“Thou shalt not steal.” (Exo.20:15)
Martin Luther said of thieves, “If we are to hang them all, where shall we get rope enough?” Because of its many possible forms that range from the obvious to the most subtle and sinister, stealing sometimes seems more like an art than an offense. The most adept are considered shrewd, if guilty; and those who claim good intentions are lionized (Robin Hood). We live in an age that looks for heroes in sports arenas, on a movie screen, or gyrating on a music stage, and it is no wonder that men and women of honesty and diligence are often regarded as people who have not learned the fine art of “easy money.” This may be true, but they are smart enough to know, “easy come—easy go” (Prov.13:11).
The first thing this commandment tells me is that God endorses private ownership. Thievery pre-supposes it. Communism is not a Biblical concept, Acts 2:44 notwithstanding. It is one thing for you and I to voluntarily pool our assets for our good and the good of others; it is quite another for a government to arbitrarily take your possessions and land to distribute to strangers, for whatever reasons. Literally, all we have belongs to God, and He allows personal possession of what has been lawfully acquired.
But how do we acquire possessions? Only one of three ways, avers G. Campbell Morgan. They are received as a gift from another person; they are given in exchange for labor accomplished or services rendered; or they are stolen. The first two are legitimate in God’s sight. Ephesians 4:28 seems to bear this out:
“Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour,
working with his hands the thing which is good, that he
may have to give to him that needeth.”
All three of the means mentioned are found in this verse. Labor and the reception of a gift are laid starkly against the practice of robbery. And Paul does not mince words. “If you’re doing it, quit it!” he says. It does not take consideration, only determination.
We should probably point out those forms of thievery less obvious than, say, robbing a bank! How about unfair wages, or under par work? Both are a fraud. Then there is borrowing without returning. What else is that but theft? The gambler puts money in his pocket that he neither earned nor received as a personal gift. The wise man says of such a man,
The chronic time waster or late-comer steals time, of which life itself is made up of. And Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out that those who steal others thoughts or ideas and claim them as their own, are thieves of the worse sort. It’s called plagiarism. Of course, adultery plunders another man or woman’s marriage, and fornication steals virtue from both participants. But probably the worse thievery of all is when you or I purloin glory and honor that rightfully belongs to God. It is easy to blithely say, “I give God all the glory,” while we bathe in all the praise. It was Herod who blatantly refused to give God the glory and ended up as worm food (Acts 12:21-23)
I would like to end by telling you something my sister told me about our only brother. (He’s 74, but we still call him Billy!) She said that when he was born, during Depression days, Mother and Dad did not have any way at the time to pay the doctor who came to the house to deliver him. For some reason, I do not know why, it turned out that he was never paid. According to the story, my brother, when he was grown and made aware of this oversight, found that doctor and paid for his own delivery. It was an honest debt that deserved to be paid and my brother is an honest man. He may not have the adulation of a movie star or a sports figure, but he has always had the respect of his children and grandchildren (and his sisters, who still make over him).
Stealing is a manifestation of selfishness, discontent, and low regard for oneself and others. It indicates an inability to maneuver through life in a straight-forward, clear-eyed manner. There are those who boast standards of dress and conduct that snicker at shrewd business deals and “harmless” pilfering. But God does not see it that way. It tells more about our character than our church affiliation does. To some among us, “Thou shalt not steal,” really means, “Thou shalt not get caught.”