Exodus 20:15

what-are-ten-commandments_472_314_80Exodus 20

15 You shall not steal.

In Timothy Hall’s Touchstone article, “A Law for All Seasons,” he passes on a very interesting anecdote from one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories.

In G. K. Chesterton’s first Father Brown story, “The Blue Cross,” criminal mastermind Flambeau has lured Father Brown to a desolate height on Hampstead Heath as the last act in his plot to steal a jeweled cross. Flambeau is disguised as a priest, and before he discloses his true identity, he and Father Brown discuss moral reason.

Flambeau insists that the universe is too wild a place to be governed by any single concept of reason or justice. “Who can look at those millions of worlds,” he asks as twilight encroaches on the last light of day, “and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?” Father Brown, however, sniffs bad theology in this attack on the reasonableness of reason, and he responds.

Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a noticeboard, “Thou shalt not steal.”[1]

What Father Brown is arguing is that God’s law is objective and universal, that if, “Thou shalt not steal,” is true on Earth, it is true everywhere in the universe. This is a profoundly biblical position. The eighth commandment is a universal truth and a fundamental truth. It resides within law codes the whole world over. As such, it is a fundamental component of all civilized and just societies, and, like all true commandments, it emanates from the holy character of God.

The act of theft treats another as lesser than oneself and treats oneself as greater than another and is therefore a crime against God and man.

The challenge for us is to interpret this commandment as God’s people and not as capitalists. If you’ll observe your own mental processes, you might find that your initial agreement with the commandment is more political or sociological than theological. But while the social tenet of the right of private property is not without merit, we should ask ourselves why exactly it is that theft is wrong. The wording of the commandment is simple.

15 You shall not steal.

First, we note again that the commandment is given by God. It is only as a divine commandment that it ultimately makes sense. A few years ago, Richard John Neuhaus recounted an interesting statement from a secular atheist organization that was seeking to make a statement about their being no God.

At the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, the confessing atheist organization, Freedom from Religion Foundation, for the second year in a row put up a sign next to the Christmas tree. “In this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our material world. Religion is but a myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” On the backside of the sign they put the admonition, “Thou shalt not steal.”

To this last statement, Neuhaus asked, “Sez who?”[2] It is a good question, and an important one, for if there is no God why should I not take what belongs to another? Of course, an atheist would answer, “In order to maintain civil order,” yet it is not abundantly clear why, in the absence of God, I should care about social order or how, given that standard, I should refrain from thefts that presumably do not threaten civil order.

The commandment forbids theft. Good capitalists that we are, we instinctively interpret this as the stealing of property. However, it is clear that in its original context the commandment also spoke to stealing other people. For instance, we read this in Deuteronomy 24:

7 If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

We may ask ourselves whether or not the modern world would need a commandment against stealing another person. Indeed it does. Slavery is a huge reality in the modern world. People are stolen all the time. Sex trafficking is a huge deal as well. That is a reality right here in the United States, and a growing number of Christians are beginning to fight against these diabolical trades. So the application of this commandment to the stealing of people certainly needs to be remembered in our day.

The commandment also applies to the stealing of property. But, again, this raises the question of why? Why is it a violation of a divine commandment to steal from another person?

There are many ways of putting it, but one way is to say that the act of theft treats another as lesser than oneself and treats oneself as greater than another and is therefore a crime against God and man. Behind the act of theft is the idea that the one from whom you are stealing is, at least in that moment, lesser than you, that you can and perhaps even should take from him. There is something profoundly dehumanizing about stealing from someone. It treats the property and happiness and goals and dreams and well-being of another as less than your own happiness and goals and dreams and well-being. And this cannot be done without making yourself more. So there is a kind of self-deification in the act of theft. You are assuming the right of ownership over the other’s right of ownership. Implicit in this assumption is the corollary assumption that you and your rights are greater than the other and the other’s rights.

Theologically speaking, this is a violation of the image of God in the other. As such, it is blasphemy against God Himself. It is no small thing to take from another, not only because of its weakening of the social order but more so because of its blasphemy and arrogance. For this reason, God’s judgment comes against the thief, as we see in Zechariah 5.

1 Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a flying scroll! 2 And he said to me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a flying scroll. Its length is twenty cubits, and its width ten cubits.” 3 Then he said to me, “This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land. For everyone who steals shall be cleaned out according to what is on one side, and everyone who swears falsely shall be cleaned out according to what is on the other side.

J.I Packer has summarized the commandment like this:

It is not God’s will for us to have anything that we cannot obtain by honorable means, and the only right attitude to others’ property is scrupulous concern that ownership be fully respected.[3]

Packer goes on to list various ways we steal in the modern world.

