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21. The Sin of Stealing (Exodus 20:15)


Stealing is a subject well worth our attention for several reasons. First, stealing has become a national problem of epidemic proportions. For example, consider the impact of “time theft” on our economy:

The Robert Half Personnel Agencies has calculated that time-theft will cost the American economy as much as $70 billion a year. Time-theft is defined as those deliberate employee actions which result in the massive, growing misuse and waste of time. Estimated time-theft are: arriving to work late, leaving early, taking unjustified ‘sick’ days, extensive socializing with co-workers, turning the water cooler into a conversation pit, inattention to the job at hand, reading novels and magazines on the job, operating a business on the side during working hours, eating lunch at the desk and then going out for the ‘lunch hour,’ excessive personal phone calls, on-the-job daydreaming and fanticizing, long, frequent coffee and snack breaks, etc.53

Second, our culture sends us “mixed signals” as to how serious a problem stealing is. On the one hand, stealing is taken very seriously, when compared with some other evils. An adulterer is not even punished by the Law enforcement agencies any longer, even though there may be laws against it. A person may be given a lengthy sentence for misappropriating money (e.g. banking violations) while another may serve less time for murder. On the other hand, stealing is often romanticized in the media. Television programs portray police officers as either inept or bound by the Law from apprehending the villains, and so the private eyes always get their man, often by the use of a “pick” to break into locked quarters, where they steal incriminating evidence.

Third, stealing is a much more complex problem in our society than it was in the days of ancient Israel. In the ancient world, very tangible objects were stolen: cattle, property, wives, and the like. One could hardly argue that he had not taken anything if it were found in his possession. On the other hand, we now live in an age of sophisticated technology. For example, we have ideas which are patented and materials which are printed, both of which can be stolen. Credit cards and electronic banking have made matters even more complicated. And then there are the electronic gadgets. Satellite dishes are available to “steal” electronic signals from the sender, electronic recordings may be duplicated, so that the owner does not get any remuneration for his labor. And now there is computer software, much of which can be copied in seconds, making it possible for thousands of dollars worth of programming to be obtained for the few pennies it costs for a diskette.

Fourth, stealing is often viewed as an evil for the wrong reasons. Usually we think of stealing as a violation of the right of private property. While this may be true, I believe that there are much more serious problems than this, which we shall explore in this sermon.

Finally, stealing is a serious sin because it is included in the Ten Commandments, which identifies the “ultimate evils” of Israel’s day, and of our own as well. I have come to view the evils prohibited by the Ten Commandments as the “ultimate evils” which God prohibits. There are other evils, but they are condemned under one of the “ultimate evils.” For example, if it is wrong to kill our neighbor, it is also wrong to do bodily harm to him, or to destroy his reputation (as taken up in the Sermon on the Mount). If it is wrong to commit adultery, it is also wrong to practice other sexual sins. In our society, since first degree murder is wrong, then so is second degree murder or manslaughter. (Thus, one charged with first degree murder may be charged with any lesser offense. But one charged with a lesser offense cannot be charged with a greater, of the same kind.) The greater offense thus includes the lesser.

My approach in this lesson will differ somewhat from that of the study of previous commandments. Rather than to follow the development of the commandment (or the evil condemned) progressively through the Bible, I will seek to explore the nature of stealing, ending up with a concise definition. This will enable us to explore some of the ways in which we steal today. Finally, we will conclude by focusing on the biblical solution for stealing, as prescribed in the Scriptures.

Stealing—Its Categories

Broadly speaking, stealing falls into two categories: active stealing and passive stealing. Active stealing aggressively, willfully, maliciously takes what belongs to someone else, through a variety of means. In Leviticus chapter 6 we find several forms of active theft identified:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “When a person sins and acts unfaithfully against the LORD, and deceives his companion in regard to a deposit or a security entrusted to him, or through robbery, or if he has extorted from his companion, or has found what was lost and lied about it and sworn falsely, so that he sins in regard to any one of the things a man may do; then it shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him, or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full, and add to it one-fifth more. He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he presents his guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD; and he shall be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt” (Lev. 6:1-7).

