Tuesday, April 30, 2013

8. You Shall Not Steal.

8. You Shall Not Steal.  (8th in a series on the 10 Commandments).

This one is pretty straightforward.  It does not need much discussion, it seems.  Do not steal.  Plain and simple.  Do not take anything that does not belong to you.  Do not take anything by any means.  Does that apply to the copying of music or books that others have written?  Is it stealing to photocopy them if you did not buy them?  How about making copies of CDs or records?  Is that stealing?  Is it stealing to copy a movie that someone loans you and you did not buy?  Wow, the world of technology has opened up all kinds of avenues that we never considered before.

When I was a new pastor at Edom United Methodist Church in Edom, Texas, we concluded each worship service by singing a nice little song.  It was set to the tune of "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music.  Each Sunday, we would sing, "May the Lord, mighty God, bless and keep you forever, grant you peace, perfect peace, courage in every endeavor, Lift you eyes and see his face, and his grace forever, May the Lord, mighty God, bless and keep you forever."  I would walk down the aisle toward the back door and stand on the porch and shake hands with people as they passed out to go to their cars.  I would have Edelweiss playing in my head as they left and it was very peaceful.

When I left that little church and went to the big, tall steeple church 18 miles to the east of there, I mentioned the song to the music director one day and said we should sing it sometimes and he quickly told me that the song is not to be used.  He said that the family of Rogers and Hammerstein, who wrote The Sound of Music, had filed a lawsuit forbidding the use of the song unless someone paid a royalty for singing it.  I laughed aloud when he told me that and said it was ridiculous.  I guess Rogers and Hammerstein, or at least their families, are not laughing.  They took it seriously that others, even churches, would use their creation and not pay them for its use so they tried to block it legally.

Now I can sing Edelweiss all I want--in the shower, in my car, while cooking dinner--and the music police will not come to my house and try to stop me, but if I give a concert and charge people money to hear me sing, and include Edelweiss in the repertoire, then I may be crossing a line if I don't pay a royalty to the writers or producers or printers of the music.

Life has become so complicated.  While we used to know what it meant not to steal because we knew that anything that was not ours belonged to someone else and we were not to take it for ourselves, today things that can be stolen are not always things you can put your hands on literally.  Sometimes they are things we may read on the internet or hear on the radio or see on our television.  Enjoying them as we experience them is what they were created for but to profit from them opens a different can of worms that may be seen as breaking this commandment.

I remember that when I was in high school and learned to write research papers, we were taught to give credit to sources we used in our papers by making notations at the bottom of the pages and by using quotation marks to set aside words that belonged to someone else.  In so doing, we were acknowledging that those words belonged to someone else and not to us.  Today, there is a constant challenge for students who are in high school and college as they write papers for credit because there are many sources that will provide entire papers that someone else has written that are sold for a price.  There are people who can be hired to write papers for others so that they do not have to do the work and will get credit for doing it.  Plagiarism is another area in which stealing is a sneaky thing that happens even when one may not be doing it intentionally.

So, we thought we knew what this commandment meant when it was written and perhaps we do....do not steal, anything!  Today, deciding what stealing is when it is not something that can be easily seen is a matter of interpretation at times.  Maybe we need God's Spirit to give us wisdom and we need to prayer, "And lead us not into temptation" even more than usual.    

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

7. Wearing the Scarlet Letter

7. You shall not commit adultery.  (The seventh is a series on the Ten Commandments.)

I remember reading the story "The Scarlet Letter" when I was in college.  It is a book written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850.  I believe it was made into a movie also.  It is set in puritanical times in New England and involves a woman named Hester Prynne who was accused of adultery by the church leaders and required to wear a scarlet Letter A on her clothing as punishment so that everyone could see her and know that she had sinned.  The church leaders try to get her to disclose who the father of her child is but she refused.  The story progresses with many turns and twists until finally she reveals that the child's father is the minister of the church, Arthur Dimmesdale.  The story has a tragic ending in which both Dimmesdale and Hester's husband, who had been believed to be lost at sea but who had returned and taken a false identity so  he could plot revenge upon the person who was the father of Hester's child, died and left her enough money that she could start over in life in Europe.  Whew!  What a story!

In Puritanical times, sexual misconduct was considered to be the worst sin of all.  Wearing a scarlet letter for the sin of adultery was thought to be a fitting and appropriate punishment.  After all, it is one of the ten commandments specifically spelled out in Exodus.  Adultery was the sin that was whispered about all through  the ages up to modern times.  What most people do not know about this commandment, however, is that adultery was not an equal opportunity sin when it was banished by this commandment.  Only women were considered to commit adultery in the ancient world.  Men did not commit adultery unless they sinned with a married woman.  Men could have many kinds of relations with unmarried women and it was not considered to be wrong.  Women, on the other hand, were considered to be sinners if they had any relation with any man outside of their marriage.  So, the scale of justice did not tip evenly on this issue.

