You shall not steal.
Exodus 20:15 ESV
Having now studied the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Commandments, we are prepared to enter the second half of the second table of the Ten Commandments. As with the previous three commandments, we will continue to seek three things from this text: the explicit meaning of the commandment, the positive implications, and the character of God from which this law derives.
DO NOT STEAL
There was a pear tree in the neighborhood of our vineyard, but the fruit weighing it down offered no draw either in its look or its taste. After playing in vacant lots clear till the dead of night—that was the behavior we visited on the town as our habit—we young men, full of our endless mischief, proceeded to this tree to shake it down and haul away the goods. We filched immense loads, not for our own feasting but for slinging away to swine, if you can believe it. But in fact, we did devour some pears; our only proviso was the potential for liking what was illicit.Confessions, 42.
That is Augustine’s description of how he, alongside other boys, stole pears from a neighbor’s tree. Even with throwing most of the fruit to pigs, many would be inclined to summarize the ordeal simply as “boys will be boys.” Yet Augustine saw a deeper problem behind his adolescent mischief. Listen to him say it:
I loved my own demise, I loved my failing—not the thing for the sake of which I failed, but the failing itself, as in the hideousness of my soul I plunged down from your steady structure that held me up, into utter annihilation; I wasn’t looking for what I could get from infamy, but looking for infamy.Confessions, 42.
We all know that blatant theft is wrong. God not only wrote the Eighth Commandment upon stone; He also wrote it upon our hearts. Augustine both knew and felt this truth. He knew that his act of theft was not to satisfy a need; it was for the thrill of the sin itself. His very lust for the misdeed revealed its sinfulness. Kleptomania is another such example. Those who love stealing rarely have much desire to actually possess the stolen good; instead, they love the adrenaline rush that comes from the danger of being caught. As Augustine also noted, the sin itself is their treat.
While I do not want to ignore the very real danger of delighting in theft, the reality is (thankfully) that most of us are not prone to kleptomania. The Eighth Commandment, however, runs much deeper than only addressing acts of overt theft. The love of sin is rooted into our hearts, and while most of us are probably not stealing from stores, we are still very much thieves.
Question 110 of the Heidelberg Catechism states, “What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?” The answer is:
Not only such theft and robbery as are punished by the magistrate; but God views as theft also all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we seek to draw to ourselves our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or with show of right, such as unjust weights, ells, measures, wares, coins, usury, or any means forbidden of God; so moreover all covetousness, and all useless waste of His gifts.
Notice the scope of this prohibition. Using “wicked tricks” to accumulate our neighbor’s goods for ourselves is a form of theft. For much of human history, this often involved “unjust weights,” which may seem a bit outdated to us. A few days ago, however, I saw a meme of a man in an airport getting his bag checked. While the bag was on the scale, the man very slyly had his foot beneath the overhanging portion of the bag, evidently attempting to hiding a few pounds of its weight. The caption touted the man as a genius, but although quite clever, he still committed theft by attempting to shift the (literal) scales in his favor.
Such slight acts of skimming out of regulations and fees are violations of the Eighth Commandment. The general excuses of but I can’t afford that or it’s not like they need the money anyway are beside the point. Whenever we enter a transaction for a good or service, we are agreeing to an informal (though sometimes formal) contract, and it is our God-given responsibility to justly uphold our end of the agreement or to withdraw entirely.
Thomas Watson, furthermore, lists three broad categories of theft: stealing from God, from others and from ourselves. Really, everyone should just read his entire treatment of this commandment, but I will summarize his thoughts quickly since they are quite helpful.
Under stealing from God, he only calls thieves those who do not observe the Sabbath day. As we noted in our study of the Fourth Commandment, while I do not believe that Sunday is now the Christian Sabbath (as Watson does), it is rightly called the Lord’s Day. Since we are commanded to gather together for encouraging one another and worshiping together, particularly (if possible) on the Lord’s Day, I do agree with Watson. Believing that other matters are more important than gathering to sing “songs, hymns, and spiritual songs” and sit under the proclamation of God’s Word with our brothers and sisters is stealing from God the time that He has demanded of us.
In regard to stealing from others, he lays out nine types of theft.
- The “highway thief” is what we may call the kleptomaniac, pickpocket, or conman.
