I find it significant every one of us have broken every one of the laws God gave Moses. (Remember, Jesus said hatred = murder). The Lord knew no one would be able to plead with a straight face, “I’m 100% not guilty”. Take commandment #8, for instance. “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). We’ve all done it to one degree or another. There’s no acceptable excuse. God says it’s sinful. Period. Plus, stealing affects everybody. U.S. retail companies reported losses of $32 billion in 2014 due to theft. 34% of that was committed by employees. 38% was attributed to shoplifting (a dubious trend on the increase). Together they make up the largest source of property crime in America. Alistair Begg commented, “This massive loss of proper respect for other people’s property presents yet another example of the way in which the moral fabric of our society is unraveling.” Like the character in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, we’ve become “Artful Dodgers” when it comes to rationalizing stealing what doesn’t belong to us. We claim “It’s insignificant – unless we get caught.” But God didn’t attach an “unless…” on the end of His commandments. Any line of reasoning we come up with to justify theft is based on the biggest lie of all: We think we’re allowed to pick and choose which of God’s laws we’re going to obey depending on the situation we’re in. But if I profess to be a Christian I must hold myself to a lofty, non-negotiable standard. In one of the most stunning passages in the Bible Paul writes that believers are to “…put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). If I’m to “be like God” then taking what ain’t mine has to be firmly established once and for all an act so extremely offensive my conscience won’t stand for it. A few verses later the Apostle addresses the issue head on: “The one who steals must steal no longer; rather he must labor, doing good with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with the one who has need” (Ephesians 4:28).
In the four words of the 8th commandment God established the individual’s right to private property with the understanding that all things come from Him. David declares in 1 Chronicles 29:11-12, “Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things.” Derek Prime quipped, “The foundation of the right of property is God’s will.” There are some who think Jesus intended that the church be a commune where no one owned anything per se but shared everything equally. However, that’s not scripturally correct. What the followers of Christ did in Jerusalem after Pentecost was done out of necessity, not because Jesus prescribed it as a requirement for believers. The shocking deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in their camp didn’t occur because they held stuff back for themselves but because they intentionally lied about it. God has never forbidden private ownership. Whatever a person comes to possess by honest means is fine with God because it came from Him, anyway. “All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change” (James 1:17).
The ability to make money and enjoy wholesome things it can buy is due to God’s generosity. Therefore, when a person steals from their neighbor they’re actually sinning against God. David, the same guy who wrote that wealth and honor originate with God, one day had to face the fact he’d not only harmed others but sinned against the God who’d so graciously kept him alive when Saul was hell-bent to impale his head on a stick. David stole Bathsheba’s purity and her reputation and then got her husband killed. He cried out to God in his anguish and shame, “Against you – you above all – I have sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). David’s story displays sin’s domino effect. He defied the first commandment when he put himself before God. Then, in coveting Uriah’s wife, he broke law #10. Next he ignored law #9 by plotting against Uriah. In robbing him of Bathsheba he obviously snubbed the 8th commandment, broke #7 by committing adultery and finally went all out to defy #6 by making sure Uriah didn’t return from the battlefield. That’s why Christians must do all they can to live up to all of God’s standards every day. One sin inevitably leads to another and before you know it you’ve got a mess on your hands only God has the power to clean up.
The other side of the coin is that an individual’s right to own private property doesn’t grant them license to be greedy. In the Garden of Eden God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the Earth, not the deed. This planet still belongs exclusively to its creator. The first couple was entrusted to oversee its care. In the Bible God clearly states, “…the world and all it contains belong to me” (Psalm 50:12), thus it’s not a topic for debate. God owns all there is so everything we “have” has been loaned to us. This includes any currency that comes into our possession. Skip Ryan wrote, “In capitalism, the money is yours to do with it what you want. In socialism, it belongs to the state, and the state uses it for what the community needs. In Christianity, it’s God’s, and it must be used as He directs.” Stealing will never be acceptable to God. It goes back to respecting the preamble to the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:2). God exists. He created men and women to glorify Him and find their joy in Him. God also has the indisputable right to insist we obey His set-in-stone laws. Now, if He doesn’t exist all bets are off. (Of course in that scenario we wouldn’t exist, either, but that’s a subject for another day.) In an imaginary, totally secular world stealing might be considered bad manners but not necessarily wrong. But the fact is we do live in God’s universe and His children are instructed and expected to uphold God’s laws simply because they came from our loving Father in heaven. Begg wrote, “We do not hold God’s laws to be true because they work, but we affirm that they work because they’re true.”
