Grasping God's Purpose: "Payback Time!" – Exodus 22:1-15

In the end of the 1990’s, Donald Westlake wrote a novel that was turned into a movie called “Payback”. I did not see the movie, but I am told that Mel Gibson was a stunning actor in the film. The story from the novel intrigued me. The novel jacket said: “Porter is shot by his wife and best friend and is left to die. When he survived he plotted revenge. This is his story.” When I read that, I asked myself one question: “Is payback simply revenge?” Is there some sense in which payback can be redeeming for the abuser and a healing balm for the abused? Biblically speaking, the answer is YES.

 Key Principle: Retribution was not supposed to be about REVENGE, it was supposed to be about RECOVERY FOR THE VICTIM and REDEEMING RESPONSIBILITY for the wayward.

Recompense… retribution… these words have come to mean REVENGE in our language – but that was not so when God gave the CIVIL CODE of the Law. At the beginning of the camping trip through the wilderness, God wanted His people to see His heart in the principles of the Law – not just follow Him the way they followed Pharaoh and their appointed taskmasters. He wanted them to recognize right and wrong, and work through problems in a redemptive way.

We have to admit that our civil society has lost the redemptive sense of retribution. Instead of focusing on healing the abused and helping the abuser, we are focused on the anger of revenge in the penal system. We take people who do bad things, and cage them up with people who have done even worse things. We feed them three meals a day (unless you are in one of the states currently under a budget tightening crisis!) and make them produce even LESS than they did “on the outside”. Many prisons will admit that they are barely in control of the population that has organized itself into gangs of thugs – focused on building their own little society inside the prison walls – based on hatreds and prejudices of the outside world – but magnified in intensity.

God gave a proper pattern for restitution in the Law:

Exodus 22:1 “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. 2 “If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. 3 “But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. 4 “If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double. 5 “If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed bare and lets his animal loose so that it grazes in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard. 6 “If a fire breaks out and spreads to thorn bushes, so that stacked grain or the standing grain or the field itself is consumed, he who started the fire shall surely make restitution. 7 “If a man gives his neighbor money or goods to keep for him and it is stolen from the man’s house, if the thief is caught, he shall pay double. 8 “If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges, to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor’s property. 9 “For every breach of trust, whether it is for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any lost thing about which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he whom the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor. 10 “If a man gives his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep for him, and it dies or is hurt or is driven away while no one is looking, 11 an oath before the LORD shall be made by the two of them that he has not laid hands on his neighbor’s property; and its owner shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution. 12 “But if it is actually stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. 13 “If it is all torn to pieces, let him bring it as evidence; he shall not make restitution for what has been torn to pieces. 14 “If a man borrows anything from his neighbor, and it is injured or dies while its owner is not with it, he shall make full restitution. 15 “If its owner is with it, he shall not make restitution; if it is hired, it came for its hire.

If we look at the civil code of the Law, we find that it is ten chapters in total. Exodus contains four chapters of that code (and Numbers another six chapters that we will study in the future). In Exodus, the Core Principles that we saw in Exodus 20 – that we refer to as the “Ten Commandments” that exposed God’s broader view of life together in civil society; and three chapters of specifics on living together responsibly as a society. The responsibilities included understanding what God cared about in issues like the sanctity of life, the sanctity of freedom, and the holiness of His divine authority invested in the family structure – God gave you your parents! It included the high view of contract promises, and the care we should take with people under our care.

As we come to the last part of these civil codes in this book, we can identify what some rabbinic scholars have termed “Codes of Retribution”. By that word, they had no view of REVENGE –but rather of replacement to injured parties the things that were taken from them… and sometimes even more than what was taken. The idea was to restore both the abuser and the abused. Sadly, it has become a foreign concept in much of our modern civil society- though its touch is still found in our laws.

The issue today is straightforward: Does God express property rights? Is having and defending property a godly thing to do? Is God communal? Does He view the right way to live as “having all things in common” like the Acts 2 group in Jerusalem. Is it right for me to have property, pass property to my children, and take steps to guard my property?

To Reform a Thief

In cases of theft – God had a remedy that was designed to heal the one stolen from, while teaching the one who stole a view of real responsibility that was lacking in their civic understanding. The focus was not simply on CATCHING the thief. It was not only on RECOVERING the goods. It was on RESTORING the damage and REDEEMING through teaching, the thief. Let’s take a look:

First, God told Israel that in the case of theft, where the thief is clearly caught, the thief had to pay multiple times restitution in value for theft. He said: Exodus 22:1 “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.

