First Mennonite Church
October 20, 2019
The Eighth Commandment: You Shall Not Steal
Texts: Exodus 20:15; Isaiah 1:23
You shall not steal.
Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
When our children are young, we as parents tell them not to take what is not theirs. We tell them that taking more than their share of cookies will cause someone in the family to get nothing at all. These and other simple ways we teach children the eighth commandment in the Bible, without having to quote it to them. But stealing can be more complicated than taking more cookies than our fair share. Stealing, robbery, embezzlement, fraud, cheating, larceny and other methods of taking what belongs to others are ways in which people break the eighth commandment. Paging through a newspaper or online news platforms will show how conspicuous the problem of stealing is today. From the simple, and yet sometimes deadly, everyday house burglary to the more sophisticated with its far-reaching consequences of structured robbery plaque our world and society. We could readily agree and emphasize the importance of the commandment. We all would readily agree that taking what is not ours is morally wrong. Yet, it could be that some might be troubled to know how embedded this problem is in the psyche and economic structure of this country as a superpower in the world. The economic system there is in this country, as well as many other powerful nations, with the limitless tentacles of transnational corporations, seek to extract every valuable resource from around the world at all costs. These corporations go around the world bribing corrupt government, which in turn deprives millions of people to miss out on the benefits of the rich natural resources of their country. Lately, wars have been fought, not for the sake of extending the glories of democracy and freedom to other parts of the world, but for the sake of securing dominance where there are resources useful to sustain the interest of corporations. However beyond-the-scope of the church’s interest this might seem, it is also a way in which the eighth commandment is systemically broken.
Before we take a closer look at the commandment, we should ask ourselves a fundamental question regarding the prohibition of stealing. Why do people steal? Why do people want to possess what is not theirs?
It would be good to take a look at the theological understanding of ownership of the world, land, and property in ancient Israel.
The context for this commandment is one in which God was seeking to ensure the wellbeing of the entire community. The children of Israel recognized that everything belonged to God, even their very lives. The land belonged to Yahweh; therefore, everything that the land produced directly or indirectly was for the common good of the entire community. When the farm of someone did not yield a crop to sustain the family, those whose farms produced should share their bountiful crop (Deut. 15:7-11; 24:19-22). When a family lost their property due to illness, lose their crops, or sink in debt, the land should be returned to them in the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25). Therefore, stealing was considered a violation, not only of the family from which part of its resources was being taken away by an individual, but was also a violation of the entire community. Seizure of land was the most grievous way in which stealing took place in ancient Israel. Remember the story of Ahaz, who under the guidance of his wife Jezebel, took the property of Naboth, according to 1Kings 21. It seems the problem of land seizures did not stop there. The prophet Isaiah condemned the practice centuries later (Isaiah 5:8-10).
Stealing was considered a violation of God’s will whose gifts were to secure the wellbeing of all. When someone committed a robbery, the whole community was put at risk. Israel was reminded time and again that the whole world and all that is in it belong to the Lord. Israel’s prophet reminded Israel that the gold and the silver, the rams, and cattle all belong to Yahweh. When someone stole something from another, it not only revealed the poverty of the heart of the thief but is also put at risk the wellbeing of the entire community by an individual. Stealing is the physical expression of diminishing or shaving away the self-hood of an individual, family, or community. Stealing is, in other words, an attempt against God’s provision for the common good. We should remember that the idea of “private property” was a foreign concept to Israel’s understanding regarding ownership.
Since I have been a pastor in this church, we have had three break-ins. Someone wanted to take some things that belonged to us. However, as I said at the beginning there are many other ways in which people break the eighth commandment. Violation of the commandment in ancient Israel according to the prophets Isaiah and Micah became institutionalized. The text from Isaiah is an indictment against the princes who have become rebels. The word princes—zar, in Hebrew, means leaders, rulers or princes. God was condemning Israel’s leaders for being accomplices with thieves, becoming thieves themselves. They loved bribes, kickbacks, and they ran after gifts but disregarded the cry of the vulnerable. In the book of Micah we read:
Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
2 They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance.
Isaiah is more direct in his indictment against those who crafted laws that gave them the freedom to legally steal:
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
2 to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
3 What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Stealing is obviously the evidence and fruit of greed. Thieves are utterly selfish; they do not care who they hurt. When those in power devise laws that favor their schemes when those in power become enablers of the greedy, structured or institutionalized stealing becomes systemic. In this country, there are people who are robbed of their rights. Gerrymandering, gentrification, false advertisement, hunger wages, outsourcing of jobs, and with all that, not to mention the exploitation of the natural resources, not only locally but across the oceans too, indicate how widespread institutionalized stealing is. When the resources that should be used to alleviate hunger, provide health care, and education of the less fortunate are taken to build the ego of an individual or of a nation, the wellbeing of all suffers from the robbery. Institutionalized theft is indeed what Chris Hedges, a fellow pastor in the Micah Group I was part of, describes as the “radical evil of a corporate capitalism”  which would not hesitate to sacrifice the truth and the life—of people, living things and the world’s resources to pocket every possible dollar. This would be one aspect of the evils of capitalism that many American Christian might have difficulty acknowledging. But we should remember that if Israel’s leaders were corrupted by greed and therefore crafted ways in order to commit robbery, legally, even when having the laws of the righteous God, what cannot be done by those who have no fear of God?
What are we to do?
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul describes the opposite of stealing: “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need” (Ephesians 4:28). If the commandment had the purpose of securing the wellbeing of God’s people against selfish and individualistic inclinations, then we are called to acquire what is good through honorable means. Honest and honorable work is the prime means through which we get what is good, not only for ourselves and families but also for the common good. Generosity is the opposite of stealing. The generous heart opens itself to the need of others. At a personal level, we are called to be generous first to God and to our fellow human beings. We are called to share what God has blessed us with. The prophet Malachi accused Israel of robbing God by withholding what should be God’s. How is our giving to the Lord? Let us give God with joy and gratitude for his many blessings. Let us give to God, even sacrificially. We should also be aware that sometimes church leaders promote a Jesus who promises riches if you give to them or to their causes. I believe, the Christ who cleansed the temple weeps that he cannot come to do the same in some Christian churches. But the church does not deals with money only, it also deals with her God-given mandate to faithfully proclaim the word of God. When church leaders avoid speaking the truth, even to the powers that be, they rob the holistic message of God which they are commissioned to proclaim to God’s people.
Let us, therefore, commit ourselves and everything we have to God. He is the ultimate owner of everything. He is the giver of all good things, says James. Let us also be generous. Generosity is the evidence of whole-hearted gratitude to God for everything we have. Generosity is the visible expression that we trust in God. Through our personal and the church’s generosity, we obey God’s intent for giving the eighth commandment: You shall not steal. Generosity gives evidence that we do what is within our possibility to seek the common good God intends for his whole creation. Amen!
 Chris Hedges, The Age of Radical Evil, Truthdig.com (Friday, October 18, 2019)