The eighth commandment begins to get closer to us in its likelihood of temptation. Many cannot envision committing murder or adultery (at least the physical acts) but can at some levels see themselves stealing. The command seems to hit us more where we live even before we fully understand its application. In its place as the third worst of the final five prohibitions it becomes perhaps a more basic and practical commandment.
That said, this commandment is similar to the sixth and the seventh in how it grows in application when we understand its intent. Murder and Adultery become more common when we understand the spirit of those commands actually forbids wrong thoughts of others. In the same way, stealing becomes a much higher standard to meet when we realize that it forbids all theft of any kind under any circumstances and can even apply to what we do not do.
Just like all the horizontal commandments the eighth says nothing about degree. It does not say, “Do not steal really expensive things or anything that is dear to its owner.” It does not say, “Do not steal tangible items.” It simply says you shall not steal. All stealing is wrong in God’s eyes regardless of value or whether or not what is stolen is tangible. We are not to steal property, people, time, ideas, credit, reputation or anything that belongs to someone else. What we steal is important only in the ramifications and punishment it produces. To steal is to violate the command to love one another – no matter what is stolen.
In that way it shares something else in common with murder and adultery. All three dishonor their victims. When someone has something stolen from them they naturally feel personally violated. What we have in some ways becomes part of us so when someone steals from us they actually take away more than the item itself. Stealing is a very personal and direct violation of the second greatest commandment.
It is perhaps helpful to work through some examples to catch a vision for what this command forbids. Obvious theft is easy to define. Do not take someone else’s money – do not take someone else’s physical property. But what about more subtle ways of stealing? Is it stealing to while away time on the internet at work but still take a paycheck? Is it stealing to allow the waitress to assume our 13-year-old qualifies for the 12-and-under price? Is it stealing if the cashier rings up the wrong price on an item and we say nothing? Is it stealing if the restaurant forgets to add something to the check and we simply pay it without pointing out the error? Is it stealing if the ticket-taker at the local game is so busy with the influx of the crowd that they do not notice when our family walks by and enters the field for free? Is it stealing if I pay my employees less than what I otherwise would because the economy is bad and I know they cannot get jobs anywhere else? Is it stealing to claim the rusted bike we donated to Goodwill was worth $200 because the IRS will never follow up on something that small? Stealing is not always easy to define and is perhaps easier to practice than we typically think.
Regardless of what form it takes, stealing always comes down to greed and selfishness. We steal when we do not have what we want and decide having it is more important than obedience or love. When what we want is more important than people, when our covetousness outweighs our desire to obey, when money is our real god – we steal. The thief always puts himself and his wants ahead of anything and anyone else. He does not consider the feelings and ramifications suffered by the victim because he cannot see beyond his desire. Nothing is more important than either gaining more or keeping more of what he ultimately treasures.
Stealing dovetails with murder and adultery in the motives it exposes. James shows this in a rebuke to his readers in 4:1-4. What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have (the same motive for adultery and stealing); so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain (again, the same motive for stealing); so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. The same things that cause us to commit murder and adultery cause us to steal. Greed, covetousness, loving the world more than God – these lead to our justifying stealing to get what we want. [This also illustrates again that no one ever breaks just one commandment.]
The Opposite of Stealing is Giving
Paul discusses this command in Ephesians 4 in light of the gospel. He says in verses 23-24 that the one who is saved has put aside his old self and put on the new self which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth. Because of the gospel – what the Ten Commandments point us to – the thief can put aside his old self and stop stealing.
Paul goes on, however, and gives us more understanding in verse 28. He says, “Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.” Paul gives three commands – he says the thief should steal no longer – he should instead work – and he should share with those in need.
This gives a slightly different perspective on the eighth commandment. The opposite of stealing to obtain is not working to obtain – that is only part of the story. The opposite of stealing is giving. To steal to get what we want is wrong, but to work to get what we want is wrong if getting is an end in itself. The one who has truly put off his old self and put on his new self in the likeness of God will obtain and give. Instead of stealing we should work, but the point of working is to give. We work not to get for ourselves but to share with him who has need.
That giving is the opposite of stealing makes sense when we go back to the motives for stealing. We steal because of selfishness and greed. Giving goes directly against these in its love and concern for others. Work by itself is not the opposite of stealing because we can work for the same reasons we steal. Obviously to work for what we want is far preferable to stealing; but if the motives are ultimately the same, we have only changed to respectable means for fulfilling our sinful ends. A new heart transformed by the gospel shows its new motives to obtain by its desire to give.
Thus giving is a mark of the gospel. And giving as a solution to the eighth commandment gives even more weight to its place in fulfilling the second greatest commandment. To give to another is to love him. To love others as we love ourselves means we want to meet their needs in the same way we meet our own – with what we have.