While it is not always true, it was certainly most often true that thieves weren’t wealthy in the encampment of Israel. They obviously had character issues – but they were likely poor men or women that took their neighbors property. If that was so, the retribution of five oxen for the stolen ox as well as four sheep for the sheep would have been a price that would have been difficult to pay. It is very likely that to do so, the thief had to place themselves in an indenture – a servant-work relationship – where most of their earnings went to repay the debt. They had to repay the retribution – so they had to WORK. They didn’t get corralled into tents with bars in the wilderness, surrounded by armed guards provided by Moses’ security detail. They WENT TO WORK to learn to responsibly pay back what they had taken – and restore to the injured person a sense of security and safety disrupted by the theft. In the society, it helped to put the offender back on track through a work program. There was an end to it – and when payback was complete, there was a way to move on in life.

God values the life of the offender and the offended. He isn’t interested in our sense of outrage at the evil of men as much as He wanted civil society to have a viable remedy to care for the evils of theft. God wanted civil society to focus on redemption, not revenge. He wanted them to focus on JUSTICE. It was retribution, but it was SOMETHING THAT COULD BE REPAID within the six years of indenture limits under the law. Instead, a revenge system chooses to award a person millions for spilling coffee that was too hot on themselves, in this supposedly “enlightened and modern society”. I recognize the fault was found in the courts to be on the company and its machines – I am simply suggesting the retribution had little redemptive quality left in it.

People will steal what is not theirs. It is part of the post mutiny fallen condition of mankind. People covet what is not theirs, justify in their own minds that others don’t have it as hard as they do, and that it wouldn’t be so terribly wrong to take what they have not earned. When they do.. what a society does next may either bring resolution to the victim and help to the perpetrator, or it may just make the problem worse. If we identified God’s social contract rules and followed them – many problems would slowly dissipate.

If we upheld the high standard of parental respect – society wouldn’t have so many people that think they are entitled to something.

When a society enacts policy that in effect breaks down the family – it imperils itself….Break down the family, and you break down accountability. Break down accountability and you break down responsibility. Break down responsibility and you will need better locks on your doors. It isn’t rocket science.

To Kill a Thief

God held civil property as sacred. He instructed the people that “Your things were your things”. As a result, no one should expect to be able to simply “take what they want” from you. Yet, in a crowded camp of people with tents for housing – theft was no doubt going to be a problem. In fact, on nights when the children’s bellies were growling from hunger back in Egypt, more than one slave probably learned how to sneak food from the owner’s pantry. They started the process of justifying themselves under slavery, but learn the lesson that theft was a way to pay the bills… so the wilderness camp of Israel had its share of thieves. Any sensible father would keep watch over the tent. As a result, some problems came up….What if you were defending your home against break in – and in the struggle to do so, the thief was killed. Was defense of my property considered WRONG under the Law?

Civil society must be concerned with defense of personal property. It must also be concerned with truth and justice. Exodus 22:2 said: “If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account.

Defense of property was clearly allowed under the law, even if it included striking the one who was taking your things. A note of caution here – the freedom from guilt of the blood of the perpetrator of the crime by a victim that killed them in the process of the crime was NOT ABSOLUTE. The crime had to have taken place in DARKNESS, when it was unclear what the thief was trying to do – steal or kill the occupants of the tent. This killing was allowed exactly BECAUSE it was dark and the intent of the person breaking in could not be clearly known.

God said in Exodus 22:3 “But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. 4 “If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.

If you read verse three quickly it is confusing. Slow down. The confusion comes over who is standing in the daylight because the sun has risen. I love the commenter Gill who wrote: “it matters not which it is interpreted, it is true of both, for when it is risen on the one, it is on the other”. That made me laugh, because it is simple and true! But what does it mean:

If someone is breaking into the tent, but the sun has already risen, you should be able to see if they are attempting to steal, or attempting to harm your family. The law stated that after the sunrise, their response should be more reasoned – and we should use less force. In the case that the perpetrator is caught in the act – restitution is smaller. If he was in the process of stealing and killed an animal for its meat or hide – he owed a double repayment. If he was stealing a getaway donkey, he owed restitution. The payment was to be levied and the thief was to repay, even if he had to indenture himself – sell himself for a time to pay back the owner from which he attempted to steal.

