You Shall Not Steal
You Shall Not Steal
by William Klock
During the year I took off between university and seminary I spent about a month working in the garden centre and hardware section of a Fred Meyer store. My second day there they called several of us who were new to a meeting with the store security chief. She told us about various store “loss prevention” policies. She introduced us to the plain-clothes security guards in the store so we’d know who they were and wouldn’t blow their cover. She walked us around the store, the warehouse, and the departmental stock rooms and showed us where all the security cameras were. Then she took us to the monitoring room and made a special point of showing us how every cash register had a camera on it. While we stood there she had the guy monitoring the cameras zoom in on an open cash drawer and read off the serial number of a $20 bill. And that was the point when I clued in: they were far more concerned about employee theft than they were what they called “non-paying customers”. They wanted us to know that there was nowhere we could go that they couldn’t watch. They wanted us to know who the security guards were, because those guards were watching us as much as they were watching the customers. It was kind of insulting. And then the next day a cashier was arrested for a scam she’d worked out with her roommate. And a few weeks later my department manager was arrested after he was caught marking down big-ticket items and then selling them to co-conspirators. A couple of fellow employees got fired for swiping each other’s cards in the timeclock. There was a camera on that, too. Years later, a friend who worked in management at that same store would tell me about his new expensive, flat-screen TV that he got for a couple of hundred dollars. “How’d you manage that?” I asked. “I just marked it down and had my neighbour come in and buy it,” he said. “I figure they owe me since I didn’t get a raise this year.” Some people get caught, but I suspect most manage to get away with it.
You probably know what our passage is today. It’s Exodus 20:15. The eighth word or the eighth commandment of the Decalogue. It’s another short one. Again, just two words in Hebrew. In English it reads:
You shall not steal.
It’s not complicated. In fact, it’s a very simple command. It doesn’t say what not to steal. It doesn’t say when not to steal. It just says, “You shall not steal.” Doesn’t matter what. Doesn’t matter the circumstances. Don’t steal. Period. I could leave it at that and it’d be my shortest sermon ever, but I actually do think it’s worth looking at how the torah and then the New Testament apply this command. I also think it’s important that we grasp the underlying spiritual issues as well.
So think about this from the standpoint of faith, from the standpoint of trusting the Lord. The Israelites are gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai as the Lord speaks these ten words directly to them. This is the Lord who heard their cries in Egypt. This is the Lord who defeated Pharaoh. This is the Lord who worked a series of miracles and then led his people out of Egypt. This is the Lord who parted the sea. This is the Lord who drowned the Egyptians. This is the Lord who provided water from a rock. This is the Lord who has promised to take them to his land, a land flowing with milk and honey. This is the Lord who that very morning miraculously provided manna for them to eat. This is the Lord who now says, “You shall not steal.”
The Lord will provide. He has proved himself repeatedly in this series of amazing events. He has given the Israelites every reason to trust that he will provide what they need. There’s no reason for them to steal. The Lord will provide. That’s the context in which the command is given.
The command itself is open-ended and general, as I said before, but it’s also really simple. Just don’t steal. Even still, the torah does go on to spell out some specifics. The first expansion of this command is found in the very next chapter, Exodus 21:16:
Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.
Kidnapping falls under the heading of theft. And in this case, the penalty is death. Imagine if that sort of penalty had been hanging over the heads of government and church officials in this country when they were kidnapping native children under the auspices of educating them. But primarily, this command outlawed the sort of thing we practises we saw in the modern slave trade and slavery system that was gradually phased out in the 19th Century—a system that relied on kidnapping. The torah permitted slavery, but the slavery it permitted and regulated was a very different sort of thing. Slaves in Israel were typically either prisoners of war or they were debtors. A native Israelites could wind up a slave because of debt. The maximum period of his slavery was seven years. And the person he served was also responsible for his family. In a lot of ways it was a better system than we have today. Today, if a thief receives any serious punishment, he might go to prison and his wife and children are left to fend for themselves. The thief is punished, but the victim receives no restitution, and his family is often destroyed. Not so in Israel.
And that leads us to Exodus 22. Look at verses 1 and 4:
If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.
So, first, we see the Lord instructs Israel in the principle of restitution. If a man steals an ox and is caught, he must return the ox. But he also must give a second ox in restitution. It’s not enough to reset things to the way they were; the thief must experience the full extent of the damage he caused. If the animals has been sold or slaughtered, the thief must make restitution of five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep. Second, if he can’t make restitution this way, he will make restitution by being sold as a slave. Third, a man is justified in defending his property, even using lethal force. At the same time, force must be proportional. If the theft happens in the daylight and the thief is caught, unnecessary lethal force becomes murder.
