“Be watchful,” Jesus warned, “for you know not the hour nor the day…”
This exhortation to remain vigilant came to mind painfully this past week.
Thursday afternoon, friends from Lathrop called to report that their home had just been burglarized. Thieves entered precisely during the brief time that no one was there. They tore everything apart and ran off with jewelry, a laptop, a computer, the large living room television, and money. How they did this in broad daylight is beyond me. But then again, I know of three other families who’ve suffered the same fate at the same time of day.
One home belongs to a single woman, already left vulnerable by divorce and by the subsequent death of her husband, who continued to support her.
She returned home after work to find her modest lodgings in total disarray.
Gang-affiliated robbers had raped the place, tearing it apart, leaving the bed caved in, drawers thrown across the room, closets dumped out and the valuables gleaned, like vultures eating the vital organs out of live victims.
Another home belonged to a young couple, struggling to get along and soon to give birth to their first child, for whom they’d waited seven years.
A moving van had pulled into their driveway not long following their departure for work. Had the young wife returned at her customary time, she might have walked in on the crime. “I think I would have been killed.”
The third home was also cleared out completely by men posing as movers who, in full view of the neighbors, drove off without anyone even asking a question. The victim family lost valuables which they had collected over a period of twenty years. As with the others, they lost irreplaceable treasures.
Worse still, they lost their ability to get a full night’s sleep. They lost what little confidence they had in neighborhood solidarity. That long-forgotten sense of mutual care and concern between people living on the same block now gave way to suspicion. It was hard now to trust anyone around them.
Yet we all know that professionals lurk, circling around like wolves on a perpetual patrol for crimes of opportunity. Be on guard, St. Peter warned nearly two thousand years ago. “Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.” (1 Peter 5:8-9).
Of course, keeping valuables has always been a hazardous occupation.
Jesus admonished his followers to simplify. Many early Christians sold their possessions and shared the revenue with those most in need. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Matthew 6:19-21).
The apostle James had warned against the excessive desire for this world’s goods. “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain. Do you not know that to be a lover of the world means enmity with God?”
James’ stark words (4:1-4) remind us that the line between a greedy heart and the crimes of a thief is very thin indeed. The shocking degree of white -collar crime, so rampant in American society, drives this painfully home.
But all of us have our constitutional right, and our obvious need, to live in peace with the possessions we choose to make our own. I have never said of a robber, nor ever will, “Well, he probably needed it more than you did.”
Unless we’re talking about a missing loaf of bread, I find that expression insulting, obscene, and a boldface denial of the grave problem of theft, not only in the life of the victim, but also in the soul of the one who steals.
Remember that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. In neither case did he make any effort whatsoever to justify them or protest their sentence.
But given that we will have thieves with us always, it’s time we renewed our commitment to one another, as members of the human community and of neighborhoods at risk, to be more vigilant. We don’t have to have an army of armed vigilantes out there, much less martial law, to be secure. All it takes is a concerted effort to gather neighbors together, in collaboration with our police, our leaders in business, politics, and education, and our local pastors to resurrect the programs once so common and so successful.
And while we install more sophisticated surveillance and alarm systems, training more dogs and perhaps learning to use a gun (God forbid), let’s not forget that the worst robbers are not those who break in by force. No, the most insidious, dangerous, and devastating criminals are those we allow free access to our homes and children through the radio, the television, and the Internet. These vultures steal more than our money and our peace of mind. They are capable, and at times successful, in stealing our very souls.
Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s, Stockton (Written August 20, 2009)