Thou Shalt Not Steal
Nor thieves… will inherit the kingdom of God. Matthew 25:21NKJV
Question 142 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment?” The first part of the answer states, “The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, manstealing, and receiving any thing that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing land- marks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust.”
A few questions ago we looked at the monstrous sin of manstealing (kidnapping), which is what Judas Iscariot participated in when he betrayed Christ into the hands of corrupt officials for thirty pieces of silver. Today we have added security measures in the maternity wards of many hospitals to stop people from stealing babies and selling them on the black market. Then there is the sex trafficking trade where young girls are stolen and forced into prostitution. In third world countries children are stolen for slavery, forced military service, or as hostages to be ransomed back to their parents. In the Old Testament God commanded kidnappers to be put to death, for no human being has the right to take possession of another human being. This is the worst kind of stealing.
However, the sin of stealing admits of a variety of other forms. While all of them involve taking possession of something that we do not have the right to possess, there are many different ways to do this, as reflected by the numerous synonyms of the verb to steal. Theft usually refers to stealing that is done surreptitiously by stealth and cunning. We might think of a jewel thief like in the Pink Panther movies, or a cat burglar who breaks into your house without your awareness. On the contrary, robbery means to take by force. So we hear of an armed robbery at the gas station, or of bank robbers who “held up” the bank with deadly weapons so that the tellers were compelled by the threat to their lives to hand over the money. While these two types of stealing are probably what we most readily think of, they no doubt occur far less often than other, more benign forms.
For the most part Christians are not tempted to commit burglary or robbery, but it can be much easier for us to receive stolen goods. I remember when cable TV first came to Saltsburg in I believe the summer of 1984 (that’s the way it works in the boonies!), and in almost no time at all, probably half of my friends’ homes were receiving “free” cable as their fathers rigged the primitive boxes in order to continue to receive channels without paying for them. Now that might not have been breaking into and forcibly taking someone else’s possessions, but it was illegally receiving a service without paying for it. It was stealing plain and simple. So also when people make illegal copies of movies or download freeware that is supposed to expire after thirty days but keep setting back the date to continue to use the program after the trial period – it’s stealing.
“Fraudulent dealing” refers to the act of stealing by means of dishonesty. We no longer deal in terms of weighing out money; the Catechism’s reference to “false weights and measures.” Likewise, “removing landmarks” is rare in non-agricultural societies, but there are many other types of injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts or in matters of trust. You probably noticed that shopping takes longer as sellers have to guard against dishonest buyers who produce and try to pass off counterfeit currency. Buyers also have to beware of dishonest sellers. I remember recently talking to a salesman about purchasing a particular piece of exercise equipment. He assured me of the savings he was giving me by quoting the item’s supposed cost at the other store, from his computer screen (which I could not see). What he did not know was that I had already looked up the price at the other store not an hour earlier and I knew he had exaggerated my potential savings by over $100! His price was lower, but he dealt fraudulently with me when he told me by how much. We need to guard against these kinds of “stealing.” May God grant that you and I so respect the rights of others that we do not in any way seek to steal from them.