Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments: 10. No Stealing
Ex 20:15 You shall not steal.
This eighth command is the third of these short and to the point commands that leave no room for negotiation. These four words of this verse do not need great skills of interpretation; a child can understand them. You must not steal! Stealing is very simply taking what belongs to someone else without their permission, for your use, not to be returned. Stealing is not borrowing; it has a finality about it. You take it and intend to keep it. That is stealing.
Stealing as a prohibition was not a new thing. People before the Ten Commandments had this sense of ownership and with ownership comes rights – the right to hold onto your possession and not have it taken away. Laban challenged Jacob as he was leaving, “Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s house. But why did you steal my gods?” (Gen 31:30)
Jacob’s brothers in Egypt trying to defended themselves from his schemes said, “We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the silver we found inside the mouths of our sacks. So why would we steal silver or gold from your master’s house? If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.” (Gen 44:8,9) They saw stealing from the Pharaoh as a seriously punishable offence.
No, stealing was recognized as wrong even before this time on Sinai, but here it is part of the decreed Law of God so there is no question about it: if you steal you are sinning against God. The prohibition is repeated in Deut 5:19 but also in Lev 19:11 so three times we have it in the Pentateuch.
When Jeremiah spoke against the sins of the people he cried, “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”–safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.” (Jer 7:9-11) Thieves and robbers was the accusation. It was an accusation that came up a number of times in the mouths of the prophets, especially about those who were powerful, grabbing land that belonged to the poor.
Hosea included stealing in the group of things for which he condemned Israel: “Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.” (Hos 4:1,2) These prophetic denunciations suggest that stealing is just one of the symptoms of a society that has become godless. Remove the presence and remembrance of God and the people feel free to do whatever they like, and so often that means taking from others that which does not belong to you.
When the apostle Paul was laying out his gospel and chiding the Jews for their unbelief over the years, he asked, “you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?” (Rom 2:21) To be able to ask that he must have had something in mind? Appropriating what belongs to another crops up in every society where there are sinful human beings – and of course, we all are. We need the Law to inhibit us, to restrain us, to point out the things that are wrong. We live in a society in the West where increasingly it is being heard, “Who am I to criticize the behaviour of other people?” It is the language of relative thinking which undermines absolutes so that anything goes, it just depends on the circumstances whether we consider it wrong or not. Thus in a society where there are rich and privileged, we who are poorer justify our ‘Robin-Hood-attitudes’ because we see their riches as unfair, and “they probably got their riches unfairly anyway.” All of that may be true but two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say. If their business practices have been dubious, that does not give me the right to take from them when I can. We justify our dubious behaviour sometimes in modern society until the point when someone steals from us.
Stealing, is the prerogative of the godless and it is unrighteous, in whatever form it comes. It undermines civilized society and it offends God. It is that simple.