God recognized there was less disruption and less anxiety when someone was caught in the act. As a result, the repayment was less. Part of the restitution was to help settle the offended – and get them back to their normal life.

How do the teachings of Jesus fit such defense of property?

Most Christian groups that teach it is wrong to defend one’s property do so on the basis of Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness and kindness. It is true that one could easily read what Jesus said and make the application that we should drop to our knees in prayer if someone is breaking into our homes, or another country is attacking ours – but I don’t believe on closer inspection that His teaching was directed at these ideas.

First, WWJS – or “what did Jesus say”? In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is recorded in the first of His five major addresses called the “Sermon on the Mount” as saying the following:

Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ 39 “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ 44 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

To be fair to the understanding of Jesus’ intent, we have to admit that dropping into the middle of His sermon isn’t very fair. It is easy to lose what He was saying, so let’s think for a moment about the setting we just landed on. This sermon was early in His earth ministry, and had three major parts: First, the Character Traits of a True Disciple (5); Second, the Practices of a True Disciple (6:1-7:12); and finally the Choices of a True Disciple (7:13-29). Jesus wanted a true disciple to understand that He bought the real estate of their heart, and wanted practices that reflected His ownership in three areas: character, commitments (practices) and choices.

In Matthew five, Jesus offered four character marks of His followers:

  • You cannot be about YOU and ME (5:1-12) at the same time. I am seeking one who is not self dependent (3), not self secure (4), not self reliant (5), not self satisfied (6), not self focused (7), not divided (8), not agenda’d (9), not self defensive (10), not impatient (11-12). In short “other person centered (as in Phil. 2).
  • You cannot be ALONE (5:13). This emphasized the loyalty of the believers together in their “salt”.
  • You cannot remain anonymous (5:14-16). You will not be hidden, and you are not called to be hidden!
  • You needn’t be unsure about the standards of discipleship (5:17-48). The law as given is my standard (5:17) when understood with my intent (5:18-48).

The teaching that we referenced is from that last section. To interpret ANY part of that section, we must set it in the context of what Jesus said. The section began with these words:

Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

In other words, Jesus simply said He was putting the Law back into its original context – not that He was trying to wipe it out. Ultimately, a view of Christianity that teaches that we cannot defend ourselves is rooted in wiping out the clear words of the Law regarding property defense – and that is a problem of Biblical interpretation. It forces a modern Christian into the position of saying that God has changed His mind on the importance of property rights, and the words of the Hebrew Scriptures do not reveal God’s real desire for a civil society.

So what did Jesus mean when He said we should “turn the other cheek”?  If He didn’t teach us to let people walk all over us, what was He telling His followers?

Jesus was referencing a problem that could easily crop up even in believers and followers of His…the very problem we have created in the society that bases its laws on PUNISHMENT and REVENGE rather than a civil system that focuses on REDEMPTION and RESCUE.

  • He said He came to set the Law back into its context.
  • He said that the Law was not irrelevant to making choices.
  • He said that there were evil men that would test the resolve of His followers to be known as men of peace.
  • They would slap.
  • They would mock.
  • They would hurt.
  • He said that His followers were to be characterized by a willingness to love, forgive and share.
  • He said that He expected His new disciple recruits to know this was required.

If they wanted a violence movement that was to take Rome by force, they were in the wrong movement. He is the Prince of Peace – and He wanted nothing to do with a violent insurrection to get people to agree with Him.

  • Yet, He would stand in the Temple and overturn the tables of moneychangers.
  • He would offend leaders in the Temple and stand in their faces with the truth of the hardness of their hearts.
  • He would not wimp out – but He would not use a fist to beat out or a sword to cut out what must be surrendered willingly – the human heart. Men and women must bow inside to the wooing of God’s Spirit. They should not be forced by sword into the Kingdom. It is His kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4)

Our tradition of the Christian church comes from the Brethren and Anabaptist movement. We as a church have our roots in the Progressive Brethren. I seldom mention it, because the debates that were so terribly important since 1520 somehow seem less relevant and more distant to a church that is set in the slow boil of modern immorality and apostasy. Every now and then it is important to inject a word or two about what IS important in our heritage – especially when it is misunderstood… even by our own people in the church.

Though we come from a family of believers that included pacifists – we are not among them. We don’t believe war is going anywhere anytime soon – and we don’t limit your personal choice to serve in the military or not. We are not PACIFISTS, but we are NON-RESISTANT. What does that mean? Well, we have understood it to mean that there IS a time we won’t fight – and those who are a part of us should know about when that is.