Under this heading the law also forbade cheating and swindling. One of the most frequently addressed swindles was the use of dishonest weights and measures. Today a grocer might put his thumb on the scale to add a bit to the weight so that he can overcharge the customer. In the ancient world the weights used in commerce were sometimes doctored and merchants would deceive and steal from their customers. Rulers would debase their coinage, reducing the percentage of actual silver or gold or slightly reducing the size of the coins. Rome would become notorious for this, but our modern governments and banks with their fiat currencies and fractional reserves have taken it to heights the Caesars could never have dreamed of. All of this was out of bounds for Israel in the Lord’s land.
Wages and fair treatment of the poor also fall under this heading. Leviticus 19:13 says,
You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning.
In a cash and barter economy where many were day-labourers who lived hand-to-mouth, wages were not to be held overnight. A man would often need that day’s wages to buy dinner and food for the next day for his family. There are also a number of passages in the torah that ban the charging of interest to fellow Israelites. This is what Deuteronomy 23:19-20 says:
You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.
This one’s interesting, because it doesn’t ban interest outright. You can charge interest to the foreigner, but not to the fellow Israelite. Why? Because the Israelites are the Lord’s people, the land is the Lord’s land, and his promise of care and provision extends to all of his people. If an Israelite is in need, his fellow Israelites have an obligation to help him out of their abundance. This is a reminder that Israel’s law is not our law, but it’s also an important principle to keep in mind. It was true of Israel and it’s true of us as Christians: While we have a right to our property, we also need to recognise that what we have is a gift from God and that we ought to be ready to share freely what we have with those who are in need—and especially with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, when we make a capital investment, we deserve a return on that investment. But that’s not how we should treat loans made to friends in need—in fact, better just to give than to loan in the first place.
There are more applications, but these are some of the major ones. But one final Old Testament application comes from the prophet Malachi. The Lord instructed the people about tithes and offerings. They were expected to look after the poor in their midst. They were expected to be generous with what the Lord had given them. But they were also given specific instructions about supporting the formal ministry of the priesthood and the temple. Through Malachi, the Lord rebuked his people for stealing from him and explains that this is why their land of plenty has become barren. Here’s Malachi 3:8-10,
Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.
Again, this is the Old Testament. The tithe is an Old Testament principle, but I think you get the idea here. Everything they had was from the Lord. They would have still been slaves in Egypt if it hadn’t been for him. They were expected to be generous in return out of gratitude. The torah specified a tithe of ten per cent along with various offerings to support the ministry of the priests. They were the mediators between the Lord and his people. While we have no such command as Christians, we still see this obligation to be generous with what the Lord has given—to those in need and to support the church. Paul writes that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). As Christians we should be, at a minimum, at least as generous as the Israelites. Giving ten per cent to the formal ministry of the Church should be a starting point, a minimum. And we should be generous over and above that in giving to the poor and in supporting other ministries and organisations outside the Church.
I know, I’ve already started straying into New Testament ground, but now we’ve seen what this meant for Israel in the Old Testament. What does it mean for us? Again, at the core, this is a matter of faith. It was the God who had led the Israelites out of Egypt, who had parted the sea, who had drowned the Egyptians, who provided water from the rock and manna in the wilderness, it was this God who was leading them to a land of plenty who gave this command “You shall not steal”. To steal was a sin against the Lord’s providence. It was to doubt his goodness, his provision, and his care. Brothers and Sisters, if that was true of the Israelites, how much more true is it of us, the New Israel? This same God has, for our sake, humbled himself to be born of a virgin, has taken on our flesh, has died the death that his enemies deserved and did so for their sake, has risen from the tomb, and has given his own Spirit to renew our hearts and to meet our most desperate need. This is the Lord who, as we struggle in faith each week, meets us here and speaks as his word is read and feeds us with his very self in the bread and in the wine. Here is our manna in the wilderness. Israel’s law is not our law, but the law of the Spirit written on our hearts demands the same: You shall not steal. And it demands it as a step of faith in the God who gave his own life that we might live.
So with that in mind, what does the New Testament actually have to say on the subject and then what are some of the practical applications we can draw from it?
I think some of the most important passages in the New Testament are the ones that put this in the context of the converted and renewed heart. In Ephesians 4, St. Paul writes about putting off the old self and putting on the new. He says,
[B]e renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:23-24)
He goes on to list the sorts of behaviours people engaged in before learning about Jesus. Stealing is in that list:
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. (Ephesians 4:28)
The Lord has given you the means to work, so work. Don’t steal for a living. Earn an honest living. And then, maybe the most important part of what Paul says: Do it so that you can share with those who are truly in need. Just as the Lord provided for his people in Canaan and expected them to help each other, the Lord expects the people of the new Israel to share with each other from the abundance he provides. I’ve met a lot of Christians who expect some kind of miraculous provision from the Lord. When I was a kid we had a friend who was unemployed and mooched off a lot of people. My dad asked, “How’s the job hunt going?” And he’d say, “Oh, God didn’t tell me to go look yet. But he’ll provide.” Brothers and Sisters, that’s not the way it works. God made us for work and he expects us to work. In his common grace this is how he ordinarily provides for us. And out of that provision we can share with the truly needy—with those who really can’t work.” The other thing this highlights is that our attitude towards our property should not be one of greed. It’s not about amassing as much as you can and then glorying in your wealth. Yes, make provision for tomorrow. Make provision for your children. But be generous as well, remembering that you are only a steward of what the Lord has graciously provided.
