Exodus 20: 15
I read a story in the news about a man who was caught stealing in the Netherlands. Why did this theft make the international news? Was it a multi-million dollar bank heist? Did he steal some treasured paintings? No, he just stole a package of meat from a grocery store, probably worth around $10. So why did this story make the international news? Well, it had to do with the way he was caught. In fleeing the scene, he left behind a crucial piece of evidence. No, his cell phone didn’t fall out of his pocket as he ran out of the store. What he left behind was his 12-year old son! In his haste to get out of the store and drive away, he forgot his son. I suppose there are many reasons why we are not to steal, but that we might get caught because we forgot one of our children at the crime scene is one I had never thought of before.
Theft is something that I’m sure intersects all of our lives in different ways. When we lived in Russia a very slick pick-pocket stole the wallet out of Daniela’s purse. Perhaps some of you have had that misfortune. I know that several from our church have had their entire purses or backpacks stolen by snatch thieves here in KL. I imagine some here have had your home broken into. When a thief steals something of ours, we feel victimized. It’s not right for someone to take what belongs to us.
And then, it’s possible, even likely, that we have been on the other end of theft. In a few minutes, we’ll consider how we are all tempted to steal.
Stealing is something that in our conscience we just know is wrong. Yet to make sure we get the point, God included this in the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:15 states: “You shall not steal.”
Before we consider just what stealing is and why God issued this command against it, it would be helpful to first think about ownership. For apart from ownership, there can be no such thing as stealing. For instance, if I’m walking along the beach I’m free to help myself to whatever seashells I might find and take them home with me. No one could accuse me of stealing. But if I step into a shop along the beach that sells seashells, and decide to help myself to the seashells there and take them home, I’ll be in big trouble. I can freely take the seashells on the beach because they don’t belong to anyone. Nobody owns them. The seashells in the shop, however, belong to the owner of the shop, and thus I am not free to take them. So let’s first consider ownership.
The fact that God gave this command forbidding the taking of that which belongs to another implies that it is right to own things, and thus another person has no right to take what is ours. Of course, this can be taken too far. The right to own is not a license to grab all you can. For that shows an attitude of greed and demonstrates that you have placed the wrong value on things. Things do have a certain value, but they are not worth centering your life around. The purpose of our lives is not to accumulate all we can.
Nevertheless, ownership is a good thing. For one thing, isn’t it true that we take better care of that which we own? Back during the communist era when I traveled some in Eastern Europe I remember seeing so many apartment buildings that were both ugly and in need of repair. Why did they look this way? Because they were owned by the state, which means no one really owned them. The people who lived there didn’t own their apartments. And because no one owned them, no one took care of them. Owning is good because we take better care of that which we own.
It is also good to own things for our sense of dignity. Again, this can be taken too far. We are not to derive our sense of worth from what we own, although our culture keeps trying to tell us we should. But there is a legitimate sense of dignity we have because we own things.
At one church I served we had a food and clothing room where those in need could come for assistance. Every so often someone new would come in for help, someone who recently fell on hard times. And looking very downcast and embarrassed, they would say, “I’ve never had to do this before.” And you could just feel the sense of shame they had because they had nothing. We don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that our value as human beings is directly related to what or how much we own. Nevertheless, our sense of dignity is connected to owning at least what we need.
So because it is good and right to own things, God issued the command, “You shall not steal.” You shall not take what belongs to someone else. Martin Luther wrote we violate this command by “taking advantage of our neighbor in any sort of dealing that results in loss to him.”
This is a challenge for as we know, we live in a very materialistic world that judges one on the basis of their wealth or possessions. Advertisements promise us that if we just own a certain car or wear a certain brand of clothing we will be fulfilled and at the same time admired by others. In such an environment, we may find ourselves tempted to steal. Oh, we may not break into our neighbor’s house and take what is theirs and we probably won’t take a new car off the car lot. But there are many ways of stealing, as we’ll see.
Now this command forbidding stealing seems very forthright. “You shall not steal.” It’s straightforward, to the point. There’s no fine print.
And yet we try to make it more complicated than it is – probably in hopes that we can somehow excuse our own acts of stealing. A few years ago the American pollster George Gallup, in conjunction with the Wall Street Journal, conducted a survey in which they asked people about their attitudes and behaviors as they relate to such things as paying income taxes, expense accounts, and so on. The results revealed a high percentage of people did not regard cheating on such things as stealing. What was interesting, and sad as well, was that the percentage didn’t really change between those who went to church and those who did not. Because of our sinful nature we keep trying to come up with ways of rationalizing our behavior so this command won’t apply to us.
For instance, consider theft in the workplace, which is one of the most common forms of stealing and one we most easily justify. It may involve something as seemingly trivial as taking a few pencils or some paper from the office. It could have to do with padding our expense account, not doing our best work or giving or best effort, calling in sick when we really just want a paid day off, or actually taking money if we have access to it.