In the sixteenth century, the Catholic and Protestant wars raged in parts of Europe. Pope Julius II commissioned the beautiful but costly expansion of St. Peter’s Basilica into its present grand structure. Many wanted to help, but to raise the money in their parishes they began to essentially “sell salvation” in “indulgences” (I am oversimplifying this for time sake). Priests like Martin Luther pulled away from teachings like this, and valiantly championed the notion that the Bible clearly taught salvation was “by grace through faith” – a personal issue not offered exclusively through the church – and never offered at a price.

Tempers rose, and eventually armies rose to defend ideals. No one was completely right – as the introduction of war in the name of Jesus was an oxymoron. Villagers in Europe suffered as Catholic armies in the banner of the Cross swept through making them bow to Jesus and follow the papacy. In other months, that same village was swept through with Protestant armies that carried the banner of the Cross – and forced them to follow Jesus and denounce the Papacy or be executed. The Cross became a symbol of abuse rather than salvation.

The Anabaptist movement formed some communities that resisted the idea of joining a military force under the banner of the Cross. Some carried that a step further and refused all carnal warfare – or fighting in any military setting. Others argued that a fight was not the problem, but the idea of using a sword to represent force under the banner of the Cross was wrong. That continues to be our view. We won’t fight to get people to be Christians – of any sort. We believe the Gospel is about a work God does in the heart – not a work done in the field of battle.

Let me be clear: we will defend our country if called on to do so. We will defend our property, but we will not fight to force people to believe in Jesus, under the banner of the Cross. We just won’t. Though some very godly men and women disagree with us and believe it is wrong to defend property and country– we do not apply the individual character statements used of Jesus’ followers to our country or civil society. If we did, in our view, any criminal that was repentant would need to be summarily released – and we don’t think that is what Jesus was saying. We believe civil government was charged by God to hold the sword – and not in vain. We believe that Jesus wants us to be personally people of peace – but there is a context to that peaceful behavior –and that is our personal demeanor when living our daily lives. I want to offer grace to those who disagree, but I want to stand for a defense of what I believe the Scripture teaches.

Theft by negligence

Back in our text for this study, we can see that God DID want people to respect property. God wasn’t only concerned about deliberate theft – but about restoring property lost due to the negligence of one over their property. Restitution by negligent animal owner – animal eating from another’s field. God spoke through Moses in Exodus 22:5 “If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed bare and lets his animal loose so that it grazes in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard. Letting your animal steal is stealing. God wanted people to respect the property of others – not use other people’s things to spare their own. In fact, God also spoke concerning recklessness specifically in relation to fire. He said in Exodus 22:6 “If a fire breaks out and spreads to thorn bushes, so that stacked grain or the standing grain or the field itself is consumed, he who started the fire shall surely make restitution. There were special laws of restitution for times when a neighbor loaned his animal to his neighbor and the animal was stolen, as in 22:7,  or the animal died as in 22:10-15. There were even judges impaneled for determining rightful ownership over stolen property in 22:8-9.

In all these cases, God was concerned with one thing: restoration of civil society. Retribution was not supposed to be about REVENGE, it was supposed to be about RECOVERY FOR THE VICTIM  and about REDEEMING RESPONSIBILITY for the wayward. Civil society that sets up a response to evil that includes these two primary principles serves its people well.

Fine, you say. But what does that have to do with me? Let me offer four personal applications:

First, admit that WHEN I AM SEEKING REVENGE I am not seeking God’s objective in my life. Lay it down. Cry out to Him about personal injustice, because seeking revenge will keep you distant from Him and eat you up inside.

Second, RESPECT other people’s property. When you are on the clock – your time belongs to the boss and the company. Do your job. Get off the phone and put the text messaging away. Do your job. Don’t play around with other employees. Don’t take home a few extras from the office. Do your job. Jesus is watching, and He knows the truth. Act like His eyes are like surveillance cameras – not that He doesn’t love you, but that He loves you like a responsible parent watching over their child.

Third, take the responsibility of personal property seriously. Don’t leave your things lying around in a way that tempts others to sin. If they take your things… seek a resolution that both settles the issue with you, and helps them learn the lesson and get past it.

Finally, remember that GOD MADE US – and we are HIS PROPERTY. When we live life for ourselves, we deny His right to us – and that is a tragic mistake!