“You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15)
If you have ever gone shopping on Black Friday, it is likely that you went about your purchases and business unconsciously aware of the many security devices that are now a common feature of our public life.
Consider the fact that we move past security cameras regularly in banks, stores, and public spaces. The items we buy are protected against tampering and shoplifting with plastic seals, magnetic strips, ink packets, and strapped-on sirens. When we check out or shop on-line our transactions are locked up in 128-bit encryption and initiated with PIN codes and passwords. All of these layers of security, and we are rarely conscious of them!
These facts of life indicate that our culture is conditioned to assume that someone is always stealing something. Doesn’t that strike us as a natural outlook? It’s not only the suburban teenager stuffing a sweater in the oversized bag that we imagine stealing from us. We have also learned the hard way that some of the richest and most powerful people in big business and government are also thieves. The image of the robber in a striped shirt and domino-mask with a dollar-sign bag has been replaced by a man in a $5,000 dollar suit and tie.
There are a few other facts we might draw from the reality of our high-security world:
- First, stealing costs us all. Who pays for all the cameras, metal detectors, and encryption? We all do. And it doesn’t only cost us in cash, there is an erosion of public trust that is costing us dearly.
- Second, the environment we live in is highly toxic to personal integrity. If there is theft going on everywhere, then who really notices our efforts to be completely honest – and does it really matter?
- Third, stealing in America is not typically motivated by material needs. Only in the rarest cases or in disasters do we hear of people stealing for food and water. When we consider that statistically, theft was less of a problem in the Great Depression than it is today, we might conclude that theft today is not based on need, but it is motivated by greed.
Greed is a problem for all classes. The wealthiest and poorest may be influenced by greed. The long-lines, the early-bird shoppers, and the huge profits are often reported on the news with a wink and nod, but do we ever stop and realize how upside-down it may truly be? In our country we wait in lines for high-priced smart phones and electronic games, but in many other nations the people wait in lines for food that may not be available. What we spend on our one purchase may be as much or more than what people in other nations make in a single year.
The fundamental principle of biblical ethics is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).) Among the many specific commandments that grow out of this fundamental responsibility, the Bible requires us to show respect for others’ lives (i.e., “You shall not kill”) and personal purity (i.e., “You shall not commit adultery”). In the eighth commandment, heaven demands respect for a neighbor’s property.
Stealing is a breach of one’s fundamental obligation to love others and treat them as he would want to be treated. It is an encroachment into someone’s rights and property. It is taking something under his authority and in his possession away from him, depriving him of something that rightfully belongs to him.
Concept of Ownership –
- God owns all things. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it.” –Psalm 24:1.
- Stealing is the false idea that you can take something and make it your own. That goes beyond legal and illegal. Even if you acquire something “legally” it may not be your own.
Giving counters Greed.
- The 10% of our income that we give is not all that God owns or cares about. God has an opinion with the 90% too. In his parable of the seed and the sower, Jesus taught that the deceitfulness of wealth and desire for things chokes out the growth of the gospel in our lives (Mark 4). James issues a serious warning to those who live in self-indulgence (James 5). The message is clear that we should use all of our wealth to honor God.
- Giving counters greed and every act of giving is a rebellion against the desires and powers that makes us materialistic. How we give should lead how we spend.
If we realize that all we have comes from God then we give thanks. Cultivating an attitude of thanksgiving transforms our attitude about things and ownership. It overcomes greed and it allows us to be more content. We learn to trust God by giving thanks. And it just might change our whole society starting with us …
Acts 4:32-37 (ESV)
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.
33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold
35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus,
37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Ananias and Sapphira were members of that first church. They were struck dead for lying to God, not for keeping property (Acts 5: 1-10). Read Peter’s words of rebuke to Ananias very carefully: “While [your land] remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4).
Peter acknowledged that Ananias was under no obligation to sell his property. After he did choose to sell it, he was still under no obligation to give the proceeds of the sale into the church treasury.
Rather than common ownership of property, the New Testament ideal is work, acquisition, and proper stewardship of material things. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
God needs men and women “of upright character who realize their earning power is from God and who feel a strong sense of responsibility to use their wealth for heaven’s service rather than selfishly. Wealth is not virtue, nor poverty vice; some evil men accumulate fortunes, and some righteous people go bankrupt. God has prospered you and allowed you to become wealthy, acknowledge everything you have as his gift to you and be unselfish in its use. Realize that God’s work in this world can be enlarged by your generosity.
On the other hand, if you have not been as fortunate and prosperous as someone else, don’t resent that person or compromise your own integrity and honesty in trying to “get a slice of the pie.” It is what you have in your heart rather than your hand that shows your worth before God.
Broadly speaking, stealing falls into two categories: active stealing and passive stealing. Active stealing aggressively, willfully, maliciously takes what belongs to someone else, through a variety of means. In Leviticus chapter 6 we find several forms of active theft identified: Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “When a person sins and acts unfaithfully against the LORD, and deceives his companion in regard to a deposit or a security entrusted to him, or through robbery, or if he has extorted from his companion, or has found what was lost and lied about it and sworn falsely, so that he sins in regard to any one of the things a man may do; then it shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him, or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full, and add to it one‑fifth more. He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he presents his guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD; and he shall be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt” (Lev. 6:1‑7).