Some of us (me included) want to move right on to command #9 because we disavow being sticky-fingered kleptomaniacs who’ll make off with anything not chained down. We’ve never carjacked anybody and we don’t rob banks so we assume “You shall not steal” doesn’t apply to us because we’re so honest. But if that describes our mindset then we’re not seeing the big picture. There are a variety objects and ways we can steal without thinking we’re committing sin. Sadly, the person we steal from most often is God. When we don’t tithe to His church we’re guilty of failing to recognize all our resources are essentially gifts from Him. Yet we regularly balk at giving 10% of His money back to Him! (If a relative treated our generosity that way we’d brand him/her a crook.) When we boast of our great feats and accomplishments and don’t acknowledge God alone deserves all the glory, we steal from Him. When we refuse to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, opting instead to indulge in self-gratifying obsessions, we steal from Him. You see, underneath the thin topsoil of our denial lies our despicable greed and selfishness. We tell ourselves we’re not really thieving if no one notices. The CEO of a massive, successful corporation would probably never stoop to steal a bicycle from someone’s front yard yet might not think twice about fudging on their travel expense report or exaggerating their annual tax-deductible charity amount to the IRS. God disapproves of hoarding dishonest profit. “Listen to this, you who trample the needy, and do away with the destitute in the land. You say, ‘When will the new moon festival be over, so we can sell grain? When will the Sabbath end so we can open up the grain bins? We’re eager to sell less for a higher price, and to cheat the buyer with rigged scales! We’re eager to trade silver for the poor, a pair of sandals for the needy! We want to mix in some chaff with the grain!’ The LORD confirms this oath by the arrogance of Jacob; ‘I will never forget all you have done!’” (Amos 8:4-7).
Employers steal from their employees when they hedge on paying a decent wage or giving them merited raises. A business owner steals from his customers when he inflates the true value of his goods or takes advantage of people in desperate need of their services. A dedicated, humble servant of God must, in all their dealings, be consistently up front and fair. Begg wrote, “This is one way for a Christian to obey the command of Jesus to be salt and light in the middle of a crooked and perverse generation. Instead of scheming deceitfully and offering an inferior product for the price of one that’s better, the Christian businessman will tell the truth and trust his Heavenly Father with the outcome.” The born-again employee has an obligation to remain aboveboard, too. Surveys have repeatedly shown American workers shamelessly admit they spend more than 20% of their time on the clock “goofing off.” That means they’re accepting payment for five days’ worth of labor when they only worked four. They have no guilt about it because for some reason they feel entitled to steal time and money from the hand that feeds them. Because the boss drives a Mercedes Benz while they drive a Ford Escort they figure it’s okay to play games on their phone when they should be busy or to pilfer office supplies for home use. Few are immune to the temptation to loaf or pinch. And what about those who file bloated or outright fraudulent insurance claims? That’s stealing, too, folks. Consider an adult child who’s still living at home long after they should’ve gotten out on their own. They’re a thief in God’s eyes. The Bible states, “The one who robs his father and mother and says, ‘There is no transgression,’ is a companion to the one who destroys” (Proverbs 28:24). Plagiarism is yet another form of stealing. Students are now, more than ever before, downloading essays or term papers they found on the internet and passing them off as their own in order to secure a better grade. Any way you slice it, it’s still taking something that doesn’t belong to them and that’s considered robbery of intellectual property.
