“You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19)
“I’ve never robbed a bank.” This is often said (along with “I’ve never killed anyone”) when someone is trying to prove to himself/herself and others that they are not a bad person. Of course, that seems to set the bar very low on what it means to be a good person (or at least not a bad one) – there are only 3,000-4,000 bank robberies a year (about 1% of total robberies). While Jesus shows in Matthew 5:21-22 that the command to not murder means more than just not physically killing a person, he does not discuss the command not to steal when he describes the heart of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. I do not believe this omission indicates that this commandment’s application is limited to theft and robbery, and I am not alone in this belief. The Heidelberg Catechism highlights two additional actions that constitute stealing along with “outright theft and robbery.” These are: 1) “scheming and swindling in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves” and 2) “squandering of his gifts” (Q & A 110). We’ll consider each of these before looking at what actions lead to keeping this commandment — activities that have sharing at its root.
Scheming and Swindling
What does it mean to “scheme” and “swindle” others? Examples given in the Catechism are actions that may be done “by force or means that appear legitimate,” which includes “inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God.” This might include explicit fraud (misrepresenting things to others) and could also include taking advantage of someone’s ignorance or weakness in order to take more from them than what is fair or right. Do we negotiate contracts and agreements in good faith? Do we try to get people to buy things that we know they do not need or that we know are overpriced or of poor quality? Are we only concerned about getting the best deal that we can possibly get, even if it comes at the expense of others and will not be in their long-term best interest?
I struggled with what this looked like in practical life when I worked at a movie theater and was told to try to “upsell” on pop and popcorn by suggesting the larger size and to keep the sale going by asking if the customer would like anything else such as candy or nachos. Did they really need these items? A small pop or popcorn was probably plenty for them! (I also wrestled with whether the ticket sales for the movies themselves were good values for people because there were some pretty bad movies out there; thankfully, we were the “discount” theater in town!)
This is a reminder that the root of an economic system is the fair exchange of goods and services. Of course, what exactly is fair can be debated and discussed, but the principle is something that should guide our activities in the marketplace as Christians. Essentially, do I try to get the most for myself at the expense of others, or do I want to be sure that I and others can have what is fitting and proper in the circumstances?
We should also examine our lives to see if there is “pointless squandering of [God’s] gifts.” Scheming causes others to be unable to enjoy the use and benefits of God’s gifts in this world, while squandering is a way we cause ourselves to be unable to truly enjoy God’s blessings — it is effectively stealing or taking things from yourself! Such squandering can occur in the present or in the future.
Present squandering involves currently not using particular things wisely. This would include making unwise choices with your money, essentially throwing it away by spending it on things that are of no or little value. We may defend such behavior and believe it won’t hurt anyone.. However, it could certainly hurt your family or others who may have benefited from wise use of the funds, but it also hurts you because it means you are not able to enjoy God’s gifts to their fullest in this time.
Future squandering would be if the choices you are making today cause you not to be able to enjoy things in the future. This could come through laziness; when you do not work hard in the present, you will miss out on opportunities and potential gains in the future. Another form of future squandering could come from failing to protect or care for items you presently have, which means you will not be able to enjoy them as long as you otherwise could have.
This wider understanding of “You shall not steal” should cause us to read these words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:29 a little differently: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” When we think of “thieves” as bank robbers and the like, we feel proud that we have not broken this commandment. However, because scheming and squandering also count as theft, we realize all of us have acted as thieves at some point. Paul’s instruction to all of us then would be to work hard (don’t squander) and to think of how we might share what we have with others. We need to remember that nothing on this earth truly belongs to us – it all belongs to God – we are simply stewards of the things He has given us. Being a good steward does not mean that we cannot enjoy things in our possession on this earth; God wants us to enjoy things when we see them as blessings and gifts from Him (see 1 Timothy 4:4-5). It also means that we should see how others might benefit and be blessed. We should share with others either through offering use of what we have or through giving to help others in need (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). The root of this commandment is to seek not just our own good but the good of others (Philippians 2:4), love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39-40), and treat others as we want to be treated (Matthew 7:12). Since all the commandments hang on those principles, as we do these things, we will not only keep this eighth commandment, but all of them.
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