Even though the 8th Commandment is short and succinct, it addresses an insidious and pervasive sin that comes in many forms. There are countless things we can steal and numerous ways in which we can do so.
I think most people would agree that we shouldn’t steal but sadly, theft is endemic to the human race. We don’t like to acknowledge that we steal and so we use an array of alternative ‘softer’ terms to describe what we do : purloin, help oneself to, pilfer, run off with, shoplift, misappropriate; swipe, nab. We also borrow legitimate terms and use them with inverted commas; ‘adopt’, ‘re-home’, ‘liberate’, ‘borrow’ etc.
The first thought that comes to mind when I think of this commandment is the classic act of theft; taking something, perhaps money or some other personal possession, that doesn’t belong to me. While this is true, the dictionary definition goes significantly further.
To steal : to take another person’s property without permission or legal right and without intending to return it.
There are four key elements here:
To take another person’s property : This implies that the article in question doesn’t belong to me but I want it anyway and so, before I even lift my hand to take it, I’m breaking the 10th Commandment : Don’t covet.
To take without permission : It’s one thing to take something with permission, as in the case of borrowing, but if I don’t have the owner’s permission, there’s a certain deceit involved and I’m breaking the 9th Commandment : Don’t lie.
To take without legal right : There are cases, such as debt recovery, where I may well have the legal right to take another person’s property and this wouldn’t constitute theft.
To take without intending to return it : This speaks about our inner intentions – the attitude of our hearts – and, as we’ve seen in other commandments that’s where sin starts.
Thief : a person who steals another person’s property, especially by stealth and without using force or threat of violence.
Stealing is rarely something we do overtly and the dictionary definition implies a certain stealth (furtive, surreptitious, sneaky, sly) or, in other words, dishonesty. And here we are again breaking the 9th Commandment : Don’t lie.
But there are countless examples of theft where we almost feel justified or entitled. This is particularly true if we think of it as a ‘victimless’ crime either because we’re defrauding the authorities or because we’re not actually taking money or possessions. Let’s consider a short list:
In the workplace
If we’re contracted to work a certain number of hours a week and we come in late, leave early and take extended rest breaks, we’re stealing from our employers. The same goes for fiddling expenses, pilfering items such as stationary and supplies, time wasting and doing personal things in company time using company resources and a whole host of similar behaviours.
If we take sick leave when we’re not sick, we’re defrauding both our employers and the government agency that may pay sick benefit.
Any time we absent ourselves from a task or commitment that involves financial remuneration, we don’t have the right to claim the agreed payment.
If we claim unemployment benefit when we’re fit to work but we choose not to, that’s also theft.
As employers or managers, we are to offer a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and we are not to unreasonably withhold an employee’s salary perhaps for our own financial gain.
‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.’ (Leviticus 19:13)
Businesses can attempt to steal from people with misleading advertising and poor quality goods and services.
Taxation and finances
No-one likes paying tax but making false declarations is theft and it’s punishable by law. ‘Give to everyone what you owe them: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.’ (Romans 13:7)
If we work on the black or pay someone else to do so, we’re defrauding the tax authorities. Making false or fraudulent (inflated) insurance claims constitute theft.
Intellectual property and copyright
It’s illegal and it represents theft to pass off someone else’s idea, text, images or music as your own. This is very common on blogs and Facebook pages – even Christian ones. It’s okay to quote a source but you simply must acknowledge the original author.
The same goes for copyright. In Churches for example, we don’t have the right to display or circulate music for worship unless we are licensed to do so.
Gossip and speculation can steal an innocent person’s reputation. It’s never justified and it frequently involves lies. (9th Commandment : Don’t lie).
We’ve already looked at the 7th Commandment : Don’t commit adultery. Even though it takes two people to break this law, it can cost an innocent spouse their marriage and perhaps even their home and financial security. It also robs children of a secure and stable family and childhood.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg. Theft is absolutely rampant in almost every domain of our lives. We may steal by overcharging someone or by not acknowledging that we’ve received too much change. Or we don’t hand in a found item but rather we keep the find to ourselves. The list goes on and on. As if stealing from one another isn’t bad enough, there is something worse…
Stealing from God
Is it possible to steal from God? Yes, because we can steal either by an act of commission or omission. God is the Creator of everything that exists so He owns the entire universe: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.’ (Psalm 24:1)
Jesus made it very clear that we are to love God above all else. ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.’ (Matthew 4:10) If we don’t do this, we are, in fact, robbing Him from the glory that is rightly His.
Then there is the great commandment; ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:30) Once again, if we fail to comply we are, in effect, stealing from God.
‘Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, “How are we robbing you?” In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – your whole nation – because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.’ (Malachi 3:8-10)
Jesus affirmed the practice of tithing, giving back to God a portion of what He gives us, and He linked it to spiritual virtues of faith, mercy and justice. ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.’ (Matthew 23:23)
In other words, we are to practise the law of tithing together with exercising faith, mercy and justice. And here’s a very important point; every blessing we have in our lives comes from God and so, in effect, belongs to Him.
The second great commandment is this; ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Mark 12:29) Clearly, if we love our neighbour as ourselves we wouldn’t steal from them or withhold anything that is rightfully theirs.
Stealing is an ugly sin that starts in the heart and it keeps very unsavoury company. ‘For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ (Mark 7:21-23)
Theft involves greed, covetousness, deceit, selfishness, and it demonstrates a lack of love, respect and justice.
The seventh commandment : You shall not steal
If we take anything that doesn’t rightfully belong to us, we’re stealing.
If we defraud anyone in any way for personal gain, we’re stealing.
If we withhold anything from someone that is rightfully theirs, we’re stealing.
We can, and do, steal from God. He owns everything including our right to ourselves.
Guilty as charged.