And we find ways of rationalizing it. We say, “I’m underpaid. If they paid me what I’m worth, I wouldn’t do this.” Or, “I’m overworked. If they didn’t demand so much from me I wouldn’t take these things.” Or, “I was passed over for a promotion that I deserve but instead it went to the boss’s friend, so I’m justified in taking a few things.” Or, “The company is so big and has so much money they won’t even miss this.” We can come up with all kinds of ways of rationalizing our behavior to convince ourselves that we are really not stealing, but only taking what we deserve.
Of course, there are lots of other ways people steal besides the obvious things like shoplifting or breaking into someone’s house or car or taking things from the workplace. Perhaps we’ve struggled with some of these ourselves.
One of the most popular ways today has to do with computer on-line theft. We can easily steal other people’s music or ideas and think nothing of it. Buying pirated CDs or DVDs is a lot cheaper than paying for originals, but in the process we rob those who created what we want and deserve to be compensated for their efforts.
Some people see no moral wrongdoing in stealing from their insurance company by falsifying a claim. They may try to inflate the value of something of theirs that was damaged or stolen, or they may exaggerate medical problems from an accident.
Taking unfair advantage of people is a form of stealing. The car mechanic who says a particular repair is necessary when it’s really not, or the doctor who recommends surgery when a simpler form of treatment would do, are engaging in theft. They are taking someone’s money for something that was not necessary.
Laziness can be a form of stealing – especially at work. If we do not put in an honest day’s work because we are lazy, or because we are too distracted by our phone and spend too much time on social media, we are stealing from our employer who is paying us for an honest day’s work.
The flip side of this is stealing from those we may employ. If we don’t give them a fair wage, we are stealing what is rightfully theirs.
Related to this, we can steal from the poor. When it comes to stealing, we probably typically think of the poor stealing from those who are well off, either mugging them or breaking into their car or house. But the Bible is clear that the rich can steal from the poor.
For instance, in the Old Testament those who owned fields could not harvest the grain all the way to the corners of the field, and once they had gone through the field harvesting they could not go back a second time to get what they might have missed. For God commanded that what was in the corners of the field and what was left after the first harvesting was to be for the poor. The poor could go and glean what was left. In other words, in God’s eyes those who have much have an obligation to assist those with little, and not to do that is to steal from those in need. It is to withhold from the poor what they have a right to.
And we can even rob God. How so? In Malachi 3:8-10 we read of those who were not bringing their full tithe to the Lord. In this passage God said that they were robbing Him. Of course, God owns everything. Ps. 24:1 proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” It all belongs to God, but He has allowed us to be stewards of what is His. In gratitude to God for all He has done for us, we are to honor God by giving back to Him. When we don’t we are stealing from God.
Stealing is not limited to money or material things. Students, journalists, authors, and pastors can be guilty of another kind of stealing known as plagiarism. When we take someone else’s ideas or words and use them as if they are original with us we are stealing. We are taking credit that rightly belongs to someone else. Or you can rob someone of their dignity. Embarrassing them in front of others, or gossiping behind their back is a kind of stealing; you are taking their dignity which you have no right to take. You are stealing their good name.
We can even steal time. The workaholic who gives every hour of their day to work is stealing time their family deserves. The same is true for those obsessed with a hobby or recreation or entertainment. I had a friend in elementary school (Jeff Larson) whose parents divorced. I’m not going to judge whether she was justified in doing this, but the reason his mom divorced her husband was that he spent every weekend and every vacation with his buddies hunting or fishing. By doing that all the time, he was stealing time that should have gone to his family.
And so we see that this command confronts us in lots of ways. Just because we’ve never broken into someone’s car or house, or just because we’ve never walked out of the mall with some merchandise stuffed under our shirt, that doesn’t mean we have a clean slate when it comes to stealing, for we can steal in lots of ways. But, we may ask, is it really that big of deal? Why does “not stealing” merit being one of the Ten Commandments?
One of the reasons behind this command – besides the obvious thing that it is wrong to take what is not yours – is that stealing is a contradiction of the nature of God, and we have been created in the image of God. So part of our purpose is to reflect the character of God. That is especially true for us as followers of Jesus, and at the heart of God is His giving spirit. God gives generously and lavishly. For God so loved the world He gave His Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. God gives lavishly so we can have what we could never afford, buy, or earn, and that is eternal life.
And what is true of God the Father is also true of God the Son. II Cor. 8:9 declares: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus, as the eternal Son of God, dwelt in the splendor and perfection of heaven. Yet He gave up those riches to live among us as one of us, and as a servant at that. He gave up everything so that we could become rich –spiritually rich that is. He gave His life so we could receive God’s forgiveness, be restored to God, and live with Him forever.
