Practical Honesty

Ten Commandments - 8

Practical Honesty

Living Out the Eighth Commandment

(Exodus 22:1-7, 25-29)

Society comes down hard on petty theft, but respectable white-collar crime flourishes, comprising big business globally today. In this sometimes humorous address on the commandment against stealing, given on 22 November 1998, Rob Yule, minister of St. Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, brings out the challenging and liberating nature of the Bible’s teaching about wealth and money.

My wife Christene and I will never forget the day our son Andy, aged about ten, came home shaking with excitement to tell us what had happened to him after school. It was the time when ‘Easy Rider’ handle-bar ‘chopper’ bicycles were in vogue. He’d loaned his to a friend, who was cycling over the mounds of earth that had just been placed by a landscaping firm around the new Hornby Public Library in Christchurch. From behind the Library the friend let out a cry. Andy rushed round to find him holding a large bundle of $20 notes. What should they do? After talking together Andy suggested they’d better take it into the Library.

The Library staff told us later what happened. Two little boys came in shaking with excitement, and placed a huge stash of money on the counter. All the staff gathered round to see it. In due course enquiries revealed that the woman teller at the local TAB betting agency, anxious to put any would-be robber off her trail, had taken a circular detour to the bank, and dropped the takings - $1,000 worth of $20 notes - on the way! She was in big trouble - till the boys showed up with their haul! The TAB subsequently rewarded Andy’s friend to the tune of $100. We hoped that he might share his reward with Andy, but that never happened. So, since it was our son’s honesty that led the friend to take it to the Library, we gave Andy a special reward of our own. We bought him a chain guard that still adorns his beloved chopper, to teach him that honesty pays!

More Ways than Killing a Cat

Human beings are very ingenious. There are more ways of breaking the eighth commandment than there are of killing a cat. Obvious ways - like breaking into a house, cracking a safe, converting a car (odd phrase that), or driving a truck through the front window of a bank and making off with the cash vending machine.

But what about not paying accounts on time, not registering your software, not paying your workers a fair wage, not giving your employer an honest day’s work, tampering with weights and measures, rigging contracts, bribing officials, finding loopholes in the tax laws, speculating with international exchange rates, designing and manufacturing items for deliberate obsolescence, monitoring electronic communications to break into someone else’s bank account, or using the phone redial function to access your parent’s telebanking facility? Who said human beings aren’t creative or hardworking? The dullest school dropout can show surprising intellectual ingenuity when it comes to breaking the eighth commandment!

One of the more enterprising ways of breaking the eighth commandment I’ve heard of was at the time of the transition to decimal currency in the United Kingdom. Because half pennies ceased to be legal tender, and were being removed from bank accounts, an enterprising bank clerk decided to collect all the redundant half pennies that came his way and put them into his own bank account. It was tedious work, a real labour of love; but over a period of time it grew into a quite sizeable stash of money. The court, however, took a dim view of it, because they viewed the offending half pennies as no longer legal currency. It seemed odd to me that you could be legally charged for what was no longer legal tender, and I wondered if the enterprising clerk perhaps deserved his hard-earned pay.

Incidentally, what did happen officially to all those spare half pennies? Did the state pocket them, on a far greater scale than the enterprising bank clerk? Isn’t that state theft - just like when it prints too much paper money, which fuels inflation and erodes our savings? ‘The state gave, and the state has taken away. Blessed be the name of the state.’

Respectable Crime Worldwide

Our society comes down hard on common forms of stealing, like breaking and entering, shoplifting, and our bank clerk’s helping himself on the side, but tends to treat more leniently respectable white collar crime, large-scale fraudulent business deals or skilfully devised economic transactions like the Winebox affair (though maybe we haven’t heard the last of it yet).

The Bible actually condemns stealing by the dishonest rich in far stronger terms than stealing by the desperate poor. One of the most disapproved of crimes in the Bible is the political skullduggery by which Queen Jezebel got Naboth murdered so that she could confiscate his vineyard. The same Jesus who welcomed the repentant thief into paradise, a few days earlier overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple and labelled those respectable ecclesiastical financiers a ‘den of thieves’. The medieval Christian writer Dante placed respectable fraudsters deeper in hell than petty burglars. In this spirit I must say I was disappointed that Crossroads Bible Chapel in Palmerston North didn’t retain the graffiti on the brick wall when they took over Central Power’s workshop as their new worship facility. ‘Come back Robin Hood’ would have made a nice foil for the gospel. How about: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the dead. Come back Robin Hood!’

Breaking the eighth commandment is big business globally. In Our Globe and How to Reach It (Birmingham, Alabama, New Hope, 1990), pp. 19, 54-69, noted statistician David Barrett gives the following statistics (cost per annum):

  • Absenteeism at work $6 billion
  • Computer crime $44 billion
  • Credit Card fraud $500 million
  • Ecclesiastical crime $1.1 billion
  • Financial fraud $800 billion
  • International organised crime $700 billion
  • Money-laundering through banks $1.3 trillion
  • Shoplifting $90 billion
  • Tax cheating $180 billion

Compare this with the estimated money needed annually to provide those in poverty with adequate food, water, education and health: $500 billion.

Usury, Destroyer of Nations

There’s a specific issue I’d like to comment on: is charging interest on loans a breach of the eighth commandment? It comes as a shock to Christians today to learn that Christianity consistently opposed the charging of interest on loans right up until the beginnings of modern capitalism. Richard Baxter was a moderate evangelical leader in seventeenth century England. He lived at time when levying of interest was first beginning to be countenanced by Christians. Popular contemporary editions of his autobiography leave out his struggles of conscience with usury, thinking such subject matter not sufficiently spiritual or edifying for modern devotional taste. It’s a sad commentary on our blindness to economic and social ethics.