- The “house-thief” is the servant who steals from his master or, as may be more common today, the child who steals from their parents.
- The lawful thief is the attorney who robs his client, although we could add government officials, doctors, accountants and other professionals to the list as well.
- He calls the preacher who benefits from the church without actually preaching the Word and feeding the flock a church thief.
- He refers to merchants who use false weights or faulty products shop-thieves.
- The usurer steals by extorting from others, as the tax-collectors of Jesus’ day were known to do.
- He rightly calls the trustee who uses an orphan’s estate for his own purposes a thief.
- The one who borrows from others yet has no intention of repaying them is nothing less than a thief.
- Finally, he notes that anyone who knowingly receives stolen goods is also complicit in the theft.
Finally, he gives four ways that we may steal from ourselves. First, he notes that we may steal from ourselves by not allowing “what is needful,” someone who is so stingy with his or her money that they effectively are stealing from themselves. He identifies this person with the one from Ecclesiastes 6 to whom God has given many blessings but not the ability to enjoy them. Second, we rob ourselves by wasting our estates, by foolishly squandering our resources. Third, we rob ourselves through idleness and wasted time. “Time is a rich commodity”, says Watson, “because on well spending present time a happy eternity depends. He that spends his time idly and vainly, is a thief to himself; he robs himself of golden seasons, and by consequence, of salvation” (167). Fourth, we steal from ourselves whenever we unwisely offer ourselves as surety for the debts of others.
I cite the Heidelberg Catechism and Watson in an attempt to show just how sweeping the Eighth Commandment is. And we’ve yet to mention the theft of tax evasion, which is indeed a form of stealing since Paul explicitly commands us to pay our taxes in Romans 13.
We could also call procrastination a form of stealing from the future, which we cannot control. Charles Dickens famously called procrastination “the thief of time.” Jonathan Edwards’ marvelous sermon over Proverbs 27:1, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring,” while not explicitly tying procrastination to the Eighth Commandment, certainly roots it in a presumptuous mentality that believes that tomorrow is guaranteed. Thus, procrastination is first and foremost a sin of pride, but from there, it then becomes a sin of theft against self. Procrastination robs time from the future in order to do whatever we desire in the present.
Or perhaps should we instead discuss the potential theft tied to so much of our consumption? After all, the often-predatory exploitation of factory workers and farmers in less developed countries has created the need for programs like Fairtrade Certifications (which have their own fair share of criticisms as well). The Eighth Commandment should force us to consider whether our pantries, refrigerators, and closets are filled through the empty bellies and wallets of our fellow image-bearers around the world. Cheaper may not always be better when exploitation is lowering the cost for us. Does our plentiful consumption rob adequate provisions from the world’s least of these? While there are no quick solutions, we should not cast the matter out of mind as being a problem beyond all repair. God does not expect us to fully repair the brokenness of the world; He is doing that. He simply calls us to be faithful with what we have and where we are. If our food, clothing, or other purchases are built upon systems of theft, we should use our marvelous modern privilege of choice to buy from better companies. Many avenues exist today to improve these global conditions, but they require thought, intention, and perhaps even a restructuring of our budgets. Don’t be overwhelmed, just start somewhere.
THE GOD WHO IS GRACIOUS
While we could keep discussing ways to break the Eighth Commandment all day, we have further matters to discuss, such as why stealing is a sin. As I said at the beginning, we all know that stealing is wrong, but why is that? As with all the commandments, it is sin because it is contrary to the nature of God. Theft is anti-God because God is the very opposite of a thief. He is a gracious giver.
Again, the opening chapters of Genesis establish this reality. Creation itself was an act of grace from God because He has no need of His creation. As the triune God, the Father, Son, and Spirit has no beginning but eternally exists in a constant outpouring of love. God, therefore, did not need to create in order to be love; rather, He is eternally loving as a Trinity. And He has now graciously created creatures to be recipients of His love as well. Creation, therefore, is a gift.
But the giving does not stop there. After forming the earth, the seas, the sky, the plants, and the animals, God gives mankind dominion over other creatures of the earth and every plant for food. The LORD even placed Adam and Eve in a garden in Eden where He “made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (2:9). Thus, God not only gave us paradise, but He made us the rulers of our paradise. As bearers of God’s image, Adam and Eve were to receive the earth as a gift from God and cultivate it as His stewards.