  • Theft of time
  • “When a tradesman fails to give value for money.” (“overpricing goods…cashing in on another’s needs…profiteering…all forms of overcharging”)
  • Not paying off your debts
  • Stealing a person’s reputation[4]

This is significant because it does not allow us to let ourselves off the hook. We are reminded that the theft of another’s property is not the only way we might steal from him, and neither is it necessarily the most damaging. For instance, stealing a person’s reputation is much more damaging than stealing a person’s car. A car can be replaced, a reputation might never be.

It all begs the question: are you possibly stealing from another? If so, how?

Theft is one of the attributes of Satan.

It would also help us to see the seriousness of stealing if we could recall that theft is one of the attributes of Satan. We see this in John 10.

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

The devil not only seeks to steal joy and peace and hope from us, he seeks to steal us from the God who made us! He is the thief who seeks to carry us away. Notice, too, that in the words of Jesus the thief does the very opposite of what Jesus does. The thief takes but Jesus gives. Ultimately, the thief comes to kill, to take our lives, but Jesus comes to give life.

This is why it can be a painful thing to be wrongfully accused of stealing. When I was in college I had a good friend, who remains a friend to this day, with whom I would eat breakfast and then go to the gym to row together. One day at breakfast he told me that there was something he needed to say to me, something that was heavy on his mind and heart. I told him to go ahead. He shared with me that the day before, when he and I had dropped by a pharmacy to pick something up, he had thought he saw me slip a pack of breath mints into my pocket and carry them out the store.

This flabbergasted me, for, I am glad to say, I had done no such thing. I told him that he had to have been mistaken and that I did not and would not do such a thing. He told me he believed me. But then I grew angry. It angered me to be falsely accused, though, in truth, he was not even accusing me. It angered me that he would think I would do such a thing. Then he grew angry that I had grown angry! It was all very awkward.

That was twenty years ago but I cannot think about the situation without still feeling irritated. I supposed he may think about it as well, but maybe not. Regardless, on occasion I ask myself why I was so angered by that. It was not because I am incapable of theft. For instance, I vividly recall stealing a sucker from the store as a child and then lying to my mother about it…who, of course, saw straight through my lie. Perhaps my friend’s question simply wounded my ego. Who knows? All I know is even now I want to proclaim my innocence (I was innocent!), even though none of you knew nothing about it!

That is an odd and somewhat funny and somewhat awkward memory, but it reminds me each time I ponder it of this fact: nobody wants to be thought a thief! The devil is a thief! Even so, as we have seen, there are many different ways we can steal, and, as with all the commandments, we are all guilty of violating the commandment in different kinds of ways if not outright.

The cure for theft is deep repentance, divine forgiveness, appropriate restitution, and a change in how possessions are obtained and handled.

What is a thief to do, then? Is he to continue stealing since he is already guilty, or is there hope? We may thank God that, yes, there is hope. The blood of Christ can wash away the stain of even theft. Forgiveness is there if we will but ask for and receive it.

In Ephesians 4, Paul suggests a further plan of recovery.

28 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.

That is most helpful. Consider the steps Paul lays out:

  • Stop stealing.
  • Work.
  • Use your hands for honest work.
  • Learn to give to those in need.

We Protestants are understandably weary of the whole system of penance because of how the very idea of penance has been abused throughout the history of the Church. Even so, these are good proactive plans for the penitent person to carry through.

Stop stealing. Learn to see the diabolical origins of theft. Learn to see the theological statement you are making when you take from another. Learn to see the full wickedness of the act.

Then work. Learn to work hard and earn what you have by honest labor. Do not look for the quick fix, the easy payday, the get-rich-quick scheme. Instead, work with honesty.

And then give. Whereas your hands once took from others who had, now your hands can give to others who do not have. It is a blessed thing to give! And here is what you will discover: the joy of giving is deeper and fuller and more satisfying than the thrill of stealing. Putting something of yours into the hands of others will satisfy you in a way that taking into your hands the goods of others never can.

And keep your eyes on the cross. The cross is God’s demonstration of His giving, loving heart. God is a giving God. We come to Him with wicked and empty hands, and we find there mercy and healing and the open storehouses of Heaven itself! God richly blesses His children with love and with His presence and with everlasting life. And that is not something you have to steal! It is yours…here…and now!


[1] https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=22-05-024-f

[2] https://www.firstthings.com/article/1998/03/critical-realignments

[3] Packer, J. I. (2008-01-07). Keeping the Ten Commandments (Kindle Locations 776-778). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[4] Packer, J.I., Kindle Location 790-795.

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