When Jesus addressed morality in the Gospels, he was more concerned about divorce than he was about adultery, although he merged the two issues in the text from Mark that talks about it.   The Pharisees had asked him if it was okay for a man to divorce his wife (which again was one-sided since women could not divorce men).  "But Jesus said to them, 'Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you...Whoever divorces his wife and married another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband (which could not happen) and marries another, she commits adultery."  (Mark 10:5, 11-12)  Divorce was considered to be wrong because it broke the unity that had been established by a couple when they married.

The 7th commandment is very blunt.  Do not do it.  It is in a list of other "Do Not Do's"  Modern society today overlooks authority figures telling them what to do and this commandment seems to go by the wayside along with our tolerance of divorce, which rarely does anyone complain about or object to.  Adultery was defined specifically as a married woman who acted outside her marriage OR a man who acted outside of his marriage with a married woman.  The Mosaic law was written to try to bring harmony and unity in a world of chaos and having unity in the family unit as the basic unit of society was important.

So, should the Scarlet Letter be applied to all who stray outside of their marriages?  Should judgment and condemnation be the rule for persons who may venture off where they should not?  I really think that the law of love that Jesus taught urges compassion for all involved and healing and wholeness, restoration and forgiveness to happen rather than harshness.  There are many reasons why people stray off the path of life that they should travel but getting them back on track seems to be the more important role of church and society rather than imposing punishment upon wrongdoers.

" I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."  (John 13: 34-35)

Monday, April 1, 2013

6. You Shall Not Murder

The sixth in a series on the Ten Commandments:

"You Shall Not Murder" (Exodus 20:13)  It sounds so plain, doesn't it?  What is not to understand in this commandment?  It says not to murder anyone.  This is from the NRSV which uses the word "murder" in place of the word "kill" that had been in the KJV.  The reason for the change is that the text in the original language did not prohibit killing such as if required in military action. Some who were conscientious objectors used the King James Bible as part of their reasoning for not serving in the military.  This new language of the NRSV contains the commandment that prohibits non-military killing of other persons for any reason.

In the ancient world before the commandments were given, tribes of persons would take revenge upon others if a murder had been committed.  A horde of warring tribesmen would descend upon a village and kill everyone there in retribution for the death of one of their own.  Then, early Judaic law ordered that such a practice be contained to "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."  In other words, tribes were forbidden from killing an entire village of people in exchange for the death of one of their own.  Instead, one person's death would pay for the death of another.  This also made it okay for someone to kill your ox if you accidentally killed their ox.  This applied to other property as well that could be seized if you by some chance destroyed the property of another person.  Equal vengeance under the law.

So, this commandment takes the law a bit more into the future by forbidding murder at all, even if someone has murdered your relative.  No retribution is the rule now.  Do not murder anyone.  If everyone would follow the law, then there would be no need for justice to be done on behalf of one whose life has ended tragically.  Society has never reached the place, however, when murder does not happen.  Today, in America, murder is a commonplace event in every state in the union.  A day hardly goes by when it is not reported in the news media that persons across the land have been murdered by others.  Even law enforcement officers are at risk.  It used to be that dangerous persons feared law enforcement officers but suddenly there has been a rash of killings of persons involved in law enforcement.

There was for a while a series of ads posted on billboards that had phrases that were attributed to God with the phrase, "What part of ______ do you not understand?" and signed by God Almighty.  This commandment could easily fill in that blank.  If the commandment says, "You Shall Not Murder" then why do people continue to murder unless they no longer care what the commandments say.  I generally think that is the reason why it continues.  Not only do some people no longer respect law enforcement officers but some people do not respect authority of any kind, even biblical authority.  Perhaps the great experiment in personal liberty in America has yielded a harvest of violence that we do not know how to stop.

I have never broken this commandment.  At last, one that I can easily and confidently say I have kept for my entire life.  And I believe that just about everyone reading this can say the same thing.  We would never think of murdering another person.  It is far from anything we could ever contemplate.  Yes, there are times when we become so angry that such an act could happen if we did not have enough self-control but thank God we restrain ourselves and do not go that far.  Murder seems to most persons to be at the top of the list of sins that would be the most serious.  To deny life to another person ranks up there as bad as you can get.  Perhaps that is what makes us more human---when we realize that our humanity depends upon allowing others in the human race to be human in the way they desire and to bear with them and forgive them when they commit acts that make us wish they were somewhere else or nowhere else.