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Saturday, 28 April 2012

You shall not bear false witness



The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). This commandment is often paraphrased simply as, “You shall not lie.” This is not strictly accurate, as it refers to lying in a legal setting (often called perjury) rather than general cases of lying. This doesn’t mean lying isn’t a serious sin in God’s eyes; we shall see that it is. However, the Ten Commandments were part of a human legal system, and (like modern criminal codes) set down perjury as a crime because this kind of lie has particularly serious consequences.

Monday, 23 April 2012

You shall not steal



I would venture that there are few, if any people in the world who reach adulthood without experiencing theft of their personal possessions. Burglary, smash and grab, pick-pocketing, fraud, and many other strategies are used to take what belongs to someone else. We all feel violated and outraged when we are victimized by any of these crimes. Beyond the pain of losing money or valuables, we react sharply to the feeling of injustice.

However, if we are honest with ourselves, we will probably have to admit that we have also been guilty of the Eighth Commandment, which reads simply, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). We may not have committed any of the crimes listed above, but there are many forms of theft that are more subtle and passive.
For example, you might borrow something (such as a book or a CD) from a friend and never get around to returning it. You may damage someone else’s property and cover it up rather than offering to fix or replace it. In the digital age, millions have openly stolen from the comfort of their own homes via piracy of movies, music and software.

So perhaps we are a bit hypocritical when we become so outraged about stealing. As the Apostle Paul wrote, "You preach, "Do not steal"---but do you yourself steal?" (Romans 2:21b)

The Bible names and prohibits many different types of theft, most of which are still prevalent today in some form. Leviticus 6:1-5 describes theft through deceit (such as failing to return a deposit, or failing to return a lost-and-found item). Indeed, the close relationship between theft and deceit is apparent throughout Scripture (Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 11:1). Modern crimes that combine deceit and theft include fraud, ‘phishing,’ and identity theft.

Normally the penalty for theft, as for destruction of another person’s property, was to restore the value and then some (an additional 20% in Leviticus 6:1-5, or up to five times as much for outright stealing in Exodus 22:1-4). If, however, it was a human being who was stolen (kidnapping or human trafficking), the penalty was death (Deuteronomy 24:7).

There are certain forms of theft which are usually perpetrated by the rich toward the poor, which could be generally described as oppression or exploitation. These include withholding of a worker’s wages (Leviticus 19:13), charging interest on loans to the poor (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19), and false balances or scales (Leviticus19:35-37; Deuteronomy 25:13-16). In the ancient world, balances were the standard by which goods and currencies were weighed in business transactions. A dishonest businessman could rig his balances in order to cheat his customers, thereby stealing from them. Since businessmen tended to be people of privilege, this sin too was associated with oppression of the poor by the rich (Amos 8:4-6).

Another class of theft could be generally described as abuse of power or corruption. In particular, people who hold positions of influence (such as politicians and judges) are prone to bribery (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:9; Micah 7:3). God also warns against using threats to exact money from someone else (under which fall robbery, blackmail and extortion) (Ezekiel 22:12; Luke 3:14).

Another form of theft which remains relevant in today’s society is tax evasion. Jesus commanded disciples to pay taxes to the authorities of the day (Matthew 17:24-27; 22:17-21), which was echoed by Paul (Romans 13:6-7). Obedience to God requires compliance with tax laws regardless of how the government may use (or misuse) tax revenues.

How many of us have returned everything we have ever borrowed? Paid every cent of tax that we owed? Refrained from paying or receiving a bribe when it would save us a lot of time and money? How many have never taken something that didn’t belong to us? Have never tricked another person out of their money or goods? Have never illegally downloaded a movie, song or software package? Have never scratched a rental car and returned it without informing the company, hoping they wouldn’t notice (okay, maybe it’s just me who’s done that). We may be outraged at someone who breaks into a house to steal, but are we not guilty of the same sin in some measure?

