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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

Sophisticated Thieves

The people of the land have used oppressions, committed robbery, and mistreated the poor and needy;

and they wrongfully oppress the stranger. —Ezekiel 22:29


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: when I hear those 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 regularly are stressed and

pressured by unjust parents who continually harass and badger them into giving

their children grades they have not earned. In the political realm unscrupulous

special interests groups and lobbyists are experts at knowing how to extort money or

favorable legislation from elected officials. In these and other examples we see that

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 any interest to his fellow Jew, but was allowed to receive it

from foreigners (Deu. 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 neighbors, 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.

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