June 28 – Culturally Defined Ownership

June 28 – Culturally Defined Ownership

Exodus 20:15

Do not steal.” (Exodus 20:15)

If we accept that stealing is taking from another that which one has no biblical grounds for taking, the precise boundaries of what is “private property” and what is “one’s right to take” may be somewhat conditioned by the views of a particular society. In ancient Israel it was ethical to glean the leftovers of harvest and illegal for the owner to harvest the entire crop, but in many societies this “gleaning” would be viewed as stealing. In America one certainly does not “glean” in Sears after a major sale! In Joseph’s Egypt it may have been all right to expropriate people’s land in exchange for a welfare handout, but the mayor of New York City had better not try that! In some tribes any property left outside one’s hut is available for anyone to take, but don’t try that with your neighbor’s lawn mower. When people groups following two different definitions of ownership meet, there can be a clash. To the Native American who did not recognize private land ownership, the European, coming with a different set of rules, was the ultimate thief.

These differences do not necessarily undermine the commandment not to steal, for all societies recognize the right of personal ownership and consider robbery a crime. This understanding does not relativize biblical standards because the difference is not in the definition of stealing, but in the definition of ownership, and when taking what by whom is considered legitimate. Along the borders of definition of personal ownership there is some latitude for a society to establish its own norms, and it is wrong for the Christian in that society, even if he is the citizen of another society, to violate those norms. Whether the violation is inherently sinful or simply sinful by being declared illegal or unacceptable, the Christian should prove blameless.

Perhaps the question of stealing time falls in this category. If the person who loses time is offended, that is, considers it an unwarranted personal loss, then the sensitive Christian should not carelessly or deliberately “take that which is another’s,” for the Scripture gives him no right to do so.

Stealing and lying are often intertwined and feed one another. Furthermore, they have a single underlying principle: They violate integrity. Personal integrity demands honesty, complete freedom from any form of cheating, stealing, or taking advantage of others. Divine guidance, according to the traditional view, is one of the Christian’s deepest needs and highest privileges. Scripture is replete with reports of God’s guidance in nonmoral matters. The Bible gives the unbiased observer the strong impression that the examples are chosen, not only (or even always) for their special significance in the plan of redemption, but also as windows on God’s way of doing things. though Scripture nowhere speaks of human “free will,” it is full of admonitions concerning full responsibility for the choices humans make.

Take a few minutes and consider what you consider yours that another may not. How do you define ownership? How might you take what another considers their own possession? Perhaps the strong biblical teaching on God’s sovereign purpose is the key to understanding guidance. Furthermore, we are called to participate with him in the accomplishment of his purposes.

Some say that God is interested in or has a “will” only in important matters; the insignificant matters are of no concern to him. But this can be a loose cannon on deck. While I grant that there is a legitimate and important distinction, often what appears the least significant can prove in the end to have been the most significant. How less consequential can a decision be than when and where to take a bath? Yet the whole career of the greatest human leader of all time was decided by that choice.

For an Eastern potentate to take a slave girl for a night (and with a good purpose in mind, and in response to his wife’s urging) was not considered a moral issue and would not have seemed a very significant event. But, in point of fact, Abraham’s liaison with Hagar resulted in a conflict that rages four thousand years later with greater intensity than ever in the confrontation between Arabs and all others, especially the descendants of Sarah. “Little” choices have a way of becoming “big!”

In any event, biblical teaching on God’s sovereignty is clear that he does have a plan for human affairs and that our primary link with that plan is prayer. How do you decide what is ownership or stealing? Do you surf the internet at work? Are you checking Facetime or Twitter often? From whom do you take?

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