Beyond that, God has given us hope, joy, purpose, deliverance, healing, direction, to say nothing of our daily bread. God is a giver, and stealing runs completely counter to that. Rather than taking from others, if the Spirit of Christ is in us we will want to share with others from what we have so that their needs can be met. Christianity is about putting others first; stealing is about putting self first. Christianity is about giving; stealing is about taking – and taking wrongfully at that. So stealing is forbidden because it contradicts the nature of God, in whose image we have be created. We are to imitate God by being other-centered rather than self-centered, by giving rather than taking.
Another reason for this command is that our property has a value that goes beyond its monetary worth. Because it is the fruit of our labor or our intelligence, what we own is in a sense, an extension of ourselves. So when someone steals from us, they are not only stealing things, but they are also attacking us personally. That’s why, if our home has been broken into, we not only suffer the material loss, but we feel violated personally.
But what really happens when we steal? We not only break the eighth commandment but when we steal we violate the greatest command. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. When we steal we sin against our neighbor by taking what is rightfully theirs and attacking them personally, for as we’ve seen, what we own is an extension of who we are.
It is the opposite of loving our neighbor, for the nature of love is to put the other first. When we steal we put ourselves first and do to them what we would never want someone to do to us. When we steal we even steal from those who do not own what we stole, and thus we show disregard for many neighbors. For instance, if we steal from our place of work, or if we shoplift from a store, they have to raise the prices to cover that loss. I’ve read that merchants must increase the price of their goods from 2-5% to cover the cost of shoplifting and employee theft. So all their customers pay. That means we stole from them.
And so when we steal we sin against our neighbor by taking what is theirs. We sin against God by acting in a way that is contrary to the nature of God. And we also display a lack of trust in God’s ability to provide what we need. God has promised to be our provider. Jesus assured us in Mt. 6:31-34: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” But when we steal and take advantage of others we are saying through our actions that we don’t believe God is capable of providing for us. In essence, we call God a liar.
The Heidelberg Catechism states that the positive form of this commandment is “That I do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat him as I would like others to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.” That is the positive application of this command – sharing with those in need. So stealing can be both active and passive. The active form of stealing is to take what belongs to someone else. The passive form of stealing is to keep that which I ought to share with another. And so St. Basil commented, “When someone steals a man’s clothes, we call him a thief; shouldn’t we give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not?”
The fact is, those who have much have no right to a clear conscious just because they haven’t stolen if others lack what is basic and important to their survival and dignity. That’s why the apostle Paul, in Eph. 4:28, exhorted those who were stealing to not only quit stealing but they were to work so that they would have something to share with those in need. As followers of Jesus, that is what is to characterize our lives – generous giving, even as God has given so generously to us.
Why are we to go this extra mile and not only refrain from taking what is not ours but also to share with those in need? Because even more central than justice to the Christian life is love. Justice would say we ought not to take from others what belongs to them. But as we’ve seen, the greatest commandment is that we love God and love our neighbors. And if love reigns in our hearts, we will want to share what we have with those in need. It is a life of love that God calls us to – a love that results in giving, even as God’s love for us moves God to give generously to us.
This commandment, like all the commandments, is really about grace. Through it God is establishing certain rules for society that will be for everyone’s benefit. For an essential ingredient of a healthy community is trust. If we cannot trust our neighbor then we constantly live in fear. When we live in fear we feel vulnerable and to protect ourselves we isolate ourselves from our neighbors. We put up fences or even high walls. We put bars on our windows. We park our car on the street and we can only hope it will still be there when we return. Stealing, or even the threat of stealing, breaks down the sense of community and security we both need and desire.
If everyone lived out this commandment there would be no fear that someone would take from you what is yours, what has meaning and value to you, and thus our sense of community and our peace of mind would thrive.
And this commandment is a word of grace not only in that when followed it provides for the wellbeing of society; it also protects our own character. God doesn’t want us to have shriveled hearts as we only think of ourselves and our own gain. That is such a poor way to live. It makes for such a small heart, living only for self. Stealing is evidence of such a shriveled, inwardly focused heart.
Rather God would have us live large, generously, not ruled by selfish desires but filled with love for others. That way of life not only benefits others but it leads to joy.
So this command reveals God’s grace for in telling us what not to do, it at the same time directs us toward the good and higher purposes God has for us – to be people of character, of honesty, integrity, and generosity. It provides the framework by which we can live in community with others without fear. It inspires us to imitate the nature of God by giving to help others as a demonstration of love. And when followed this command helps nurture our relationship with God for it encourages us to trust God for our needs. As we do that, we discover the total faithfulness of God. We do not have to scheme and manipulate and steal, but we can live confidently in God’s care for us.