March 12, 2022 - 8th Commandment

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Today we take a look at the 8th Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” The verb used in this command means “to take what belongs to another without their knowledge or consent, to grab for oneself.” Why not steal? Because God is the One from whom all blessings flow.

 

We’ve come a long way since the days of garden-variety burglary, shoplifting, cattle-rustling, and bank robbery. Today, we’ve progressed to high-tech embezzlement and identity theft. (Identity theft is reported to strike 15 million victims a year and cost us $50 billion.) We have also evolved ways to steal on a scale undreamed-of by our ancestors. We’ve even figured out how to pass laws to steal from whole classes of people, even from our great-grandchildren.

 

As we compare the Law of Moses to other ancient law codes, we find that the Bible does the reverse of other laws on how it handles property crime. A thief was originally killed in Babylon’s Law of Hammurabi. This was later changed to a penalty of 30-fold restitution for stealing the property of God or king, and 10-fold restitution if it was a private citizen, with death as the penalty if you couldn’t pay.

 

Notice how much less severe the Bible is by comparison. Unlike the sins of idolatry, blasphemy, adultery, or murder, God declares no death penalty against property crime. The penalty for theft is entirely in the pocketbook: you pay 4-fold or 5-fold if you no longer had the loot, double if you did, with slavery if you couldn’t pay, enough penalty to discourage theft. The only property crime where God decrees a death penalty is sacred loot taken during holy war.

 

God gets much less bent-out-of-shape about property crime than about other moral issues. Most laws in the Western world are lenient on sex, but they throw the book at property crime. Why? We live in an age that worships money, which means that property crime is a sin against what we as a culture view as holy or sacrosanct.

 

The concept of stealing seems to presume ideas such as ownership and private property rights. Not all cultures agree on these ideas. Let’s not read too much between the lines. God is not endorsing private ownership or condemning communism. The truth is that all that we have belongs to God, so we must not get possessive about it. Remember, the early church held all their goods in common.

 

But the other side of the coin is that God still does care about property rights. God gives to us, to see how well we will respect what God has given to others, and to see how generously we will share what God has given to us. It’s a test. Failing to properly respect what God has given to others by taking what does not rightly belong to us is an offense against God. God wants us to learn not to be possessive with what God has given us (God wants us to remember that it all belongs to God), but God forbids us to run roughshod over the property rights of the individual.

 

“Thou shalt not steal” is a part of loving our neighbor as ourselves, a part of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Stealing takes place whenever goods are taken by force or without permission, whenever someone is deprived of what they are entitled to, and/or whenever someone claims for themselves what they are not entitled to.

 

Stealing may be obvious or not so obvious. In the obvious category, we think of armed robbery, pickpocketing, burglary, and shoplifting. Shoplifting costs retailers tens of billions of dollars per year (imagine how many people we could employ with that money). We all pay the price tag for what they steal. And now we have cities that have decriminalized smash-and-grab stealing, with huge costs to us all, costs that include losing businesses that have to close their doors because they can’t afford to operate under such lawless conditions.

 

Roughly half of all theft is done not by customers or outsiders, but by inside jobs. Cash is missing from the cash register. Medicine disappears in the hospital. Lumber turns up missing in the warehouse. Food is missing from the supermarket shelves. Managers ship appliances to their home addresses to keep for themselves. Lower-paid employees do it because they think they’re not paid enough, so they give themselves a hidden pay increase. Higher-income employees do it because they have an expensive lifestyle they’re trying to pay for, like a drug habit or a huge mortgage.

 

Employee theft takes us into not-so-obvious forms of theft like wasting our employer’s goods, helping ourselves to supplies or products without permission, or spending money that is not ours to spend. Jesus says, “Whoever is dishonest in little is also dishonest in much. If you have not been faithful in handling unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (If you can’t be trusted at the cash register, who’s going to put you in charge of managing the store? If you can’t be trusted with worldly wealth, who’s going to give you riches from heaven?)

 

Fishing or hunting without a license is a form of theft. So is taking more than we paid for at a restaurant. When we eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet, we have no right to take food home.

 

White collar crime is ten times costlier than street crime: embezzlement, identity theft, or stealing knowledge or technology. One can steal music or a computer program, or access codes from cellular phones, or cable TV signals. Insurance claim fraud is a popular way to steal: claiming compensation for items you never truly lost. Insider trading is another form of theft, the unfair use of inside information for profit.

