Watch thief

Exodus 33:12-23

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 [scripture text], beginning with number eight? Should you spend at least one Sunday on the Last Judgment with plenty of 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 which just a few months prior had been merely 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' friendship 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, the group 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 which that watch had for 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 simply.

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. 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 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 just 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 was saying that real fulfillment of God's laws must spring from the dynamic challenge of love.

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 the Creator of you both?

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

These are all poor substitute motives for what Jesus said was the greatest: love.
1Mark 12:31, New International Version

I wrote these devotional thoughts whil serving as a missionary in Italy. They were originally publised in the November 2, 1980 edition of Standard, a take-home piece for adult Sunday school classes

Swimming against the stream

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