Words of Love: Do Not Steal (Horizons 7)

Love Carved in Stone: A Fresh Look at the Ten Commandments
Lesson 7
Exodus 20:15; Matthew 25:31-46

  • Which of the following would you consider to be stealing?
  • Taking home office supplies from work;
  • Gossip;
  • Failure to provide a living wage;
  • Giving 2.4% of your income to God through your church;
  • Fraudulent business deals;
  • Charging poor people much higher interest rates than those in higher income brackets.

Incredibly, all of the above are stealing according to both Jewish and Christian interpretation of the commandment, “You shall not steal.” Withholding what is needed for the well-being of others is deemed stealing, as much as taking something that is not yours. Gossip is stealing a person’s good reputation. Not providing a living wage limits a person’s ability to provide for self and family. Giving a tiny fraction of our income to God robs us of the understanding that all things belong to God and cheats God out of the income necessary to further God’s purposes in the world.

Like all of the Ten Commandments, the command to not steal has a depth we may never have considered. The Westminster Larger Catechism, in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions, delineates the obligations we are obliged to keep as faithful Christians in the eighth commandment to not steal. The duties required of us in the Catechism are:

  • Truth, faithfulness and justice in contracts and commerce;
  • Rendering to everyone what is due;
  • Restitution of goods unlawfully taken;
  • Giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the need of others;
  • Frugality;
  • Avoiding unnecessary lawsuits;
  • Procuring, preserving and furthering the wealth and well-being of others, as well as ourselves.

As seen in question 141 of the Catechism, in order to obey the commandment to not steal, we are to actively protect the well-being of others and build a just and merciful community for all.

There are both legal and illegal methods of stealing. In the United States, it is legal to charge poor persons 36% to 66% on short-term loans, like vehicle title loans or “pay day” loans. On a 31-day payday loan at an interest rate of 36%, the interest charged would be $74.30 on a loan of $300. Though legal, payday loans charge the highest interest rate to the people least able to pay. In contrast to current banking and loan practices, persons of faith are not to charge interest at all to the poor or to a member of the faith community (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20). Charging a high-interest rate is theft because the lender cuts into the already short supply of cash needed to pay bills or buy food and medicine. Our lives and even nations are judged harshly by Christ by our failure to protect and provide for the poor.

It is encouraging that Christian groups – as diverse as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Methodist Church and the Salvation Army – have taken public stands against and continue to urge the change of laws governing such predatory lending. Some churches have started lending programs for small loans with no or low interest.

To not steal means that we actively contribute to the well-being of our neighbor. There was a Jewish farmer who lived among his Gentile neighbors in Poland in the 1930s. There was a year with scant rain and low yields, and there was little seed left over to plant crops the next year. When spring began to bud, the Jewish farmer heard that some of his neighbors had no seed to plant and he shared what seed he had.

Germany and Soviet armies invaded Poland in September of 1939. As German soldiers began herding the Jewish citizens into concentration camps, troops came to the small farming community where the Jewish farmer lived peacefully among his neighbors. Some of community volunteered to “help” the Nazis by searching for Jews. They reported back that no Jews were on the farms. Indeed, the farmer and his family were not found.

I do not remember the source of this story that I read long ago, but it is an excellent illustration of the opposite of the commandment, “You shall not steal,” because what is needed to protect human life is given freely. The Jewish farmer gives liberally to his neighbors without considering the cost to himself. In like manner, the neighbors do not allow the German soldiers to rob the farmer of his life. The opposite of stealing is creating a community of generosity that protects all.

rosalind-banburyRosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.

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