 

The unauthorized use of copyrighted material is one of the toughest tests of our honesty. Look at it this way. If you had a song or a book or a picture or a piece of poetry that could be sold, how would you feel if people helped themselves to copies of it without giving you a fair return on your labor? Even when no money is involved, stealing words and claiming them as your own is called: plagiarism. As a speaker, if I borrow someone’s words, I’m stealing if I don’t give credit to the source I got them from.

 

A family intentionally buys an expensive car and then immediately files for bankruptcy. Spending borrowed money with no serious intention of repaying it is a form of theft. So is claiming payments that we are not entitled to. A friend of mine told me of a relative who collected widow’s benefits on 2 deceased veterans, even though she had remarried in both cases.

 

Sometimes it’s costly to do the right thing. It cost me a year’s worth of college tuition to marry my wife instead of moving in together (I gave up my benefits as a military dependent). More than 20 years ago, the IRS sent us $500 for an Earned Income Credit that we did not ask for and were not legally entitled to. We could have kept the money, but we finally sent it back.

 

Cheating on tests is still another form of stealing. Well over half of our college students do it. What’s even worse than kids cheating on their assignments is when it’s encouraged by the adults around them. Schools are under pressure to keep up their test scores and grade averages. One teacher was quoted in Reader’s Digest as saying, “If we stopped our students from cheating, they would be at a competitive disadvantage.”

 

Another kind of stealing is depriving someone of what they are rightfully entitled to. The #1 example is cheating on one’s taxes. How much tax revenue does our government lose each year because of unreported income? By contrast, welfare fraud is a drop in the bucket.

 

Stealing includes depriving your boss of a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, or depriving workers of a fair return on what they produce. So is depriving creditors of what they are due when we have the money to pay them. Proverbs 3:28 says, “Don’t say to your neighbor, Go and come again; tomorrow I will give it, when you have it with you.” We shouldn’t cheat vendors by using their money for free, depriving them of their due. Even God complains about getting robbed this way. Where is God getting robbed? Malachi 3:8 says: Look in the offering plate. “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. You ask, How are we robbing you? In your tithes and offerings.”

 

Stealing is often done by deception. In the Law of Moses, God condemns fraudulent weights and measures. Deuteronomy 25:13-16 says, “You shall not have in your bag two sets of weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house two sets of bushels, a large and a small. (Only) a full and honest weight you shall have; (only) a full and honest bushel you shall have.” God’s word says all those who cheat like this “are an abomination to YHWH your God.”

 

Leviticus 19:35-36 says, “You shall not do wickedness in judgment, in dry measure, in weight, or in liquid measure. You shall have honest scales, honest weights, an honest ephah (bushel), and an honest hin (liquid measure).” The prophet Amos cries out against those who “make the bushel small and the shekel great” (Amos 8:5).

 

In a low-tech age, it was easy to conceal and hard to detect the difference between a full 11-gram shekel and a 10-gram shekel, or a 40-liter ephah and a 39.6-liter ephah. Today, technology has made such crude methods of theft almost obsolete, although we still hear of companies who “cook the books” or who keep two sets of safety records (one for OSHA and one for their own private use).

 

Massive deficit spending is one way we are stealing from our children, taking what does not belong to us, depriving them of a future that is rightfully theirs, making them pay for our debts. Our nation alone has accumulated over $100 trillion worth of unfunded liabilities. We’ve made $100 trillion worth of promises we can’t pay, which is theft just as sure as piling up a tab at a restaurant and walking out without paying. Any civilization is doomed as soon as a majority figures out they can vote themselves a windfall out of the public treasury, like ancient Rome did.

 

Someone said there’s 3 ways to seize the wealth of the middle class: taxation, inflation, and default on debts that the government owes. (In IL, the state government stiffed numerous service providers.) Printing more money is a theft from everyone’s pocket, driving up prices and driving down the value of our currency. It’s like mixing copper into pure gold or silver, which cheapens them. God says in Isaiah 1:22 that in Jerusalem, “Your silver has become dross, your wine mixed with water.” They devalue both their money and their merchandise.