(1) Embezzlement. Embezzlement is the misuse or misappropriation of something that has been entrusted to us (Lev. 6:2). Embezzlement is a violation of trust, for what has been placed in a person’s keeping has been appropriated for selfish purposes. Embezzlement is frequently an offense of a bank employee or of a comptroller of a corporation.

(2) Robbery. Robbery is the act of taking what belongs to another (Lev. 6:2). Robbery, I believe, is a broad definition, covering several kinds of stealing. Robbery generally takes things directly, often by the use of superior force (frequently involving a weapon). Stealing suggests stealth. A pick-pocket for example, uses stealth, as does a burglar. Fraud may also be included here. If so, fraud involves getting what belongs to another by deception. Here, the victim often gives what is stolen to the thief, thinking that doing so will be profitable. The only one who profits, however, is the thief.

(3) Extortion. Extortion gains possession of another person’s property by the illicit use of authority or of force (not a weapon, however).54 Sometimes, charging an excessive price is included here, if one feels compelled to buy the product. For example, if your child was seriously ill and there was only one medicine which would cure the child, you would be willing to pay almost anything to obtain it, even if the cost were excessive. In many parts of the world, Law enforcement officers use their position of authority to extort funds from those who are vulnerable. If a policeman could, by his false testimony alone, convict you of a crime that would imprison you, you would gladly pay his extortion fee to avoid the threatened punishment. Thus, John the Baptist told the tax gatherers and soldiers of his day:

“Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:13-14).

(4) Kidnapping. In the ancient Near East, kidnapping was considered a form of theft (Deut. 24:7), probably because the individual would be kept as a slave, rather than because he or she would be ransomed.

In addition to these “active” forms of stealing, there are a variety of “passive” forms of stealing. While the thefts previously described wrongly took something from the possession of another, passive theft is the failure to give to another what belongs to them or is due them. For a variety of reasons, we may have in our possession what rightfully belongs to another, and yet fail or refuse to give it to them. While a more passive act, it is nevertheless stealing. The following forms of passive stealing are forbidden in the Bible:

(1) A man’s negligence which results in a loss to his neighbor. Exodus chapter 22 (verses 1-15) describes several acts of negligence which deprive a neighbor of his property, and which thus require restitution. For example, if a man’s pasture land has been grazed bare, and he therefore lets his animal loose, so that it grazes on his neighbor’s pasture, consuming it, the negligent man is guilty of passive stealing (Exod. 22:5).

(2) A man’s failure to return something lost to its owner is stealing. In Leviticus 6:3, the old adage, “finders keepers, losers weepers,” is shown to be an excuse for theft. To find what belongs to another, and not to return it, is to steal it, by one’s negligence or refusal to return it.55 Clear instructions regarding the returning of lost items is given in the Book of Deuteronomy:

“You shall not see your countryman’s ox or his sheep straying away, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly bring them back to your countryman. And if your countryman is not near you, or if you do not know him, then you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall remain with you until your countryman looks for it; then you shall restore it to him. And thus you shall do with his donkey, and you shall do the same with his garment, and you shall do likewise with anything lost by your countryman, which he has lost and you have found. You are not allowed to neglect them. You shall not see your countryman’s donkey or his ox fallen down on the way, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly help him to raise them up (Deut. 22:1-4).

(3) Failure to give what belongs to another is stealing. A day laborer is to be paid at the end of the day (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14-15). For an employer to keep a laborer’s wages, which at the end of his work day rightfully belonged to the worker, was to rob him. So, too, to keep back the tithes, by which the Levites were supported, would have been robbery (cf. Deut. 18:1-8; 26:9-13). Withholding the charity which was to be shown to the poor, the alien, and the stranger, was also stealing. God instructed the Israelites to make certain provisions for the poor, such as leaving the corners of their fields unharvested (Deut. 24:19-22). Whenever an Israelite became greedy and did not leave something behind for the poor, he was stealing from them, for God had given the gleanings to them.