Today we live in a world where a few (the Sultan of Brunei, or Bill Gates) have billions, and billions (the absolutely poor) have nothing. Usury, the charging of interest, is the single most important factor in this situation. It enforces the gulf between money-lenders and debtors, and so creates ostentatious wealth on the one hand and desperate poverty on the other. Usury causes the economic ruin of individuals and of nations. It is a sin before God.

If this statement seems harsh, could it be because we have departed a long way from the Biblical and early Christian view of the matter?

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbour’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbour’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbour cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate. (Exodus 22:25-27)

Deuteronomy 23:19-20 softens this, making a distinction between lending without interest to a fellow-Israelite, and lending to a foreigner, where interest was permissible. But it’s interesting that the stronger view prevailed into the early church. The early Christians found it abhorrent to make money from the exchange of money, without any commodity or added value changing hands. The Latin American church historian, Justo Gonzalez, concludes his fine book Faith and Wealth: a History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1990): ‘Usury, by which is usually meant any loan on interest, is universally condemned in the early church. . . . Christian writers throughout the first four centuries are practically unanimous in their rejection of usury as well as of any loan on interest . . . even though a moderate rate of interest was legal according to civil law.’ (pp. 225-26).

Basil the Great was a fourth century Christian leader in Cappadocia, modern Turkey. One of his sermons that has come down to us was on the subject of usury (Gonzalez, op. cit., pp 175-76). He spoke as a pastor to the poor in his congregation, to persuade them that borrowing money and taking loans would not solve their economic problems - it only mortgages up their future and makes their difficulties worse. However, in the course of his message Basil makes a number of scathing remarks about rich people who lend money at interest. It is most inhuman, he says, that when a person is in need someone else takes advantage of their predicament to make money, ‘increasing his opulence at the price of the sufferings of the poor.’ Basil says to the lender, ‘Do you not know that you are increasing your sins more than you can increase your money through usury?’ And he says to the borrower, ‘If you have the money to pay, why not solve your present problem using that? And if you do not have it, you are simply heaping evil upon evil. . . . Now you are poor, but free. If you borrow, you will not become rich, and you will lose your freedom.’

Basil expounds a view that was common in the early Christian centuries but has disappeared today: to give to the poor, whether as an interest-free loan or as an outright gift, is to lend to God. They saw God as the guarantor of money given to the poor, so that the person who gives to the poor lends to God. ‘Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full’ (Proverbs 19:17). It is the height of unbelief, says Basil, to put your trust in a rich person to guarantee a loan instead of trusting God by giving generously to the poor.

Maintaining Financial Freedom

Scrupulous honesty is the best way to maintain financial freedom and a clear conscience. Step off the path of this commandment and you will quickly end up in a financial and moral quagmire. The following true story happened about fifteen years ago. I won’t give any identifying details, but I can tell you it, because the woman concerned has died. There was a family I used to visit in my previous church, who were always extremely gloomy. It was an effort to go there. Things weren’t helped when the woman contracted cancer.

In the midst of my visits, she opened up and confided something that was burdening her. She was a keen reader and book lover. She was a member of a well-known postal book discount club. Her passion for books had gotten the better of her, and she’d started taking out further memberships under various false names, to get the benefit of the choice of free books that went with each new membership. But she hadn’t reckoned on losing her financial freedom and a clear conscience. The membership dues were mounting, the bills were flowing in at an alarming rate, and she had a haunting fear of being found out.

She confessed to me, and to God, what she had done. I talked to her about the importance of restitution if her confession was to be full and restorative. I encouraged her to put things right with the book company, return all the books that weren’t rightfully hers, and pay all the arrears she’d incurred; and I offered, if she was willing to do her part, to write a covering letter to the firm, acknowledging their right to instigate criminal proceedings, but asking for clemency for her on account of her new found faith and her medical condition. She was ready to face prosecution, and that acceptance of responsibility alone saw an enormous increase in her self-esteem. For the first time the joy of salvation started to enter that house. Her confession was like opening the venetian blinds, and the light started to stream in.

To my and her amazement, the firm pardoned her and said they wouldn’t make charges. Her faith grew in leaps and bounds. The impact of her change of life, even as she was growing weaker with cancer, was amazing. Like Samson, she slew more in her last act than in the whole of her previous life put together. The husband, who’d been praying for her for years, was overjoyed at the answer to his prayers. It coincided with his last months before retirement as a film projectionist, and he had the satisfaction of the record-breaking screening of Chariots of Fire as his last movie - a grace gift to him after years of screening X-rated garbage that he didn’t like. We have cause to remember this wonderful story, because we were given the woman’s old Raleigh bicycle, and Christene, to the embarrassment of our children, still rides it to Palmerston North Girls High School each day.

I admit that being honest is not without its complications. I will never forget the time I discovered that my garage had undercharged me $1 for fuel; they forgot to include the squirt of Valve Master petrol additive - ‘because they don’t make cars like they used to.’ When I took my dollar to them next time they were not only flabbergasted at my honesty; they didn’t know what to do with it. There was no category under which they could record it. ‘Shell Ferguson Street: Charitable Donation.’ Maybe I simply provided an additional temptation for the poor harassed attendant, and he had a Mars Bar after my back was turned! But I went away with the incalculable benefit of a clear conscience, and that’s my wish for you all!

Rob Yule
22 November 1998

© 1998, St Albans Presbyterian Church,
Palmerston North, New Zealand