Perhaps the most devastating harm results when we steal another’s reputation by spreading malicious gossip about them or slandering their name. There’s an old story about a woman who went to her pastor and confessed she had a serious problem with talking trash about her friends and relatives behind their backs. The preacher assured her God had forgiven her but that she must repent. To make a point he had her go grab a rose from her garden down the road and pluck off its petals one by one as she walked back to the church. She did as he asked. He then told her to go gather all the petals she plucked. She quickly realized the breeze had scattered them and she couldn’t find a single one. The pastor explained that the same thing happens with gossip and slanderous words. They can’t be retrieved. The damage is done. Those words are now blowing in the wind. Confession and allowing the Holy Spirit to come in and change one’s wicked heart and sinful mind is the only remedy.
Still, there’s a positive side to this commandment and Jesus told us what it is. He preached, “In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). In other words, we believers are to do as much as we can to help out our neighbor and work diligently to see they’re able to hold onto what rightly belongs to them. It all stems from our Christian love for others. “…Whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person?” (1 John 3:17). We should be sharing, not stealing.
In Luke 19:1-10 we discover a magnificent illustration of what God expects from us. We’re not told why the diminutive Zacchaeus scrambled up a tree to watch Jesus and His entourage stroll by. He might’ve been hoping to find out why the disciple Matthew, formerly a taxman like himself, had abandoned his lucrative profession to follow some “holy man.” Or perhaps he was tired of being the most hated guy in town because of his unscrupulous collection methods and wondered if Jesus might treat him with kindness and understanding. You see, compassion wasn’t a priority in the Jewish religion yet it’s what Zacchaeus needed most. No doubt he’d heard Jesus had compared himself to the Good Shepherd who’d leave the 99 to search for the one that was lost. That He was the doctor who’d come to heal the sick, not the healthy. That He was more interested in rescuing the hopeless sinner than the self-righteous snob. So, literally climbing out on a limb, Zacchaeus catches the eye of our Savior. To his amazement Jesus calls him by name and informs him He’s coming to dinner. The people along the roadside probably thought it was a case of mistaken identity. Surely Jesus wouldn’t intentionally go to that scumbag’s place. But Zacchaeus, the government-sanctioned thief, was precisely the kind of human being Jesus had been born to save. While we don’t have a transcript of what was said over supper, we do know Zacchaeus’ life changed dramatically afterwards. The taker became a giver. The cheat turned into Mr. Generosity. Christ was the difference-maker.
Being a Jew, Zacchaeus knew God’s law. Thus the abject shame he harbored for breaking it was his greatest burden. Every Christian’s in the same boat. Each of us stands guilty before the mirror of the Law. We all need a “Zacchaeus moment.” This little man who was rejected by everyone found acceptance, forgiveness, sanctification and a new beginning in Jesus. The reason we’re told this story is so we’ll savvy when we surrender our pride and encounter the unconditional love and grace of God it leads to genuine repentance. Because of Jesus Zacchaeus gained the power to change. Stealing from others no longer intrigued him but, going forward, living a righteous life did. “…Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” (Luke 19:8-10). Begg wrote, “The same Law which had served to condemn him and which could not serve as a means of getting into God’s good books became for him a pathway to freedom.” As J. Alec Motyer observed, “The law of God is the lifestyle of the redeemed.”
In the Celebrate Recovery ministry making amends is a crucial part of the healing process. A redeemed sinner must own up to what they owe their neighbors and, whenever possible, take steps to repay them. (If you’ve ever discovered something’s been stolen from you, you know all too well the feeling of indignant outrage and anger that darkens your soul and challenges your faith in your fellow man. It’s a horrible experience.) Surprisingly, making amends doesn’t usually involve returning property. More often than not it’s a matter of telling someone we’re sincerely sorry for the hurt we caused with no expectation of receiving their forgiveness in return. Rose petals can’t be put back on a bloom. We must watch our tongue. A spirit-crushing word uttered from our lips can rob someone of their dignity and self-esteem. As Don Henley sings, “Sticks and stones may break your bones/but words can break your heart.” We can’t always replace what we took from our neighbor but we can let them know the blood of Christ has transformed us into a new creation who’d never do that to them (or anyone else) ever again. It’s the least we can do.