Stealing—Its Characteristics and Its Culpability

Theft, whether actively or passively perpetrated, has certain characteristics, so that stealing can be positively identified as an evil act. For each of these characteristics, there is a corresponding principle or precept of God which is thereby violated, identifying the act as sin. Several of the tell-tale ear marks of stealing are:

(1) Stealing involves an unauthorized change of possession. When one steals, he takes possession of something which does not belong to him. Obviously, ownership of the stolen property belongs to the one from whom the property was stolen. Ultimately, all things belong to God: “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me” (Lev. 25:23). “The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it” (Ps. 24:1). God not only owns all things, He also possesses all people. When a person steals, he disregards both divine and private ownership of that property.

God is so concerned that property not accumulate in the hands of a few that He gave Israel regulations which would assure a relatively equal distribution. In Deuteronomy chapter 15, for example, a number of measures are prescribed to prevent the concentration of Israel’s wealth into the hands of a few. Debts were be canceled and slaves were to be liberated every seven years. The land was to revert to its original owner at the end of 70 years. The thief resists God’s distribution of property and seeks to concentrate and control it.

(2) Stealing does harm to one’s neighbor by taking what rightfully belonged to him. Stealing is always detrimental to the victim. Indeed, stealing is often accompanied by other evils, which are harmful to one’s neighbor (cf. Prov. 1:10-19). The man who was robbed in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) was also beaten. Stealing therefore is a violation of one’s obligation to love his neighbor, and to do good to him (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19).

(3) Stealing takes unfair advantage of one’s neighbor. Stealing is always accomplished by gaining some advantage over the neighbor who is the victim. The advantage may be that of strength (including the use of a weapon), subtlety (deception or stealth), or power. For example, a person who has wealth may take advantage of a neighbor who is in dire economic straits, loaning him money at a high rate of interest (cf. Exod. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:35-38; Neh. 5:1-14; Hab. 2:6-11). This is to take advantage of a neighbor’s adversity and vulnerability, often preying upon the most vulnerable members of society:

For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire, And the greedy man curses and spurns the Lord. The wicked, in the haughtiness of his countenance, does not seek Him. All his thoughts are, “There is no God.” His ways prosper at all times; Thy judgments are on high, out of his sight; As for all his adversaries, he snorts at them. He says to himself, “I shall not be moved; Throughout all generations I shall not be in adversity.” His mouth is full of curses and deceit and oppression; Under his tongue is mischief and wickedness. He sits in the lurking places of the villages; In the hiding places he kills the innocent; His eyes stealthily watch for the unfortunate. He lurks in a hiding place as a lion in his lair; He lurks to catch the afflicted; He catches the afflicted when he draws him into his net. He crouches, he bows down, And the unfortunate fall by his mighty ones. He says to himself, “God has forgotten; He has hidden His face; He will never see it” (Ps. 10:3-11).

Your rulers are rebels, And companions of thieves; Every one loves a bribe, And chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, Nor does the widow’s plea come before them (Isa. 1:23).

The Israelite was not to capitalize on such tragedies and hard times, but was to help without expectation of profit, or even of getting back what was given. The biblical principle, both in the Old and the New Testaments is that the strong are to support the weak (Deut. 15; Rom. 15:1). One steals when he is strong and he gains from the adversity of the weak. Thus, the scribes and Pharisees wrongly used their power to oppress the widows, and to “devour their houses” (cf. Matt. 23:14), rather than to help them in their distress (James 1:27).

(4) Stealing sins against God by wrongly possessing the property of another. Stealing is a sin against God (Lev. 6:1-2, 6-7), profaning His name:

Two things I asked of Thee, Do not refuse me before I die: Keep deception and lies far from me, Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion; Lest I be full and deny Thee and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or lest I be in want and steal, And profane the name of my God (Prov. 30:7-9).

(5) One who steals sins against himself, thereby bringing calamity upon himself. The folly of stealing is that while the victim of the theft is harmed, the thief is not benefited. Both the thief and his victim will suffer due to the theft. The thief will suffer because he will not gain from stolen goods and God will bring divine judgment upon him. In fact, the thief destroys himself by his crime.

