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Epiphany at the Checkout
No one said living the good life was easy. When you know what's right to do, you have to do it.

My three-year-old and I love to go grocery shopping. This is not always a leisurely activity. My son can be content to stay in the cart, munching on a croissant, but more often than not, he wants to be on his own two feet. While I rely on him to "stay close to Daddy," promises are forgotten in he spies a toy he likes. At that point, all I can do is struggle to keep him in view while I unload the groceries at the checkout and pray that he doesn't make a dash for the sliding doors.

This particular Saturday, my boy was wonderfully co-operative, the checkout line was non-existent and we were outside in record time when I realized that the box of diapers underneath the cart had not been paid for, and no one had noticed.

So much for getting home to catch the end of the hockey game, I thought. As I manhandled the cart back into the store, a protesting three-year-old in tow, I thought about how I had almost obtained a $40 box of diapers for free. If only I'd discovered my mistake when I'd gotten home. "It'd cost me more in gas to drive back and return it." "The box is already open." "That store won't miss a box of diapers." A decade ago, any number of rationalizations would have worked for me.

But in that split-second, I realized it wouldn't have mattered if I'd unpacked the groceries today, two days later or even two weeks later. I still would have had to make my way back to the customer-service desk to—literally—pay for my oversight.

All the things I could have done with that diaper money raced through my head as I trudged to the customer-service desk. But my newborn faith and the lessons I had learned reading Jesus' words in the Bible chased such unworthy thoughts away. As a Christian, no amount of rationalizing could obscure one important fact: Not returning to the store to pay for the diapers would have been theft, pure and simple.

"You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15), like the rest of the Ten Commandments, is a succinct injunction. And even if one were tempted to bend the rules, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount leaves no room for equivocation. "Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19-20).

Stealing is stealing, then, whether it's a bag of diapers or an illegal download or simply getting more change than you were due.

And adultery, for that matter, is adultery, whether it is someone cheating on their spouse or a happily married man looking twice at another woman walking down the street.

If this seems like a tall order to live by, it is!

"Jesus did not proclaim the Sermon on the Mount so that we would furrow our brows in despair over our failure to achieve perfection," writes best-selling Christian author Philip Yancey.

"He gave it to impart to us God's ideal toward which we should never stop striving, but also to show that none of us will ever reach that ideal. The Sermon on the Mount forces us to recognize the great distance between God and us, and any attempt to reduce that distance by somehow moderating its demands misses the point altogether."

There is no rationalizing a misstep, a moment of weakness. The Christian walk is a straight one and it is razor-thin. A miss is as good as a mile and a stumble is as good as a fall, so a Christian might as well step lively and take the high road in all things.

Rest assured, though—we are not alone. "Thunderously, inarguable," continues Yancey, "the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground" murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and hustlers, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace."

With a heart free of guilt, I scooped up my son and retuned to the customer-service counter to pay for an errant box of diapers.

Ken Ramstead is the editor of Faith & Friends.

Originally published in Faith & Friends, May 2007.




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