10. No Stealing

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.

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10. Property

Lessons from the Law: No.10 : Respect property – and yourself

Ex 20:15 You shall not steal

Moving on from laws about specific relationships, this next command takes us into the realm of how we think about other people or organizations generally. Understand that this is first and foremost about what goes on in your mind. Stealing is simply taking into your ownership what belongs to another, without their permission. It differs from borrowing in that you take it without permission, and you take it to hold onto it for your ownership. It is an offence against another person. There is in God’s eyes a very simple principle and one which is re-enacted in most property laws: what has been bought by you, or made by you, belongs to you. It is yours and so taking it without your permission for their long-term use (ownership) is wrong. It doesn’t matter what it is, it is stealing. We may try to rationalise it by saying they don’t need it (e.g. paper from the company you work for) or don’t deserve it (evading taxes), but it still is stealing. Each such act is an expression of what you think about a person, an organisation or an authority.

Even more than that, each such act of taking what does not belong to you, reveals something about you, and it demeans you. When we take what belongs to another we demean ourselves. We may be made in the image of God and have incredible potential, but at that moment we are moving in the opposite direction where we are demeaned in the eyes of the rest of the world. I believe the act of stealing takes us down as human being almost more than anything else. It doesn’t matter whether it is taking some food from a big supermarket chain without paying, taking something from a family’s belongings on a beach on holiday, taking something from a science lab at school, or paper from the office, it still demeans us as people.

Like Adam and Eve, we rationalise it so often or even blame others: we pay too much on taxes so it doesn’t matter if I don’t declare this extra work. Or it may be, if they paid me a decent wage, I wouldn’t need to have to take things from the office. Or perhaps we say, if the government gave me enough benefit I wouldn’t need to take food from the supermarket. All of them are just excuses and even in saying them, we demean ourselves even more.

I use this word ‘demean’ purposely. It simply means ‘to put down’. Many of us have low self-esteem already but actually when we take what doesn’t belong to us, we put ourselves into a lower bracket of humanity and we can’t think well of ourselves – it’s how God has made us. Even ‘big people’ who create financial scams may flout their ill gotten gains, but deep down they know what they are really like, and life becomes a big effort to cover up the truth about what they really are like. If you ever hear someone boasting about their misdeeds, they are simply trying (desperately) to cover up the truth and pretend it is something other that it is.

Often when we steal we do not appear to do any harm because, perhaps, the organisation is so large they won’t notice it. The trouble is that you are not the only person doing it and they do notice it and so prices are put up to cover the loss and so the rest of us have to pay more because of you, and when we think about it you know what we think of you and again you are demeaned.

The previous command was about adultery and often adultery is about stealing someone else’s partner or stealing away the heart of someone else’s partner. The trouble is that it is so common today that we rationalise it and say it is quite normal and everyone does it. No they don’t and it is not ‘normal’. It is quite contrary to how God has designed us. It is stealing by another name and YOU are demeaned. You are a lesser person and you know it and we know it, however much it is laughed at or made the subject of ‘soaps’ on TV every day.

There are two particular spin-offs of stealing that we don’t tend to think much about. The first one is loss of trust. If I know that you steal – because you brag about it – I won’t trust you. If you steal from others, you may steal from me. You can’t be trusted. You are a lesser being. The other one is, of course, the fact of being caught, at which point any reputation that you might have had, immediately goes. What is sad about all this, is that there are many people who go in and out of prison, or in and out of the courts and do community service for stealing, and who simply accept their lowly view of themselves almost without thought. That’s just how life is, is a common attitude or, why shouldn’t I if I can get away with it?  What we have in every case of stealing is someone who thinks little of themselves. They have either never seen, or have lost, the sense that they could be ‘someone’. Being ‘someone’ isn’t about having wealth or power, those are only the outward trappings. Being ‘someone’ is about feeling good about yourself and not having any cause to feel guilty or defensive or afraid because of who you are and what you have done.

We may not murder and we may not commit adultery, but if we take from someone else what is not ours, we move into the bracket of a ‘transgressor’ and we have an issue with God. We may think it is only a small issue, but it is still an issue and we are lesser people for it. This is a short and simple command, but it has big repercussions.