Do not trust in oppression. And do not vainly hope in robbery; If riches increase, do not set your heart upon them (Psalm 62:10).

My son, if sinners entice you, Do not consent. If they say, “Come with us, Let us lie in wait for blood, Let us ambush the innocent without cause; Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, Even whole, as those who go down to the pit; We shall fill our houses with spoil; Throw in your lot with us, We shall all have one purse,” My son, do not walk in the way with them. Keep your feet from their path, For their feet run to evil, And they hasten to shed blood. Indeed, it is useless to spread the net In the eyes of any bird; But they lie in wait for their own blood; They ambush their own lives. So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence; It takes away the life of its possessors (Prov. 1:10-19).

Ill-gotten gains do not profit, But righteousness delivers from death (Prov. 10:2).

Then I lifted up my eyes again and looked, and behold, there was a flying scroll. And he said to me, “What do you see?” And I answered, “I see a flying scroll; its length is twenty cubits and its width ten cubits.” Then he said to me, “This is the curse that is going forth over the face of the whole land; surely everyone who steals will be purged away according to the writing on one side, and everyone who swears will be purged away according to the writing on the other side. I will make it go forth,” declares the LORD of hosts, “and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of the one who swears falsely by My name; and it will spend the night within that house and consume it with timber and stones” (Zech. 5:1-4).

(6) Robbery corrupts the nation and the land:

Listen to the word of the LORD, O sons of Israel, For the LORD has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness Or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, And every one who lives in it languishes Along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky; And also the fish of the sea disappear (Hosea 4:1-3).

When I would heal Israel, The iniquity of Ephraim is uncovered, And the evil deeds of Samaria, For they deal falsely; The thief enters in, Bandits raid outside, And they do not consider in their hearts That I remember all their wickedness. Now their deeds are all around them; They are before My face. With their wickedness they make the king glad, And the princes with their lies (Hosea 7:1-3).

(7) Stealing is destructive to the community, to the unity of the people of God. A friend observed that few things adversely affect the sense of unity within a community more than a theft. When the thief is not known, everyone tends to look at one another as a possible thief. Thus, the sense of trust which binds a group together is destroyed. Stealing is therefore referred to as a “breach of trust” (Exod. 22:9).

(8) Stealing seeks to set aside the consequences of man’s sin. Because of man’s sin, God decreed that man would live “by the sweat of his brow” (Gen. 3:19). Stealing is man’s effort to make a living by the sweat of another man’s brow. Often, stealing is obtaining those things which one is not willing to work for. Stealing therefore is an attempt to set aside the curse. It is a sin which endeavors to avoid the consequence of sin.

(9) Stealing seeks to set aside the covenant of God with Israel. The commandments, of which the prohibition of stealing is one, are a part of the covenant God made with Israel. The purpose of the covenant was to set Israel apart from the surrounding nations, to be a holy people, so that they might be a priestly nation, representing God to men. Stealing was one of the evils of that day, as it is today. To refrain from stealing would set Israel apart. To practice stealing would be to fail to live up to the high calling of God. Stealing would thwart the intent of the covenant.

Furthermore, the terms of the covenant were that God would prosper Israel as she kept His commandments and pursued His purposes. On the other hand, God’s judgment was promised if the covenant was violated (cf. Deut. 28). For an Israelite to seek to prosper on account of sin was to disregard, indeed, to disdain, the terms of the covenant which God had made with Israel. The thief sought to prosper by sin, rather than by obedience.

But to the wicked God says, “What right have you to tell of My statutes, And to take My covenant in your mouth? For you hate discipline, And you cast My words behind you. When you see a thief, you are pleased with him, And you associate with adulterers” (Psalm 50:16-18).

For I, the LORD, love justice, I hate robbery in the burnt offering; And I will faithfully give them their recompense, And I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isa. 61:8).