(1) Embezzlement. Embezzlement is the misuse or misappropriation of something that has been entrusted to us (Lev. 6:2). Embezzlement is a violation of trust, for what has been placed in a person’s keeping has been appropriated for selfish purposes. Embezzlement is frequently an offense of a bank employee or of a comptroller of a corporation.
(2) Robbery. Robbery is the act of taking what belongs to another (Lev. 6:2). Robbery, I believe, is a broad definition, covering several kinds of stealing. Robbery generally takes things directly, often by the use of superior force (frequently involving a weapon). Stealing suggests stealth. A pick‑pocket for example, uses stealth, as does a burglar. Fraud may also be included here. If so, fraud involves getting what belongs to another by deception. Here, the victim often gives what is stolen to the thief, thinking that doing so will be profitable. The only one who profits, however, is the thief.
(3) Extortion. Extortion gains possession of another person’s property by the illicit use of authority or of force (not a weapon, however). Sometimes, charging an excessive price is included here, if one feels compelled to buy the product. For example, if your child was seriously ill and there was only one medicine which would cure the child, you would be willing to pay almost anything to obtain it, even if the cost were excessive.
John the Baptist told the tax gatherers and soldiers of his day: “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:13‑14).
(4) Kidnapping. In the ancient Near East, kidnapping was considered a form of theft (Deut. 24:7), probably because the individual would be kept as a slave, rather than because he or she would be ransomed.
Passive theft is the failure to give to another what belongs to them or is due them. The following forms of passive stealing are forbidden in the Bible:
(1) A man’s negligence which results in a loss to his neighbor. Exodus chapter 22 (verses 1‑15) describes several acts of negligence which deprive a neighbor of his property, and which thus require restitution. For example, if a man’s pasture land has been grazed bare, and he therefore lets his animal loose, so that it grazes on his neighbor’s pasture, consuming it, the negligent man is guilty of passive stealing (Exod. 22:5).
(2) A man’s failure to return something lost to its owner is stealing. In Leviticus 6:3, the old adage, “finders keepers, losers weepers,” is shown to be an excuse for theft. To find what belongs to another, and not to return it, is to steal it, by one’s negligence or refusal to return it. “You shall not see your countryman’s ox or his sheep straying away, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly bring them back to your countryman. And if your countryman is not near you, or if you do not know him, then you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall remain with you until your countryman looks for it; then you shall restore it to him. And thus you shall do with his donkey, and you shall do the same with his garment, and you shall do likewise with anything lost by your countryman, which he has lost and you have found. You are not allowed to neglect them. You shall not see your countryman’s donkey or his ox fallen down on the way, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly help him to raise them up (Deut. 22:1‑4).
(3) Failure to give what belongs to another is stealing. A day laborer is to be paid at the end of the day (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14‑15). For an employer to keep a laborer’s wages, which at the end of his work day rightfully belonged to the worker, was to rob him. Withholding the charity which was to be shown to the poor, the alien, and the stranger, was also stealing. God instructed the Israelites to make certain provisions for the poor, such as leaving the corners of their fields unharvested (Deut. 24:19‑22). Whenever an Israelite became greedy and did not leave something behind for the poor, he was stealing from them, for God had given the gleanings to them.
Stealing—Its Corrective and Its Cure
For those who had stolen from another, the Old Testament prescribed restitution. The most detailed prescription of the restitution required is found in the Book of Exodus: “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. If the thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double. If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed bare and lets his animal loose so that it grazes in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard. If a fire breaks out and spreads to thorn bushes, so that stacked grain or the standing grain or the field itself is consumed, he who started the fire shall surely make restitution. If a man gives his neighbor money or goods to keep for him, and it is stolen from the man’s house, if the thief is caught, he shall pay double. If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges, to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any lost thing about which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he whom the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor” (Exod. 22:1‑9).
It is interesting to note that restitution varies in this text, according to several factors. First, restitution varies, depending on whether of not the stolen animal is recovered. Second, restitution varies according to the value of the animal, especially with regard to the productivity of the beast. I believe that the oxen was more valuable than the sheep because it was the “John Deer,” the farm tractor of that day. If a man’s ox was stolen, the fields could not be plowed, the wagon pulled, or the grain threshed. Thus, a stolen (and not recovered) ox was to be paid for fivefold, while a sheep only fourfold. In Leviticus chapter 6, we find that the sacrificial system provided a means for the thief to repent, to make restitution, and to obtain forgiveness.
Restitution is a corrective, but not a cure for the crime of stealing. The Bible clearly prescribes the cure, especially in the New Testament. Crime would have the thief get ahead at the expense of one’s neighbor. Justice would have one person gain while, at the same time, the other party gained equally. Jesus Christ teaches that we should be willing to sacrifice our own interests if that benefit our neighbor: “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42).
“Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30).
“And if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same thing. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:32‑35).
Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need (Eph. 4:28).