How much do you own?
If you’re well-established (in whatever cultural context you find yourself), you likely have a general idea of your net worth: the sum total of assets in your possession. If you’re a Sophomore in college, you’d likely have to tally for a while: student debt vs. the worth of a ten-year-old Buick and a dorm room full of discount duvets and electronics a few generations old. And when it comes to the big picture of life, how much do you own?
The philosophical context of your ambient culture likely forms your ideas on this: can anyone own land? As The Gods Must Be Crazy portrayed, can anyone own individual possessions?
Ownership is a fascinating concept, if a regularly disputed one in court.
And it’s a concept that has weighed heavily on my mind ever since my personal dwelling was broken into recently (yes, we had an alarm system installed – after the fact…). Because after the initial pit in your stomach lessens, after you realize that a stranger has seen your child’s bedroom, after you burn with outrage or disgust when you discover someone has rifled through your refrigerator, your brain slowly cranks back into action.
Do you remember the first time you stole? I do.
I was a child and my grandmother had a beautiful key, an old-fashioned key, a key with curves that reflected the light from her lace-curtained window and I loved her but I wanted it.
I asked. She said no. She might need it to unlock the beautiful antique cabinet.
We were getting ready to leave in the winter chill and the front room was empty from the bustle of loading the car and my puffy lavender coat had two empty pockets. The key came home with me – unknown to anyone. It was my secret. I felt proud of my daring last-minute heist. And then it began to burn and wouldn’t stop burning – not my clammy fingers, or my polyester-lined pocket, but deep in my mind.
And after our trip home, as I felt it down in my winter coat pocket while we walked into a local store, a cold clink rang across the floor. I had dropped it. My mother heard and turned. She picked it up and gave it to an employee while I stood mute while they talked about where it might possibly have come from.
Disaster had fallen.
Eventually, after staring at a paperback that stared up at me from a household end table (with cover art featuring – yes, really – an antique key), I broke down crying, confessing my breach of One Of The Actual Commandments, feeling horror in my chest as Mom said gently that we needed to call Grandma and that I would have to tell her what happened.
Do you remember the first time you stole?
It’s not likely we’ll ever get back the things that were taken – especially those intangibles like “peace of mind.” And it’s the intangibles that really stir ire. Things are just things (maddening at first, yes, but in the end moths and rust doth corrupt and thieves break in and…well, apparently, they steal).
But what I can’t get back is the blissful pre-break-in peace of never having had my home violated. There are many clichés about lost innocence, like before and after the assassination of JFK, or before and after 9/11.
Are those instances just a bite-sized serving of the tragedy of Paradise Lost? Theologians – with greater and lesser success, perhaps – have analyzed the fall of Adam and Eve ad infinitum. Pride, they say, drove the great sin that shattered paradise. Or woman’s frailty (thankfully that theory has fallen out of grace, itself). Or disbelief and lack of faith that God had their best interest at heart.
There’s a simple truth, however, that the average preschooler is capable of comprehending: Eve and Adam both took something that didn’t belong to them. As simple as that. They behaved as if they were lord of the manner (so to speak), deserving everything there, entitled, even.
What a different attitude than the beautiful old priest in Les Miserábles who (portrayed so well in the 1998 film version) confronts the story’s infamous thief with generosity when he demands to know why the thief didn’t take other items – since he could have had them too. And he pushes his treasures into the thief’s hands, forcing him to receive them, and after the baffled policeman leaves, states that now he has purchased the thief’s life – redeemed it, in fact…
And the thief, hanging next to Jesus as they slowly die in front of strangers, hears the words, “today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
It’s been years since I stole the curved, shiny antique key of such beauty.
I probably have stolen much more recently than that.
Stolen a moment of someone else’s praise by upstaging them.
Stolen someone’s joy by complaining about something trivial.
Stolen moments from my Maker by insisting that my leisure trumped time in prayer.
Holy God, this whole world is your gift, and we do not own any of it.
We are not entitled to it. We can only receive it with gratitude and humility, and give it away again freely and without regret.
Help us to realize we don’t need to try to take what is given to us in love.
And Lord – have mercy on us thieves…