You shall not steal . . . you shall not covet (Exodus 20: 15, 17)
In 2001 actress Winona Ryder was arrested for shoplifting in a Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue. Some crimes garner public attention because they are unusually bold or cruel. This act of theft, amounting to about $5,000 in swanky clothes, was simply baffling. Why would a Hollywood actress steal clothes?
Ryder hardly needed what she took. Given the nature of her profession and the success she had enjoyed at that time, she either owned or had access to plenty of clothes. Need won’t explain the deed. And Ryder was perfectly capable of paying for what she took – or at least most of it. If she truly wanted those items her desires could have been satisfied the old fashioned way: buy them.
When Ryder was convicted in 2002, Time did an article to explore what might have been behind this act of thievery. The article provided a helpful statistical summary of the economic impact that shoplifting has on retailers. It also asked questions about Ryder’s state of mind when she committed the crime, trying to identify the characteristic behaviors and thought patterns that are associated with kleptomania.
The article was helpful and informative, but not adequate. What the article failed to address is the fundamental reality of human sin. Something in us is broken. Our deepest problems are not economic or psychological. At our core we are alienated from our creator. Sometimes in our efforts to repair what we sense is broken, we accumulate stiff. For some, accumulation means taking.
This week we will turn our attention to two commandments that deal with the ‘stuff’ we own or wish we owned. One commandment addresses the means by which we acquire things. As we walk God’s path we are told not to steal. The other commandment looks beneath the act of acquiring to the heart that craves. Not only are we not to steal, we are not to covet what see others have.
Let’s begin with some definitions. First, stealing. God’s intent at creation was that people would work and thus benefit from the fruit of their labor. Theft is a refusal to accept this; theft diminishes the humanity of both the thief and the victim. The thief refuses to work. The victim is deprived of the fruit of his or her work.
Coveting: Eugene Peterson rightly observes that “to covet is to fantasize a life other than what is given to me.” Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas add this insight: “Our problem as humans is not that we are full of desire, aflame with unfulfillment. Our problem is that we long for that which is unfulfilling. We attempt to be content with that which can never satisfy.”
We are baffled by Winona Ryder’s failed heist. But let’s not flatter ourselves too easily; we are like her. We have a love affair with ‘stuff’ in this culture. It shows itself in different ways and in the days ahead we will try to understand our shared condition.
By your grace, O God, work deep in our heart and change us. Grant to us the gift of a contented heart, free of a gnawing desire for things that cannot make us whole or fix our lives. Teach us to rest in your care and provision, this day and always, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.