The people of the land have used oppressions, committed robbery, and mistreated the poor and needy; and they wrongfully oppress the stranger. Ezekiel 22:29NKJV
Question 142 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment?” The second part of the answer states, “The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are… oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depopulations; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves.” Last week we looked at subtle ways of stealing where we take something that does not belong to us, not by breaking in or holding up, but by manipulating technology. Today we focus on those kinds of stealing whereby we force others to give us their belongings unjustly.
Oppression, extortion, bribery: I do not know about you, but when I hear these words I think of organized crime shows or mafia activity, where hardworking store owners are forced to pay “protection” money to mobster thugs or something like that. Yet the reality is that these forms of stealing occur all the time in a much more refined manner. Several years ago I remember being out on a job site with our youth group in a ministry that helped poor people with minor projects around their homes. Suddenly a woman, acting very distraught and obviously drunk or high, began to beg us for money in such a way that was very troubling to the group. One of the other leaders finally threw some dollars at her and told her to get out and leave the children alone. She did. Clearly this woman understood how to use “oppression” to extort money from people so that she could continue to destroy her life with drugs and alcohol. In effect we gave her a bribe to leave us alone and she did.
It is not just drug users who use such methods. At a very young age children learn how to manipulate their parents into paying them what really are “bribes” in exchange for them to stop whining and needling them about how much they want that toy, piece of candy, or whatever. Likewise, teachers can tell you those parents who are known for badgering them into giving their children grades they have not earned. Moreover, unscrupulous special interests groups and lobbyists are experts at knowing how to extort money or favorable legislation from elected officials. Unfortunately, oppression, extortion, and bribery are part of life in this sinful world. May God grant that you and I look closely at our lives and make sure we are not oppressing or extorting money or favor from others.
Usury refers to lending out money at exorbitant interest rates. The Jew was forbidden from charging interest to his fellow Jew, but was allowed to receive it from foreigners (Deut. 23:19-20), proving that such a practice is not morally wrong so long as the rate is fair. Similarly lawsuits in general are not condemned, only “vexatious” lawsuits. Sometimes it is necessary to take someone to court in order to stand up for your rights or for income that was wrongly taken from you. “Enclosures” refers to a practice in old England whereby land legally designated as “common land” would be fenced in by its owners, disregarding the rights of those entitled to use it for pasturage. “Depopulations” occurred when a wealthy person would buy a large tract of land and force the tenants living on it to move. The Westminster Divines living in England and Scotland had seen these forms of stealing all too often.
“Engrossing commodities to enhance the price” speaks of monopolizing goods for the sake of selfish gain. As with lawsuits and interest rates, the Catechism does not condemn monopolies per se, but only when such monopolizing is done for the sake of charging exorbitant prices for things people need but now can get nowhere else. Such a practice is selfish and wicked and cares nothing for the quality of people’s lives. Similarly, “unlawful callings” and “unjust or sinful ways” would include any illegal or unjust occupation whereby people would be forced to pay you for something they should not have to. The greed of man has developed stealing into a fine art. May God grant that you and I shun all forms of stealing.