Another key passage is Paul’s word to slaves in Titus 2:9-10
Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.
I think that addresses the attitude of entitlement we so often hear—like my friend who stole his TV and justified it: “I didn’t get a raise this year.” I’ve seen and heard that sort of thing from people in every secular job I’ve ever had. And Paul warns that this sort of thinking, this sort of entitled mindset is ruled out by the cross of Jesus. If a slave wasn’t to be stealing from his master, surely we shouldn’t be stealing from our employers. And, Paul tells us why: that we may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour. Even when we find ourselves wronged by another, our faith in God’s care and provision is on display. Brothers and Sisters, we trust in him to provide rather than wrong another. To quote Paul again, this time 1 Corinthians 6:10:
[N]or thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
I think, too, that Jesus and Paul both gives us some perspective on how we should treat our private property. The Bible is clear: our property is our own. No one has a right to it. But at the same time, we follow a Saviour who gave his life for the sake of his enemies and he calls us to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel that we might have a gospel witness of his kingdom. Jesus reiterated the command, You shall not steal. But in the Sermon on the Mount, he also addresses this issue of rights. Here’s what he says in Matthew 5:39-42.
I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
A Christian has as much right to his or her property as anyone, but the Christian also has higher priorities than putting up a fight for his property. Just as Jesus gave up his rights for the sake of the world, we are called to give up our rights for the sake of the gospel. That we are willing to turn the other cheek rather than strike back, that we are willing to give our clothes to a thief rather than use force to keep what’s ours, that we’re willing to freely give and trust God to provide for our needs is a witness to our faith in him.
I think this is in part what Jesus is getting at when he says to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and when St. Paul writes about paying our taxes and being peaceable citizens. John the Baptist called on the soldiers who came to him in repentance not to use their position to steal anymore. Jesus prompted Zacchaeus, the corrupt tax collector, to return what he had stolen and to do business honestly from that point on. But the New Testament never suggests Christians engage in a tax revolt, even against a government that used those taxes for all sorts of evil and even for the suppression of their fellow believers. Jesus (and then Paul) understood, again, that there are higher priorities for the Christian than demanding our rights. The fact was that the Emperor would one day kneel in submission to the Lord Jesus and bring reforms to his government and empire, but that was going to happen not through violence, but through the patient witness of Christian after Christian after Christian who dramatically demonstrated faith in the Lord, even to the point of allowing themselves to be fed to lions, rather than retaliate. Yes, their property was their property. Yes, Caesar was corrupt and evil. But the Lord had a higher calling on their lives and through their witness he brought Caesar and his empire to faith.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took three centuries. But it happened. And if it happened to the Roman Empire, it can certainly happen again. Now, there was nothing those early Christians could do about the government of Caesar. The only voice they had was their gospel witness and, for many, their martyrdom. In contrast, we live in a democracy. I think this is something to consider as we’re in the midst of another election season and as politicians pander to us by offering us favours paid for with our neighbours’ money. Are we letting them play to our greed? Are we casting votes in return for favours paid for by the despoilment of our neighbours? Brothers and Sisters, we’d better not be. The opposite ought to be the case. Christians ought to be using our political voice to stand up for the property rights of others, to stand up against greed, and to stand up against corruption. Standing up for the rights of others is a part of our witness—we stand for what is right, we stand for justice, we stand in defence of our neighbours. But that said, even more powerful witness in this regard lies in our holding lightly to our property and our money. When it is taken unjustly, we let it go. When we see another in need, we give. We do that because we trust in the providence of God—in his goodness, in his care, in his generosity. And, Brothers and Sisters, we trust because we know and have experienced first-hand his covenant faithfulness. In a world filled with greedy and grasping hands, I can think of few things that better witness our faith than that the Lord’s people should live with our hands generously open.
Let’s pray: Gracious Father, we give you thanks for your good care and provision. We ask this morning that you would convict us where we have been greedy or wasteful with our property and money and of those ways and times that we have stolen from you and from our neighbours. Reminds us to look at our worldly goods through the lens of the cross of Jesus, that we might dedicate everything to you and make your kingdom and the good news about Jesus our first and greatest priority. Each week we say those words, “All things come from you and of your own have we given you.” May we truly see your gifts in that light. Amen.