“You also say, ‘My, how tiresome it is!’ And you disdainfully sniff at it,” says the LORD of hosts, “and you bring what was taken by robbery, and what is lame or sick; so you bring the offering! Should I receive that from your hand?” says the LORD (Malachi 1:13).

(10) Stealing disregards God’s laws, because of the distrust of God and His promises. In the final analysis, stealing evidences a man’s lack of faith in God, and in His promises to provide for His people, who keep His commandments. Men trust in stealing because they refuse to trust in God. In the final analysis, the thief trusts himself more than God:

Do not trust in oppression, And do not vainly hope in robbery; If riches increase, do not set your heart upon them (Ps. 62:10).

Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel, “Since you have rejected this word, And have put your trust in oppression and guile, and have relied on them, Therefore this iniquity will be to you Like a breach about to fall, A bulge in a high wall, Whose collapse comes suddenly in an instant” (Isa. 30:12-13).

(11) Stealing was sometimes an effort to avoid genuine sacrifice. God gave, as a part of the covenant, a sacrificial system, by which men were able to approach God and worship Him. As an expression of worship and gratitude, the Israelites were to offer a part of their crops and cattle as a sacrifice. In time, they refused to do this:

“From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes, and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD of hosts. “But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed Thee?’ In tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing until there is no more need. Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it may not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes,” says the LORD of hosts. “And all the nations will call you blessed, for you shall be a delightful land,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:7-12).

In some cases, the Israelites would sacrifice to God, but rather than give of their own goods, they stole from their neighbors and sacrificed stolen goods:

For I, the LORD, love justice, I hate robbery in the burnt offering; And I will faithfully give them their recompense, And I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isa. 61:8).

“You also say, ‘My, how tiresome it is!’ And you disdainfully sniff at it,” says the LORD of hosts, “and you bring what was taken by robbery, and what is lame or sick; so you bring the offering! Should I receive that from your hand?” says the LORD (Malachi 1:13).

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, How much more when he brings it with evil intent! (Prov. 21:27).

In effect, the offering of stolen sacrifices enabled men to give to God without really sacrificing at all. It was the victim who made the sacrifice, not the thief. How blatant was the sin of the thief, which actually had the audacity to give to God what he had stolen.

(12) Stealing is an act that is completely contrary to the character of God. Perhaps the reason why God hates stealing so much is that it is a crime which completely contradicts His character. God is gracious; the thief is greedy. God gives; the thief takes. God responds to the cries of the needy; the thief callously creates needs and tragedy. Nothing could be more contrary to the graciousness of God than the cruelty of the thief.

Stealing, then, is a sin against God, against one’s neighbor, against one’s nation, and ultimately against one’s self.

Stealing—Its Contemporary Forms

Before we attempt to expose some of the popular forms stealing takes in contemporary society, let us seek to arrive at a simple, working definition of stealing. Originally, I thought that a good definition would be: Stealing is getting ahead at another person’s expense. I think this definition has some merit. But upon more reflection, I have decided on this definition: STEALING IS TAKING FROM OTHERS WITHOUT GIVING IN RETURN.

Stealing is, in its essence, an unfair exchange. When we steal, we take something from another person, but we do not adequately compensate them for what we have gained. In this sense, we gain, but our neighbor loses. Let’s consider some of the ways in which men seek to take from others, without giving adequately in return. Here, I believe, is where the “rubber meets the road,” where stealing can be seen for what it is—sin. (I am going to assume here that the most blatant forms of stealing—armed robbery, extortion, and embezzlement, those for which one can be sent to prison, need not be described in detail here.)

(1) We must beware not to steal on the job. Petty theft is one of the most costly losses of American business. Tools mysteriously disappear, along with supplies ranging from paper and pencils to much more costly items. Services can also be stolen. We may ask others (our secretaries, for example) to do personal work for us. We can also use the copy machine for personal copying, without permission. Then there is the stealing of time, which was mentioned in the introduction to this message. Padded expense accounts are another tempting way to steal from our employer.

