For the week of September 2, 2006 / 9 Elul 5766
Torah: Devarim / Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
Finders Keepers - Not!
If you see your brother's ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him. If the brother does not live near you or if you do not know who he is, take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give it back to him. Do the same if you find your brother's donkey or his cloak or anything he loses. Do not ignore it. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 22:1-3)
I can remember very clearly when I was young learning a very important principle regarding personal property. It was "Finders keepers, losers weepers." This was an easy-to-remember life principle. Just in case you are not familiar with this saying, it means if you found something someone lost, it was yours to keep. Of course if I did happen upon something of significant value, I was expected to look around to see if the possible owner might be nearby. But if not, whatever it might be, it became rightfully mine.
As one who claims to respect the authority of Scripture, the verses I quoted challenge (or should I say contradict?) this life principle. God clearly calls us to return lost things to their original owner even if we don't know who the person is or if they live far away. Further, we are to take care of the thing found until the person comes looking for it.
Godly directives such as these should lead us to ask certain questions. Does this apply to things of small value? For example if I find twenty-five cents in a vacant parking lot, should I take it home and wait for someone to claim it? What about perishable items? Perhaps in that same vacant lot late at night after the grocery store is closed, a bunch of ripe bananas are found. Would it be wrong for a homeless, hungry person to eat them? Looking again at these verses, they are referring to items of substantial and lasting value, not things of little value or perishables.
Another question has to do with how long we should hold on to something before the original owner loses his claim to it. The passage does not speak of any time limit. Perhaps if it were an animal, then it should never be slaughtered, but would it be OK in the meantime to milk it, if it were a milking animal, or to shear its wool if it were a sheep, or to use its services if it were a work animal? I don't know. And if the item were a cloak - which today might be a coat, jacket, or sweater - should it be put away in a closet forever just in case the owner makes themselves known? Again, I don't know.
What I do know is that we need to take our responsibility toward the care of other people's things seriously. There is more to biblical property rights than the prohibition regarding stealing. My losing something does not cancel my ownership of an item. I also have an obligation to others to ensure that I do my part in returning lost items to their original owner. How we deal with some of the implications of these directives must at least start with accepting our God-given responsibilities.
Whether it is this directive or some other, we need to allow the Bible to confront and contradict our long-held life principles. It may even confront and contradict what we thought God was saying to us more recently. If we want to walk in God's ways, we need to hear what he is saying about all of life and live accordingly.
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