Getting a stolen watch back

"I know you by name. My presence will go with you."

Watch thief

Exodus 33:12-23

33 12 Moses said to the Lord, "You have been telling me, 'Lead these people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, 'I know you by name and you have found favor with me.' 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people."

14 The Lord replied, "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."

15 Then Moses said to him, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?"

17 And the Lord said to Moses, "I will do the very thing you have asked because I am pleased with you, and I know you by name."

18 Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory."

19 And the Lord said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."

21 Then the Lord said, "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen."

Week 44 (October/November)

What should you do when one of your Sunday School pupils steals your wife's watch?

Should you call the police? Should you begin a series of lessons on the Ten Commandments, beginning with number eight (the one about stealing)? Should at least one Sunday be spent on the Last Judgment with plenty of talk about fire and brimstone?

We were puzzled as to what to do. We were certain, however, that one of our ninth-grade class members had taken Barbara's watch on a particular Sunday morning.

Most of the class members came from non-Christian homes. It was a racially mixed group that, a few months prior, had just been a list of names of prospects for our church's ninth-grade department.

Barbara and I had put a lot of time into visitation, cultivating these young teens' friendships and winning their trust. Our classroom in that Kansas City church wasn't much. In fact, we were sharing a large, windowless storage room with Christmas decorations and janitorial supplies. But, in spite of that, our group of middle school youth was growing, both numerically and spiritually.

Then, one Sunday morning not long before Christmas, Barbara's watch was missing after class. We felt certain that someone in the class had stolen it.

Throughout that week, I asked the Holy Spirit for guidance. The next Sunday, I used the opening few minutes of class time to talk about Barbara and her missing watch.

It wasn't just the dollar value we were concerned about. A new watch could be purchased, but it would never really replace the sentimental value that watch had for Barbara.

The next Sunday came and went, and we resigned ourselves to the fact that the watch had probably already been sold. Then, on the second Sunday after my little speech, one of the fellows shyly slipped me a little package made of aluminum foil. It had a ribbon clumsily tied around it.

"Merry Christmas," he said softly.

Inside the aluminum foil was the watch. We, who were teachers, were taught that day. We learned that love could accomplish what a fear of getting caught or a feeling of legal obligation could not. In places like this story of Moses, we discover that a loving atmosphere -- not a sense of legal responsibility -- is the proper basis for right relationships with God and with our fellow human beings.

A few years ago, an administrator I knew well at a Christian college was confronted with the sin of adultery in his life. His arrogant reaction was: "A lot of other people are doing it too. I happen to be the one that got caught."

What a tragic misunderstanding of Jesus' words about the greatest commandments in Mark 12.

A sense of legal obligation is very limited in keeping one "in line." When Jesus said, "There is no commandment greater than these,"1 He meant that following God's laws must spring from a dynamic of love. We must be as conscious of our need for God's supportive and loving presence as Moses was. The conversation between Moses and God in Exodus 33:12-23 makes it clear that they viewed themselves in a relationship with each other.

What is your motivation for "staying in line" as a Christian? Do you refrain from stealing or from cheating on your marriage partner just because you're afraid of getting caught? Or does your faithfulness to your marriage vows grow out of your profound love and respect for your mate and for your Creator and an understanding that you need His presence in your life?

Why do you keep the rest of the Ten Commandments? Is it only from a fear of hell, or the fear of getting caught, or a sense of obligation?

Aren't those motives rather poor substitutes for what Jesus said was the greatest motivator of all: love?

1Mark 12:31, New International Version

Discussion questions

  1. What role should love play in fostering right relationships with God and fellow human beings?
  2. How could the story of Moses and his interaction with God in Exodus 33:12-23 illustrate the importance of a relationship with God as the basis for following His laws?
  3. Reflecting on your own life, what motivates you to stay faithful to your commitments to God and to other people? Have you sometimes been driven by a sense of obligation or by fear rather than by respect and love?
  4. According to Jesus' teachings in Mark 12, why is love considered the greatest motivator for fulfilling God's commandments? How does a motivation rooted in love differ from motivations based on fear, obligation, or the desire to avoid punishment?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

I wrote this devotional article while Barbara and I were serving as missionaries in Italy. It originally appeared in Standard, a weekly Faith Connections take-home curriculum piece for adult Sunday school classes published by The Foundry.

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