It has been my observation that we often attempt to justify theft at work by the use of some rather questionable reasoning. One of the popular excuses is, “I’ve put in a lot of extra time.” If such is the case, turn it in as overtime, or at least be sure that your boss is willing to exchange a given amount of services for your extra time. Another justification is that “I’m worth a whole lot more than they pay me.” If that is so, ask for a raise, and then pay for the things you take from the office (if this is permitted).

(2) Stealing from others by depriving them of the fruit of their labor. The stealing of software (“bootlegged” copies) deprives the author and the dealer of the fruit of their labor, and is nothing less than stealing. The same is true of duped copies of audio and video recordings. Taking credit for the ideas or the labor of another is also stealing. It deprives the individual of the reward they should obtain for their labor. Also included in this area would be failing to pay those we owe promptly.56 From a biblical perspective, withholding our giving to those who minister to us is also a failure to let the Lord’s servants benefit from their labor (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-14).

(3) Stealing may also involve the abuse of legal rights. The Law provides certain legal remedies for particular evils, but these remedies may be abused so as to rob another. The Law thus becomes the advantage one has over another. For example, bankruptcy can be a means for structuring the payback of debts, and as such is honorable, but as a legal pretext for non-payment of debts it is robbery. Insurance claims can also be abused, so that claims are paid based on false information. Lawsuits provide another means of forcibly taking (excess) money from another. Let us be on guard concerning the use of these legal remedies for evil, so that the remedy itself does not become an evil.

(4) Stealing by negligence or neglect. Our negligence can be costly to others. For example, littering and polluting is an act of negligence which makes life easy for us, while others pay the price. We avoid the inconvenience of disposing of our trash or pollutants, but someone else has to pay for cleaning up our mess. And lest you think this is something that doesn’t relate to you, how many of you turn your pet loose in the neighborhood to “pollute” someone else’s yard, so that you don’t have to clean up the mess in your own yard?

(5) Stealing in the name of getting a “good deal.” This kind of stealing is far more subtle. Indeed, one can actually be praised for this kind of deal. It is getting a “great deal” at the expense of the other party. For example, suppose that you went to a garage sale and found a widow selling some of her husband’s tools, at far below their real value. We could buy them all up and walk away feeling that we really got a great deal. But is this really honest? Is this not stealing, gaining at the expense of this woman, having the advantage over her, due to her ignorance of the value of what she possessed? I have had people tell me in the past that I “stole” something at a sale. At the time I was flattered. Now, I might be embarrassed. Good deals should not be occasions when we got the better deal because of another person’s vulnerability.

Incidentally, modern advertising has taken note of our greed here. Have you noticed how many advertisements include statements like, “getting divorce, must sell,” or, “going out of business,” or “lost our lease,” or “fire sale.” All of these statements (often untrue) cause us to think that the seller is in desperate straits, and thus vulnerable. Rather than having feelings of sympathy and compassion, we leap at the chance to get the upper hand.

(6) Corporate or collective stealing. There are ways in which we can participate in a theft that is perpetrated by a group. For example, some large business can steal, either by fixing prices, or manipulating the market, or by using their power to pay inadequate wages. They can also provide unsafe working environments, which can certainly produce profits at the expense of their employees. The child labor abuses of the last century are an example of corporate theft. The existence of labor unions can be attributed, to a large degree, to industry’s gains made at labor’s expense.

Labor unions quickly learned from the carnality and greed of big business. They, too, have stolen by the misuse of their power. By threatening a strike (or worse), which could economically destroy a company, unions have been able to demand wages and benefits for workers which they have not earned. In other words, labor has gained at the cost of big business.

Governments, too, can steal. It is possible for the majority of a country’s citizens to impose unfair taxes on the rich, so that by a “legal” governmental function (taxation) the poor rob the rich. In other countries, the rich use their influence and power to oppress and rob the poor, by manipulating and misusing governmental power. Communism appeals to the greed of the masses, encouraging revolution and the formation of a new government which will disenfranchise (take the property away from) the rich, and give it to the poor. Functionally, this is stealing.

