Man is responsible, therefore he should be responsible. That’s not a tautology. The child who just makes a mess is responsible—for the mess. The child who cleans up his mess is being responsible. God is sovereign over all, and owns that responsibility. Man, made in his image is given dominion as a steward king. He’s responsible. You’re responsible for how those things under your dominion—be they your arms, or the arms of an employee—you’re responsible for how they effect things under other’s dominion. To steal, is to sinfully use your dominion against another’s.
Exodus 21:33–22:15 deals with responsibility issues that are an application of God’s eighth word from the fire, “You shall not steal.” Certainly having a sheep who got out despite good fencing and devoured the neighbor’s garden is no theft, but failure to take responsibility for the sheep’s damage is. You should make restitution, and to go further, invite your neighbor over for some roast mutton. He did help to fatten it after all.
To illustrate the various situations at play in this passage, lets jump out to jump back in. Something like what the Pevensie children did, when they jumped into Narnia only to jump back as better persons into their world, only our venture will be much less fantastical. But we need something to jump from, so let’s use the principle of responsibility and jump from theft to parenting.
Parents are responsible and part of that responsibility involves teaching their children responsibility. If a child knows a pencil sharpener is broken, so that it will eat up the next kid’s pencil and he’s done nothing, he’s been negligent. He should make restitution while he receives the damaged pencil (Exodus 21:33–36). If he steals a pencil, he should give it back, plus one (Exodus 22:4). If he steals the pencil and destroys it, he should make something like four-fold restitution (Exodus 22:1). If a pencil was entrusted to him, and it was stolen because of his carelessness and the thief isn’t caught, he should give the owner one of his pencils (Exodus 22:10–12). If he borrows a friend’s pencil and damages it, he should give a new pencil to the owner (Exodus 22:14). If he tries to rent a pencil (Exodus 22:15), well, then you tell him that he is to refrain from such activity until he can read and understand a rental agreement contract.
Imagine the societal impact if parents took responsibility to teach their children responsibility. But, if parents only teach their children to take responsibility, they’ve failed miserably short in teaching them about responsibility. The most important lesson is this, they can never, ultimately make their wrongs right. What they stole on Monday, should they return it on Wednesday, they can never give back Tuesday. Part of the evil of theft is that something is always stolen that cannot be returned. Destroy a pencil and you can never return that pencil. Steal a pencil, and there’s always a little less lead; there’s never enough to get you out of the red.
Remember, all stuff is God’s stuff. Theft is rebellion against His distribution, a belittling of the wisdom of His providence, and a mockery of His power to do anything about it. Worse yet, all sin is theft. All sin is a stealing from God what is His due, and He is due all. Do you have some “all” in your back pocket? Obey perfectly from this point forward, still you cannot give back 1996, the year of stupidity. God deserved 1996, and you tried to embezzle it. You can’t make your rights wrong, but you should. Anselm said it something like this: no one should make payment but man, no one can make payment but God. The debt we cannot pay, God did in Christ Jesus. If a thief sold himself into slavery to pay his debts (Exodus 22:3), then a near kinsman may purchase him out of his slavery by paying the redemption price. Jesus took on flesh that He might be our kinsman redeemer and ransom us by His precious blood (1 Peter 1:18–19) so that the record of our debt was nailed to the cross (Colossians 4:13–14).
We’re not redeemed because God made a settlement. The debt was fully paid. All that was owed in both obedience and damnation was fully rendered and suffered by Christ in out stead. Such redemption not only pays our debts, it transforms us to be, as best we may to our neighbor, debt payers. Redemption makes us responsible.