 

One more category of robbery is when a person’s goods or money are taken legally but by force. One way is through exorbitant prices. In poor nations such as Bangladesh, small businesses may have to pay over half their gross income to moneylenders for operating capital. We all hear of ticket scalpers, and profiteers who go into disaster areas and sell drinking water and other goods at outrageous prices. The lady who sued McDonald’s after spilling hot coffee on herself is one classic example of how the law can be used to commit robbery against us all.

 

If we take goods or services for less than they are worth, or sell them for more than they are fairly worth, we are stealing. Centuries ago, the Spanish mined all the gold in Bolivia and took it away to Spain, leaving nothing but empty mines and an impoverished country. A foreign country takes a country’s precious farmland out of local food production, works it to death to grow food for us, then abandons the land while leaving as little profit behind as possible. It may be legal, but it happens all the time: economic exchanges where 1 side is being ripped off.

 

God has not spelled out in Scripture exactly what a fair wage or fair price is, partly because those amounts will vary due to all sorts of different factors like time, place, and other market conditions. At what point a price becomes robbery is hard to say. Only knows what is fair; only God has all the facts. Often only can say for sure who’s being wronged. But if our conscience is working properly, we all know in our hearts what a rip-off looks like when it’s done to us. We should apply those same standards of love and justice to how we treat others. We know that is a God of justice, and our God cares passionately when people are being ripped off, whether it be business or labor, rich or poor, who’s getting ripped off. Saint Thomas Aquinas says, “A contract is fair when both parties gain equally.”

 

Theft can be defined as taking someone’s goods or services for less than they’re worth, or selling them for more than they’re worth, without the other party’s knowledge or consent. The Occupy movement claims that the richest 1% got their money by stealing from the rest of us. And yet some of those same protesters expect free I-pads and free health care and free education, and they expect someone else to pay for it. We see ads on TV: “Get this medical gizmo, and make everyone else pay for it, even if you’re taking away money that was meant for someone’s cancer treatment 20 years from now.” Theft comes partly from a warped view of what belongs to us. We envy the rich and think, “I deserve my share of what they have,” so we try to pass laws to take it away by force.

 

We humans are clever at inventing new ways to do evil, particularly new ways to steal. The methods may have changed over the centuries, but God’s word remains the same to all who would take, by force or by treachery, what God has given to others. We all are tempted to cut corners on honesty. Ken Gire writes: When I claim what does not belong to me (whether it be material goods or credit that does not belong to me), I deny that God is the source of all blessing.

 

Instead of feeling bad about the ways we have crossed the line in this area of obedience, we need to focus on how we can set new standards of honesty for ourselves, free from the mindset of greed and grasping. We need to let ourselves be controlled by the conviction that God is the source of all blessing.

 

Ephesians 4:28 gives us the Bible’s antidote to theft: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let them labor, doing honest work with their hands, that they may even be able to give to those in need.” God’s replacement for theft is to involve oneself in honest labor, and to develop a spirit of self-giving love. But the only way we can develop that love is when we come to realize that we are saved, not by our own goodness, not by how well we have kept God’s laws, but only by what Christ has done for us to take away our sins and put us right with God. That is Good News that can set us free from guilt, news that can inspire us to set new standards of honesty for ourselves as we seek to respect God’s gifts to others.

 

All that we have belongs to God. God gives to each of us, and God expects us to keep our hands off of what God has given our neighbor, and to share what God has given to us. God knows that whenever we grab for what does not belong to us, we are finding fault with God. It’s not easy being content with what we have. Our hearts are always craving more (we’ll talk about that 2 weeks from now). We have a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts that only Christ can fill.

 

Remember what we learned about property crime in this passage? We saw that God cares less about property than about other more important issues in life. Jesus says, “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15) When we stand before God on the last day, God’s not going to say, “Did you have a nice house on earth? Did you have a good job? Did you make lots of money? Good! That was what was really important in life!” Nope! What will be all-important on that day is the question: Did you have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ? If we miss Jesus, we miss out on what life was all about. Jesus came to restore our broken relationship with God, to reconnect us with God, so that we can have life that is full to overflowing, the way that God intended it.

 

Theft often goes hand-in-hand with lying. Honesty with our money and goods often involves honesty with our words. Cheating often requires us to misrepresent the truth. The 9th Commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness” started out as a law about testimony in court, but God’s word broadens it into a command that forbids all forms of lying and deception. We’ll talk about the 9th Commandment next time on Biblical Words and World.

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