The Seventh Commandment: Lesson 14
Stealing is a subject well worth our attention for several reasons.
First, stealing has become a national problem of epidemic proportions. For example, consider the impact of “time theft” on our economy:
One company has calculated that time-theft will cost the American economy as much as $70 billion a year. Time-theft is defined as those deliberate employee actions which result in the massive, growing misuse and waste of time. Estimated time-theft are: arriving to work late, leaving early, taking unjustified ‘sick’ days, extensive socializing with co-workers, turning the water cooler into a conversation pit, inattention to the job at hand, reading novels and magazines while on the clock, operating a business on the side during working hours, eating lunch at the desk and then going out for the ‘lunch hour,’ excessive personal phone calls, on-the-job daydreaming and fantasizing, long, frequent coffee and snack breaks, etc.
Second, our culture sends us “mixed signals” as to how serious a problem stealing is.
On the one hand, stealing is taken very seriously, when compared with some other evils. An adulterer is not even punished by the Law enforcement agencies any longer, even though there may be laws against it. A person may be given a lengthy sentence for misappropriating money, like banking violations, while another may serve less time for murder. On the other hand, stealing is often romanticized in the media. Television programs portray police officers as either inept or bound by the Law from apprehending the villains, and so the private eyes always get their man, often by the use of a “pick” to break into locked quarters, where they steal incriminating evidence.
Third, stealing is a much more complex problem in our society than it was in the days of ancient Israel.
In the ancient world, very tangible objects were stolen: cattle, property, wives, and the like. One could hardly argue that he had not taken anything if it were found in his possession. On the other hand, we now live in an age of sophisticated technology. For example, we have ideas which are patented and materials which are printed, both of which can be stolen. Credit cards and electronic banking have made matters even more complicated. And then there are the electronic gadgets. Satellite dishes are available to “steal” electronic signals from the sender, electronic recordings may be duplicated, so that the owner does not get any remuneration for his labor. And now there is computer software, much of which can be copied in seconds, making it possible for thousands of dollars worth of programming to be obtained for the few pennies it costs for a diskette.
Fourth, stealing is often viewed as an evil for the wrong reasons.
Usually we think of stealing as a violation of the right of private property. While this may be true, I believe that there are much more serious problems than this, which we shall explore.
Finally, stealing is a serious sin because it is included in the Ten Commandments, which identifies the “ultimate evils” of Israel’s day, and of our own as well.
I have come to view the evils prohibited by the Ten Commandments as the “ultimate evils” which God prohibits. There are other evils, but they are condemned under one of the “ultimate evils.” For example, if it is wrong to kill our neighbor, it is also wrong to do bodily harm to him, or to destroy his reputation (as spoken about in the Sermon on the Mount). If it is wrong to commit adultery, it is also wrong to practice other sexual sins. In our society, since first degree murder is wrong, then so is second degree murder or manslaughter. (And so one charged with first degree murder may be charged with any lesser offense. But one charged with a lesser offense cannot be charged with a greater, of the same kind.) The greater offense thus includes the lesser.
In this lesson I want us to explore the nature of stealing, and end up with a concise definition. This will give us away to explore some of the ways in which we steal today. Finally, we will conclude by focusing on the biblical solution for stealing, as prescribed in the Scriptures.
Broadly speaking, stealing falls into two categories: active stealing and passive stealing. Active stealing aggressively, willfully, maliciously takes what belongs to someone else, through a variety of means. In Leviticus chapter 6 we find several forms of active theft identified:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Whosoever shall sin, and despising the Lord, shall deny to his neighbour the thing delivered to his keeping, which was committed to his trust; or shall by force extort any thing, or commit oppression;
Or shall find a thing lost, and denying it, shall also swear falsely, or shall do any other of the many things, wherein men are wont to sin:
Being convicted of the offence, he shall restore
All that he would have gotten by fraud, in the principal, and the fifth part besides to the owner, whom he wronged.
Moreover for his sin he shall offer a ram without blemish out of the flock, and shall give it to the priest, according to the estimation and measure of the offence:
And he shall pray for him before the Lord, and he shall have forgiveness for every thing in doing of which he hath sinned.” (Leviticus 6:1-7).