Governments can also employ tariffs to steal from people. Tariffs can be levied on foreign goods, so that higher prices must be paid to purchase American goods. This could mean that Americans are “forced” to pay higher prices for inferior goods, or that foreign peoples are deprived of the ability to sell their goods and to make a living. On the other hand, some foreign manufacturers have no qualms about copying (stealing) U. S. designs, manufacturing the products with “slave” or “cheap” labor, and then selling their product below the U. S. market price, thus stealing from American business.

(7) Religious robbery. Religious robbery is one of the most serious forms of stealing, in my opinion. The reason is that we are either robbing God, robbing in the name of God, or robbing in a way that suggests God is our partner in crime. Let us consider “robbing God” first.

We rob God whenever we withhold from Him what is due Him, or what belongs to Him. We rob God when we withhold our offerings from Him. Now I would be the first to point out that the Old Testament tithe is not binding on the New Testament saint. I would also point out that everything we have ultimately belongs to God, and that we are only stewards of what He has given us. I would suggest that whenever we treat ourselves better than we do God’s servants and God’s work, we have withheld from Him. Thus, Haggai, the Old Testament prophet, accused the Israelites of robbing God when they lived in paneled houses, while the house of God was in shambles and incomplete (Hag. 1:2-4). To put the matter a bit more personally, when we find our own houses in better condition and better maintained and furnished than the church building (I am not saying that the church building is God’s house) we are in danger of robbing God.

There is another way that we rob God. Some Christians pride themselves for having left money to the church or to Christian causes in their will. I commend those who have the forethought to assure the good stewardship of their resources after their death. But we can deceive ourselves in this matter if we are not careful. Let us not salve our consciences for poor stewardship now by leaving our worldly goods to God in our wills. For some this is only saying, “I’ll enjoy all that my money can do for me now, ignoring the pressing needs of others and the great opportunities before me, comforted by the fact that when I am dead and gone (and won’t be able to use the money anyway), God will have my money.” We should be good stewards of God’s resources now and in the future.

The most frequent and flagrant way in which men rob God is when we fail to give Him the praise which He deserves. Unsaved men and women are condemned for failing to give God praise:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in the speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened (Rom. 1:18-21).

Perhaps we should expect this of unbelievers, but the tragedy is that Christians also fail to give God the praise and adoration He deserves. Frequently this evil is compounded by our taking the credit and praise for what God has done in us, most often in spite of us (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26-31; 4:6-7; Eph. 2:8-10).

Then, there is what I call “sanctified stealing.” Sanctified stealing is that which is done in the name of God, in the name of religion, or by the misuse of religious position or power. The scribes and Pharisees were sanctified stealers. Jesus accused them of “devouring widows houses,” while at the same time they prayed long pretentious prayers (Matt. 23:14). Outwardly, they were pious, but in reality they were thieves: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence (Matt. 23:25). In addition, they used their religious position and power to make money in the Temple, buying and selling sacrificial animals and exchanging money. For this these religious merchandisers were forcibly cast out of the Temple with the rebuke, “It is written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers’ den” (Matt. 21:13).

As harsh as it may seem, I believe that some ministries rob God and His people by mismanagement and specifically by excessively high operating and administrative costs. This is particularly inappropriate for those ministries which are supposed to be caring for the poor.

Some ministries and so-called “Christian businesses” rob their employees by paying them sub-standard wages. They assure the employee that they are “serving the Lord” and that some of the profits of the company are being given to Christian causes, but that does not put food on the tables of the employee. I would suggest that Christian companies pay a fair wage and let the employee determine which Christian ministries he or she would like to support. Then, of course, some of these employees do poor quality work, or steal time, comforting themselves with the fact that they are underpaid anyway.

The worst robbery of all, in my opinion, is that which is done by the false prophets and teachers of every age. They generally live very well, generously provided for by the gullible, who love their “smooth words” and who fall prey to their sophisticated fund-raising schemes. And in return the deceived not only fail to learn the truth, but very often believe the lies which they are taught, and which will lead them to destruction.

