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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 03/23/1997

Exodus 20:15

Thou Shalt Not Steal


"You shall not steal."

INTRODUCTION

The story is told of a shopkeeper who was trying to explain business ethics to his son. "Suppose you discover, after he has left, that a customer mistakenly gave you a $100.00 bill instead of a ten. Now, here is the most important question of business ethics: Should you tell your partner?" In New York in the 1860's, gold was carried by messengers on Wall Street in open bags. When one burst, the bystanders formed a protective circle around the courier until he was able to pick it all up. Anyone leaning over got a swift kick in the rear from the others (Sobel, Panic on Wall Street. NY: MacMillan, 1986, p. 116). Archaeologists tell us that in ancient Israel, the houses only had curtains across the doorways; their pagan neighbors had tight-fitting stone doors. Which kind of society would you rather live in? Well, today even double-bolt locks won't keep the Enrons of the world from robbing you blind. It is time once again to come back to the basics, and surely one of them is "Thou shalt not steal."

I. THE BIBLICAL BASIS OF PRIVATE PROPERTY

The very prohibition of stealing implies the existence of private property rights. Unless someone has a right to something, I might reappropriate it but can hardly steal it. Because the biblical view of the nature, meaning, and purpose of property is essential not only to understanding what stealing is but is also central to understanding human identity, we need to begin our study of the Eighth Commandment by laying the foundation here.

PEOPLE OWN THINGS BY RIGHT OF CREATION

In the first place, PEOPLE OWN THINGS BY RIGHT OF CREATION. God owns the whole universe and everything in it because He made it (Gen. 1:1). David makes explicit the connection between ownership and creation in Ps. 24:1-2. The earth is the Lord's, and all it contains (v. 1). Why? Because he has founded it upon the seas (v. 2). You therefore have a right to determine the use of that which you make, which would include the right to exchange it for something else, which would then become your property as if you had made that. This right is absolute in the case of God, because He made everything out of nothing. We must always get the materials for what we make somewhere else, ultimately from Him, sometimes through others. So our ownership is always derivative and conditional. But because we are the creative animal made in His image, the energy and intelligence we add to that material gives us a proprietary interest in it, derived from His. In that sense, labor is the foundation of all wealth. Since I cannot eat my lectures and sermons, nor wear them, nor live in them, nor drive them, I exchange them for money--symbolic wealth--that I can use to purchase those other things. The factory worker cannot eat the car he makes either, so he is in the same position. He in effect sells the proprietary interest his labor gives him in the car back to the factory, which pays him for it in the form of a salary and benefits, at a rate which they have agreed on. (Those who are learned in these matters may notice a superficial resemblance to the Marxist labor theory of wealth. This should not surprise us, because Marxism is after all a Christian heresy). So we see that creativity is the basis of property--I did not make everything I own, but my right to own it flows back to something I did make, to my own creative activity and labor.

PEOPLE OWN THINGS BY RIGHT OF STEWARDSHIP

In the second place, PEOPLE OWN THINGS BY RIGHT OF STEWARDSHIP. A steward is a servant who manages someone else's property for the benefit of the owner. Well, God put Adam into the Garden of Eden to rule over it (Gen. 1:26) and to take care of it and develop it, to "cultivate" it (2:15). God owns everything by right of creation, and he has entrusted some of it to me to manage on his behalf. Property then is a way of speaking about that particular chunk of creation over which I personally exercise my little part of the original Adamic dominion as God's steward. Ownership then has to do with dominion, control, and most of all with responsibility.

For the Christian, then, ownership IS stewardship. Because I was made to be God's steward, responsibility to Him for the cultivation and use of his creation is the thing that fulfills my nature. Through my labor (or through gift or inheritance) I therefore seek the right to be responsible for a larger part of that creation. To say that I "own" my car is to say that it is the car for which I am responsible to God, it and not another. I am not responsible for Todd's little car--to maintain it, to make the payments on it, to see that it is used for the benefit of my family and God's people and for His glory because it is really HIS car. I am responsible for mine. If I run off with Todd's car without asking his permission, what have I done? I have usurped an area of responsibility that God has given to him, not to me. And because responsibility to God is the thing we were created for and which therefore fulfills our natures, I have "stolen" from him, not just a piece of highly organized metal, but a part of his very created and creative identity. He may not recognize this--he may be thinking materialistically that it is just a car, a thing, a means of transportation. But that is still what I have done, nevertheless.

Why then is stealing wrong? Because God recognizes this basic law of stewardship and will not allow one person to usurp authority and responsibility that He has given to another. That's what stealing ultimately is: not just taking material things but usurping responsibility. Therefore, we have the Eighth Commandment: "Thou shalt not steal."