Let there be no doubt that God takes all forms of theft seriously. Jesus listed theft among the basic forms of sin (Matthew 15:19) and endorsed the Eighth Commandment as still binding (Matthew 19:18). Paul listed theft among the sins that exclude one from the kingdom of God, apart from the cleansing that comes through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

It is probably time for all of us to pause and offer a heartfelt prayer of confession and ask God’s forgiveness. Having confidence that our sins are now forgiven on account of Jesus Christ, how do we go about “Bearing fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8)? Paul’s advice for the reformed thief was this: “If you used to rob, you must stop robbing and start working, in order to earn an honest living for yourself and to be able to help the poor” (Ephesians 4:28).

Friday, 13 April 2012

You shall not commit adultery



The Seventh of the Ten Commandments reads, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). The Commandment does not define or qualify what adultery is; nor does it prescribe a penalty for the offence. Elsewhere within the Law of Moses, however, we find both a definition for adultery and the penalty:

“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:10)

In the Book of Deuteronomy the definition of adultery is extended to include sexual intercourse between a man and another man’s fiancée (Deuteronomy 22:22-24), which was likewise a capital offence.

Some have claimed that the term ‘adultery’ in the Seventh Commandment refers collectively to all forms of sexual sin. However, this is not strictly correct. The Hebrew word na’aph used here refers to the breaking of wedlock by having sexual intercourse with the wife or fiancée of another man. The law did not even explicitly cover the case where a married man cheats on his wife with an unmarried woman.

This is by no means to say that other forms of sexual behaviour were permitted under the Law of Moses. Leviticus 18 and 20 prohibit a number of other types of sexual act, including homosexual sex, bestiality, various forms of incest, and sexual intercourse with a menstrual woman. All of these were punishable by death except the last (which was punishable by exile).

Premarital sex is dealt with elsewhere in the Law of Moses. Exodus 22:16-17 states that if a man seduced a virgin who was not engaged, he had to pay the bride-price for the woman and marry her. If her father refused to let him marry her, he had to pay the bride-price anyway. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 further prescribes capital punishment for a woman who was not a virgin at the time of marriage if her husband chose to formally complain.

The Law of Moses had strict and detailed statutes regarding sexual behaviour; however the Seventh Commandment concerned only one specific aspect, namely sexual intercourse of an engaged or married woman with someone other than her husband/fiancé.

Having clarified the meaning of the commandment, we must ask how to apply it today. As with previous commandments, the key is to be found in the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish religious leaders had established loopholes that were not fair to women. A man could divorce his wife for any reason (Matthew 19:3) and take another wife. The bonds of marriage could be easily broken and reformed to prevent adultery from occurring by the letter of the Law.

Jesus’ teachings brought out the spirit of the adultery law:
“27 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 31 "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:27-28,31-32)
As we saw with the commandment against murder, one need not commit the physical act in order to bear the full guilt of the offence. The desire to commit the act is enough. Furthermore, to divorce a faithful wife in order to take another, or to marry another man’s wife who had been so discarded, is adultery in Jesus’ eyes. There are no loopholes with Jesus; he sees straight to the heart of the matter.

Jesus also made it clear that there was no double standard between men and women. For a man to sleep with a woman other than his wife was just as much adultery as it was for a woman to sleep with a man other than her husband (Mark 10:11-12). Both husband and wife are to honour the sanctity of marriage (Hebrews 13:4).

Jesus’ judgment of a situation where a woman was caught in adultery showed his mercy and wisdom (John 8:3-11). He had mercy on the woman, preventing her from being stoned to death although this was the punishment called for under the law. He saved her from being another victim of the gendered double standard: she had been “caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4), which means a male must also have been present; yet no male had been apprehended.

Jesus’ mercy on this woman showed that there is hope for those who get involved in sexual sin such as adultery. However, it is still a very serious sin. We in the Western world have forgotten how serious it is, because it is no longer a crime in most Western countries (unlike “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness”). Yet adultery can irreparably damage relationships and destroy families.

“Do not be deceived,” wrote the Apostle Paul, before mentioning “adulterers” among the unrighteous who, apart from the cleansing that God offers through Jesus Christ, cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9).