Stealing—Its Corrective and Its Cure

For those who had stolen from another, the Old Testament prescribed restitution. The most detailed prescription of the restitution required is found in the Book of Exodus:

“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. If the thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double. If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed bare and lets his animal loose so that it grazes in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard. If a fire breaks out and spreads to thorn bushes, so that stacked grain or the standing grain or the field itself is consumed, he who started the fire shall surely make restitution. If a man gives his neighbor money or goods to keep for him, and it is stolen from the man’s house, if the thief is caught, he shall pay double. If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges, to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any lost thing about which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he whom the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor” (Exod. 22:1-9).

It is interesting to note that restitution varies in this text, according to several factors. First, restitution varies, depending on whether of not the stolen animal is recovered. Second, restitution varies according to the value of the animal, especially with regard to the productivity of the beast. I believe that the oxen was more valuable than the sheep because it was the “John Deer,” the farm tractor of that day. If a man’s ox was stolen, the fields could not be plowed, the wagon pulled, or the grain threshed. Thus, a stolen (and not recovered) ox was to be paid for fivefold, while a sheep only fourfold. In Leviticus chapter 6, we find that the sacrificial system provided a means for the thief to repent, to make restitution, and to obtain forgiveness. In the New Testament, Zaccheus demonstrated his repentance by restoring what he had wrongly taken fourfold (cf. Luke 19:8-10).

Restitution reveals both the wisdom of God and the failure of the present approach to criminal justice in America. Restitution kept the offender out of prison, and kept him in society. It also enabled him to make his offense right by repaying the victim of the crime in a way that replaced the harm by the a positive benefit. Thus, both the offender and the offended could live together, both with a sense of justice and human dignity. Today, the victim receives little or no compensation, the offender makes no restitution, and is forced to live apart from society, at a price society is penalized to pay. For these reasons I believe the efforts of Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship to reform the present criminal justice system have a great deal of merit and are worthy of our support.

Restitution is a corrective, but not a cure for the crime of stealing. The Bible clearly prescribes the cure, especially in the New Testament. Crime would have the thief get ahead at the expense of one’s neighbor. Justice would have one person gain while, at the same time, the other party gained equally. Jesus Christ teaches that we should be willing to sacrifice our own interests if that benefit our neighbor:

“Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42).

“Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30).

“And if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same thing. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:32-35).

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:3-5).

Christ calls for nothing less than what He Himself exemplified, nothing less than a complete reversal of the attitudes and actions of the thief.

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 (Eph. 4:28).

The thief does not wish to work, but rather to live off of others who work. The thief looks upon the needy as the vulnerable, whose weaknesses he may very well use to his advantage, and thus to prey upon them. The Christian must put away laziness and go to work. The Christian views the needs of others as the opportunity to manifest the love and grace of God to men, and thus reaches out to help, giving of his own resources. Nothing more dramatically demonstrates the radical change which conversion, faith in Christ, produces in the life of a sinner than that change which should occur in the Christian who was formerly a thief.

Let me very briefly summarize the thrust of this message:

  • Stealing takes from others with no thought of giving in return.
  • Justice demands that when one takes he must give something equal in return.
  • Christianity teaches us to give freely, with no expectation of getting something in return.

May God enable all of us to give without expecting to receive anything in return, rather than to take without expecting to give anything in return.

53 Cited in Mission Outreach, January, 1986, p.12.

54 This would seem to cover usury (loans made at excessive rates of interest), cf. Exod. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:35-38; Neh. 5:1-14; Hab. 2:6-11.

55 This seemingly passive act of negligence could very quickly become more willful in the ancient Near East, for one might have to swear to the fact that he did not find the lost item (cf. Lev. 6:3).

56 I have not thought the matter through carefully, but it would seem that Romans 13:8 may apply here: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.” Some have said that this prohibits any borrowing. I doubt this. It seems to me that the text teaches us that we must not have any unpaid obligations. So long as we are repaying a loan according to our original agreement, we have not left an obligation unmet. The only obligation we should view as unmet is the obligation to love one another—a debt which will never be paid in full.

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin)

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