The Opposite of Giving is Stealing
The book of Malachi gives us even more understanding of how stealing and giving relate. In the third chapter God rebukes the Israelites for not fulfilling the Law in their tithing. The people are to give three different tithes but they apparently give only a portion instead of the whole amount. They love their money more than obedience and thus do not give everything the Law commands.
What is interesting about the passage (3:7-12) is how God frames their disobedience. He does not merely condemn them for not keeping the Law – He actually condemns them for robbery. He says to them, “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you!” He tells them they are effectively guilty of violating the eighth commandment. They are not just stingy and disobedient, they are thieves.
Why does God say this? Because they keep what is rightfully His. To claim as our own what belongs to someone else is stealing. In this case the Law specifically commands the people to give away 10% of all they produce and receive. To not give is to keep what belongs to God.
[Under Mosaic Law there are actually three tithes. The first supports the priests and Levites (Num 18:21,24). The second is set aside for a festival (Deut. 14:22-27 – this actually stays with the giver and is consumed by him to glorify God and thank Him for His provision). The third tithe is given every third year to support the poor, widows, orphans and aliens (Deut. 14:28-29, 26:12-15). Consequently, the people’s shorting of the tithe means the Levites are not supported, God is not honored, and the poor are not cared for.]
For the New Testament believer there is no command to tithe. However, if we believe that all things belong to God and all we have is ultimately from Him – could He not make the same claim to a believer who does not give? We are not commanded to give a certain amount but we are certainly instructed to give (Lk 12:33), and numerous examples of generous and sometimes extreme giving are in the New Testament (Mk 12:41-44, Matt 26:6-13, II Cor 8:1-5). Thus to not give or not give regularly and generously is a sign of unbelief and ultimately a sign that we consider what we have as ours more than His. If He commands us to give from what He gives us and we do not do it – are we not keeping for ourselves what is rightfully His? And is that not the definition of stealing?
Obviously we must be careful here. How do we define when we are stealing and when we are obedient? If we give 10% are we okay? If we do not give 10% are we thieves? It would be easy to take this teaching too far and use it as a club against those who do not meet an arbitrary standard of giving. But to go the other way and dismiss it as only applicable to those under Mosaic Law is to misuse the passage also. At a minimum Malachi teaches us that God looks at our giving in perhaps much more serious terms than we typically do.
In II Corinthians 8:13-15 Paul gives us more information that perhaps sheds light on this issue. He discusses the money the Corinthians are to collect for the poor saints in Jerusalem and explains his intent in having them do it. For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction (he does not intend for the Corinthians to give so much that they make themselves poor and the Jerusalem believers prosperous), but by way of equality – at this present time your abundance being a supply for their want, that their abundance also may become a supply for your want, that there may be equality (the ones who are now prosperous meet the needs of the ones who are now poor, but if the conditions change the reverse happens – all with the intent that no one goes without as long as anyone has abundance); as it is written, “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack.” Paul ends by citing what Moses wrote about gathering Manna in the wilderness. Everyone gathered just what he needed. If he gathered more it rotted and produced worms. In this way the community was fed without anyone hoarding. Paul seems to say that this is the way God intends for the Christian community to care for its own – the ones who have abundance care for those who do not such that no one has more than he needs while someone else has nothing.
If this is the case, then our giving is God’s means of caring for the poor. And to not give to them is to keep what God intends for them to have. Thus a lack of giving becomes a means of keeping what God says belongs to someone else. And again, this is the definition of stealing.
To not violate this command really comes back to a few fundamental points. Everything belongs to God. Everything I have is from God (even if I say I work for what I have – who caused me to be born in the USA and who gave me the talents and intellect that allow me to make money?) and He has promised to meet my basic needs (Matt 6:31-33). Thus to steal is to tell God that He has not in fact provided for me as He should and I need to take things into my own hands to make up for what His provision lacks. If I steal either by what I take or by what I keep, then I tell God in the doing that either He does not in fact have my best interests in mind or that something is more important to me than He is (and certainly more important than anyone else is).
Have you seriously considered that these houses, lands, money, or goods, which you are used to call your own, are not your own, but belong to another, even God? Have you ever considered that God is the sole proprietor of heaven and earth? The true owner of everything therein? Have you considered that He has only lent them to you? That you are but a steward of your Lord’s goods? And that He has told you expressly the uses and purposes for which He entrusts you with them? Namely, for the furnishing first yourselves and then as many others as you can, with the things needful for life and godliness? Have you considered that you have no right at all to apply any part of them to any other purpose? And that if you do, you are as much a robber of God as any can be a robber of you? – John Wesley, comments on Deuteronomy 5:19