During the refuse workers' strike in New York City a few years ago, one desperate householder found a clever way to get rid of his garbage. He gift wrapped it and left it on the seat of his unlocked car. By evening it was gone.
It should be easy to cry out against stealing. After all, even robbers object to being robbed. "Thou shalt not steal" appears to be so self-evident that God seems to be wasting his breath by giving the Eighth Commandment. Even if he hadn't said it, we would certainly say, "Thou shalt not steal (from me)." Everybody, religious and non-religious alike, agrees that stealing is wrong.
The Apostle Paul said something that caught my eye: "You tell others not to steal — do you steal?" (Romans 2:21 Living Bible). His question forces us to look at stealing from a different perspective. The Bible does not allow us to be the complainant but, rather, forces us to be the defendant before the bar of justice. God's Word forces us to reexamine our basic convictions about people and property.
There is a new personal ethic that says "I deserve whatever I can get." Rev. John Papworth, a Church of England priest, told his congregation that since large supermarkets destroy community life, it is okay to steal from them. "I don't regard it as stealing," he said. "I regard it as badly needed reallocation of economic resources." He was denounced by the Church of England, but what he said is what many thieves believe.
Modern society has turned away from absolute standards of conduct. Instead of a guilt ethic (restraint by conscience) we have a shame ethic (restraint by fear of apprehension). "Thou shalt not get caught" is widely regarded as the Eleventh Commandment.
The successful criminal receives admiration and approval. Our society rewards bigness and success. If one kills a person, one is a murder, if one kills twenty-five persons, one is a psychopath; if one kills a million persons, one is a national hero. If a someone steals a thousand dollars society sends him or her to prison; but if one steals a million dollars, society sends that person to congress! Many philanthropists give away when they ought to be giving back.
People have found respectable ways to break the Eighth Commandment. A full-page advertisement in a popular magazine offers to sell a book entitled "How to Legally Steal Yourself Rich." There are so many legal ways to "steal" that it is a wonder that anyone resorts to crime. The Bible condemns the dishonest rich more than the desperate poor for stealing. "People don't despise a thief if he steals food when he is hungry… " (Proverbs 6:30). But the prophet Micah thundered,
Jesus sternly warned the scribes who "take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes, and then make a show of saying long prayers. Their punishment," he declares, "will be all the worse!" (Mark 12:40). At the close of his life he drove out "respectable" moneychangers from the temple, saying they had made it a "den of thieves" (Matthew 21:13,KJV), but, on the other hand, he welcomed the repentant thief into paradise. They were all thieves, but what a difference in the way the Savior regarded them! What kind of thief are you?
Excessive profits and professional fees become theft when they take more than is fair of another person's goods. There comes a point when profits are not just obscene; they constitute outright stealing.
Unlimited profits have been justified by the so-called "trickle-down" theory. This theory holds that the poor are better off if, instead of giving money directly to them, money is given to the rich who will then let it trickle down to the poor. The actual result of this theory can be seen in many impoverished third world countries that are ruled by a small handful of multi-millionaire politicians, landowners, and industrialists while the rest of the people suffer grinding poverty. Mobutu, for example, became one of the world's richest men while the nation of Zaire (now Congo) remained desperately poor. And it was all done legally. It happens in Africa, Asia, Latin America and even in the United States: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. As long as it is done legally, no one feels responsible.
Withholding a laborer's just wage is stealing. The Bible says, "You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or immigrants who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt" (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). "Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts" (James 5:4). If you think it is hard to face the wrath of the Teamsters, try facing the wrath of God. It makes him angry when laborers fail to receive a fair wage.
Thou shalt not steal means employers must give a fair day's wage for a fair day's work and employees must give a fair day's work for a fair day's wage. It cuts both ways. Giving thirty hours of pay for forty hours of work is stealing. And taking forty hours of pay for thirty hours of work is also stealing.
Another kind of conventional thievery is found in the common failure of people to pay debts. Christians, of course, must have compassion on poor people who can't pay their bills (Matthew 18:21-35). Yet anyone who carelessly spends more than he or she earns for anything other than bare necessities is a thief.
Bribery is another form of conventional theft. When a lobbyist offered to give a new sports car to a politician in exchange for his vote, the political indignantly declined, saying it was illegal and immoral to sell his vote. "Well, then," the lobbyist said, "suppose I sell you the car for ten dollars?"
"In that case," the political replied, "I'll take two of them!"
Conventional standards suggest that politicians are honest if when they are "bought," they stay "bought." Woe be unto the one who fails to vote the way his or her donors demand. What is frightening now is that bribes are coming not just from American business, labor and special interests, but foreign governments are learning to play the game of influencing American policy by making large "contributions" to certain parties and politicians.
Bribery reaches not only to high political but also to the lowly church office. Mail comes across my desk saying, "Pick any gift. It's free with your order." I am offered transistor radios, warming trays, and lamps if I buy the church's paper goods and plastic binders from certain suppliers. But to spend the church's money in ways that benefit me personally is stealing.
Nations as well as individuals can break the Eighth Commandment. International exploitation is another form of conventional theft. Columbus, for example, didn't discover America. Columbus found America. And when he found it, it already had an owner. Columbus had no more right to claim it for Spain than I have to "discover" your car and claim it for myself. The most cunning thieves are those who can get someone else to do their stealing for them.
Jesus was not crucified because he said, "Behold the lilies, how they grow," but because he talked about beholding the thieves how they steal. He exposed the deceit of those who have a conscience of convention instead of a conscience of conviction. "You tell others not steal — do you steal?" That's the disturbing question that convicts us all of our conventional thievery.
We are God's guests on earth. To presume on his hospitality by regarding his creation as ours unconditionally is theft. The apostle Paul not only demands that the thief quit stealing but commands the thief to go to work so that he or she may start giving. Every non-giver robs somebody of something. The prophet Malachi pictures people who probably wouldn't have pilfered a penny from a piggy bank as cosmic bandits robbing the bank of heaven! "Ye have robbed me, " says the Lord, "… In tithes and offerings… ye have robbed me, even this whole nation" (Malachi 3:8-9 KJV).
Salvation from theft begins with repentance and restitution. Zacchaeus provides the model. He said, "`I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay him back four times as much.' Jesus said to him, `Salvation has come to this house today… '" (Luke 19:8-9).
The good news is that God loves thieves so much that Jesus died for them. Through his atonement they can be forgiven. Jesus died between two thieves to save all thieves.