework for earning money in the first place. Do you see this? Paul says to “labor, doing honest work with [your] own hands, so that [you] may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Ephesians 4:28, italics added) It is assumed that our “honest work” provides for our own needs, but our larger purpose for generating income should be to share with others.
As Christians, it is our privilege to follow in our Savior’s footsteps. Since Jesus enriched us at His expense, we should become His imitators who in comparatively small but nevertheless real ways enrich others at our expense. Others have needs, and we gladly bear the cost. Others have bills, and we willingly write the check. Others are in a tough spot, and we joyfully share the burden with them.
TRUST GOD AND LOVE OTHERS
For the Christian, it is not enough to only not steal.
For the Christian, it is not enough to only provide for the needs of one’s self and one’s immediate family.
For as Christians we understand that everything that we have is on loan from God, and one of the reasons that God puts wealth into our laps is so that we can demonstrate costly love by sharing that wealth with others. And you don’t have to have a lot of wealth in order share what you have with others.
In light of all these things, trust the Lord your God. And do not trust your own heart. Agur’s prayer is commendable:
“Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?”
or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”
Yes, Agur’s heart attitude is commendable, but his prayer doesn’t guarantee a “neither poverty nor riches” situation. The truth of the matter is that God might send you poverty or He might send you riches. And what did Paul say? In the Lord’s strength He was able to be content in the face of poverty and, equally, in the Lord’s strength He was able to be content in the face of wealth (Philippians 4:11-13).
Whatever your circumstances may be and whatever your surroundings may be, you must trust God’s sovereign distribution and disposal of property, whether you are thinking about the property He has loaned to you or the property He has loaned to others. Do not crave what others have, and do not resent the portion given to you. Receive that portion as a gift from above, and be content with your heavenly Father’s perfect wisdom. The fact that many other people are ungrateful to God or misuse their wealth is no reason for you to do so. They will be held accountable for their ingratitude and misuse. But as for you, make it your aim to please the Lord, rest in His provision, and give generously to others.