Yet our forefather and mother were not satisfied with being like God; they were greedy for more. Although God had given them every tree for food except one, they failed to be thankful for God’s abundant gifts and instead became fixated upon what God withheld from them. At the serpent’s urging, Eve “took of its fruit,” which was very much the first act of theft and ate it. Adam, likewise, received the fruit from his wife and ate it.
This original sin has infected all things. It is the cancer, the seed of death, that has fractured and marred both the earth and ourselves. Like Adam and Eve, we too are thieves, perpetually attempting to take what is not ours. Ultimately, like all sin, our theft is really just another outworking of sin of idolatry. All sin is attempted theft of God’s very godhood. Our sin declares that we know better than God and therefore is also a declaration that we are God. All sin is rightly called Satanic for it is an attempt to steal God’s throne.
God, however, is so gracious and giving that He has overcome our greed and theft with even greater grace. If we believed that creation and life were lavish gifts from His hand, two thousand years ago He outgave Himself. Speaking of Himself, Jesus told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Even though our sin warrants eternal damnation from God in payment for our rebellion, the Father gave to us His Son to redeem us from the curse of sin. God the Son, who is the one by whom all things were created, became a man and suffered death by crucifixion in our place, sparing us from God’s wrath and pouring upon us God’s grace.
But God’s giving does not stop even with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Following Christ’s resurrection, the Father gave the Holy Spirit to indwell us as a guarantee of our eternal inheritance in Him as adopted children of God. We have been given, therefore, God the Son and God the Spirit who reunite to us God the Father. No greater gift exists. As the hymn rightly states, “What gift of grace is Jesus my Redeemer! There is no more for heaven now to give!” Truly our giving and gracious God has not withheld His best!
HONEST WORK WITH SOMETHING TO SHARE
The positive implications of the Eighth Commandment, of course, flow from God’s graciousness and generosity.
First, it demands our thankfulness. Ingratitude is a breeding ground upon which theft grows since stealing is often an attempt to take what we believe should be ours. Yet as we meditate upon the goodness of the gospel and the myriad of other gifts that God has given to us, we should overflow with thanksgiving regardless of the circumstance (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Second, it calls for us to work. Idleness is not only a form of stealing from ourselves; much like ingratitude, it often gives birth to theft. “An idle person tempts the devil to tempt him” (Watson, 168). The industrious and hardworking obtain the fruit of their labor with joy and thanksgiving to God, but slothful often prefer to steal through subtle means instead of doing the honest work required. Paul makes this connection explicit in Ephesians 4:28, “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.” The call to abstain from sin is never to cease from doing something entirely but rather to do good instead. For example, Colossians 3:9-10 command us to “put off the old self” and to “put on the new self.” Actively walking in obedience is an essential component of how we mortify our sinful desires. Guard yourself, therefore, against theft and other forms of sin by working diligently for the Lord.
Third, we must be a gracious and generous people. Giving is very much the antithesis of stealing. By stealing, we wrongfully take what belongs to someone else as ours, while by giving we freely surrender what belongs to us over to someone else. Returning to Ephesians 4:28, Paul concluded the verse by saying, “that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” This means that the point of our work and acts of obedience is not only to fight our own sin but to also do good to our neighbors, the image-bearers around us. As God has given riches to us, we also should desire to give richly to those around us. Whenever we give joyfully and freely to others, we image God, who is free and joyful in His giving to us.
Zacchaeus learned this principle beautiful. Being a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was a wealthy man, much of which likely came from defrauding others. Yet upon encountering Jesus, he declared to Christ, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8). When the supreme Treasure entered his house, Zacchaeus’ earthly treasures lost their grip over his heart, and his heart of theft transformed into a heart of generosity. He was gladly willing to lose his trinkets because he had found riches that could not be lost or stolen.
May the treasures of the gospel likewise continue to transform our hearts. May we actively revolt against the very thought of stealing from God or our neighbors and fellow image-bearers, but may we also be, through the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the strength of the Spirit, be thankful, industrious, and cheerfully generous followers of Christ.