This biblical justification of private property rights flows inevitably from the doctrines of creation and the image of God, but some people see a biblical objection to it. What, they ask, about the Jerusalem "commune" of Acts 2:44, when the early saints "had everything in common"? It is clear from a careful look at the whole context that this was not a divine mandate or even ideal, but an emergency measure for a very special crisis. Thousands of people had just been saved who were not residents of Jerusalem but Diaspora Jews from all over the Empire. Before they could be sent back home they had to be discipled. To be discipled they had to be housed and fed by a small group of about five hundred. But the story of Annanias and Saphira shows that the principle of private individuals being responsible for what God had given them was not overturned. This couple sold a piece of property and pretended to give all the proceeds to the apostles, while actually keeping some back for themselves. It is clear from Acts 5:4 that their sin was not in keeping some of the money, but only in lying about it. Peter upholds their right to manage what God had given them as they thought best.

To summarize, creation produces a relationship between labor and responsibility. Property is then simply one's sphere of responsibility expressed in physical or financial terms. It lawfully comes to us by labor, by investment, by inheritance, or by gift. (Labor is the most basic, for all the other forms depend on somebody's labor at some point.) To take it in other ways is stealing. And this is wrong because nobody has the right to usurp responsibility that God has given to another.

II. SOME FORMS OF THEFT

Once we realize that property is simply a form of responsibility under God for a part of His creation, then we can see that stealing involves a lot more than shoplifting, mugging somebody, burglary, embezzlement, or extortion. Any usurpation of another's responsibility is theft. But since everything is owned by God and we are responsible to Him, any failure to fulfill our responsibilities under God can be considered a form of theft. Here are a few we don't often think about.

First, the failure to give an honest day's work for a day's pay is a form of stealing. (The failure to give an honest day's pay for a day's work is too, but as we don't have any CEO's in our congregation we will concentrate on the former.) Studies have shown that the average American worker only puts in about two productive hours for every eight he spends on the job. This steals not only from his employer but also from every consumer who must pay for his laziness in the form of higher prices.

Next let us consider shoplifting, cheating on income taxes, and office theft. Why do I lump these problems together? Because they all involve stealing from an institution rather than from an individual. And therefore many people's consciences simply do not bother them for these acts--the facelessness of the victim renders these thieves incapable of imagining that what they are doing is really stealing. Therefore we need to make the point that it is just as wrong. Again, in the aggregate it steals from everybody in the form of inflated prices and higher taxes.

Next we come to that grand old childhood maxim, "Finders keepers, losers weepers." Not only is this a very uncharitable approach, but it is forbidden explicitly--even if the loser is your enemy, so how much more if he is your neighbor. "If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him" (Ex. 23:4).

Finally, since property is responsibility, any failure to meet your obligations under God is really a form of stealing. Think of it in terms of obligation: Fathers owe their families godly leadership by example; children owe honor and obedience to their parents and teachers; all believers owe the Gospel to their neighbors (Rom. 1:4). Not paying what you owe is a passive form of stealing. So you may never have taken one red cent that did not belong to you, but if you shirk these responsibilities under God, you are a thief and a robber, just as surely as if you had robbed a 7-11, knocked over a liquor store, snatched a purse, burgled a house, or mugged a pedestrian.

III. SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

Why do we wrestle with this issue? Stealing in all its forms, from the grandest larceny to the pettiest theft, flows from two attitude problems. First is a failure to trust in God's providence. We are greedy and grasping because we are insecure, and we are insecure because of our lack of faith. But consider the lilies of the field, how they grow--they neither toil nor spin, and yet your Father clothes them. Second is a failure to understand the role of responsibility in our lives and its relationship to fulfillment. If you think you want Things, you find that you never have enough. Why? Because it is not things that fulfill us, but what they represent. Godly dominion is the most fulfilling experience you will ever have, because it is what you were made for. Stealing is self defeating, because it destroys the very reason why property exists in the first place. To gratefully accept from our Father increasing responsibility--because we have been faithful in little things--to manage for Him an ever larger piece of His creation, for the glory of His name, the good of His people, and the spread of His Gospel--that is what you were made for! If that is not true then creation is not true, the image of God is not true, the Bible is not true; let us eat, drink, and be merry, and spend everything on ourselves, for tomorrow we die. By contrast with this, greed, selfishness, and every irresponsible form of getting and spending is the path of boredom, anxiety, meaninglessness, and death.

CONCLUSION

Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven; our sins were forgiven so we could be restored to a relationship to God; and that involves being restored to our original role as stewards, gardeners of His creation--to godly dominion. Without Him it is impossible. Let us praise Him for all He has done for us as we remember Him in Communion.

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 02/02/2003