(1) Embezzlement. Embezzlement is the misuse or misappropriation of something that has been entrusted to us (Leviticus 6:2). Embezzlement is a violation of trust, for what has been placed in a person’s keeping has been appropriated for selfish purposes. Embezzlement is frequently an offense of a bank employee or of a comptroller of a corporation.
(2) Robbery. Robbery is the act of taking what belongs to another (Leviticus 6:2). Robbery, I believe, is a broad definition, covering several kinds of stealing. Robbery generally takes things directly, often by the use of superior force (frequently involving a weapon). Stealing suggests stealth. A pick-pocket for example, uses stealth, as does a burglar. Fraud may also be included here. If so, fraud involves getting what belongs to another by deception. Here, the victim often gives what is stolen to the thief, thinking that doing so will be profitable. The only one who profits, however, is the thief.
(3) Extortion. Extortion gains possession of another person’s property by the illicit use of authority or of force (not a weapon, however). Sometimes, charging an excessive price is included here, if one feels compelled to buy the product. For example, if your child was seriously ill and there was only one medicine which would cure the child, you would be willing to pay almost anything to obtain it, even if the cost were excessive. In many parts of the world, Law enforcement officers use their position of authority to extort funds from those who are vulnerable. If a policeman could, by his false testimony alone, convict you of a crime that would imprison you, you would gladly pay his extortion fee to avoid the threatened punishment. Thus, John the Baptist told the tax gatherers and soldiers of his day:
“But he said to them: Do nothing more than that which is appointed you.
And the soldiers also asked him, saying: And what shall we do? And he said to them: Do violence to no man; neither calumniate any man; and be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:13-14).
(4) Kidnapping. In the ancient Near East, kidnapping was considered a form of theft (Deuteronomy 24:7), probably because the individual would be kept as a slave, rather than because he or she would be ransomed.
In addition to these “active” forms of stealing, there are a variety of “passive” forms of stealing.
While the thefts previously described wrongly took something from the possession of another, passive theft is the failure to give to another what belongs to them or is due them. For a variety of reasons, we may have in our possession what rightfully belongs to another, and yet fail or refuse to give it to them. While a more passive act, it is nevertheless stealing. The following forms of passive stealing are forbidden in the Bible:
(1) A man’s negligence which results in a loss to his neighbor. Exodus chapter 22 (verses 1-15) describes several acts of negligence which deprive a neighbor of his property, and which thus require restitution. For example, if a man’s pasture land has been grazed bare, and he therefore lets his animal loose, so that it grazes on his neighbor’s pasture, consuming it, the negligent man is guilty of passive stealing (Exodus 22:5).
(2) A man’s failure to return something lost to its owner is stealing. In Leviticus 6:3, the old saying, “finders keepers, losers weepers,” is shown to be an excuse for theft. To find what belongs to another, and not to return it, is to steal it, by one’s negligence or refusal to return it. Clear instructions regarding the returning of lost items is given in the Book of Deuteronomy:
“Thou shalt not pass by if thou seest thy brother's ox, or his sheep go astray: but thou shalt bring them back to thy brother.
And if thy brother be not nigh, or thou know him not: thou shalt bring them to thy house, and they shall be with thee until thy brother seek them, and receive them.
Thou shalt do in like manner with his ass, and with his raiment, and with every thing that is thy brother's, which is lost: if thou find it, neglect it not as pertaining to another.
If thou see thy brother's ass or his ox to be fallen down in the way, thou shalt not slight it, but shalt lift it up with him.
(3) Failure to give what belongs to another is stealing. A day laborer is to be paid at the end of the day (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14-15). For an employer to keep a laborer’s wages, which at the end of his work day rightfully belonged to the worker, was to rob him. So, too, to keep back the tithes, by which the Levites were supported, would have been robbery ( Deuteronomy 18:1-8; 26:9-13). Withholding the charity which was to be shown to the poor, the alien, and the stranger, was also stealing. God instructed the Israelites to make certain provisions for the poor, such as leaving the corners of their fields unharvested (Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Whenever an Israelite became greedy and did not leave something behind for the poor, he was stealing from them, for God had given the gleanings to them.