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“You shall not steal.”
“You shall not steal.”
Some of the most important aspects of life, including the purchase of property, inheritances, and so forth, involve financial matters. Thus, we are not surprised to find that God’s law deals with such things as poverty, riches, and ownership in many places (e.g., Lev. 25). As is the case with other matters central to human life, the Ten Commandments provide the foundational law upon which other laws related to financial and stewardship issues are based. We are talking about the eighth commandment: “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15).
A commandment against theft is easy enough to understand, but we should take care not to miss what this law assumes. In outlawing stealing, the eighth commandment assumes a right to ownership and private property. One cannot steal something if it does not rightly belong to someone else, so the eighth commandment implicitly commends the right acquisition and stewarding of material goods. Since God Himself is an owner of the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10) and we are made in His image (Gen. 1:26–27), it makes good sense that there would be a way to mirror His ownership of all things through our ownership. In other words, God delegates to us the responsibility of owning and caring for property and other goods. He assigns human beings to be stewards of what ultimately belongs to Him.
As noted, a commandment against theft is easy enough to understand, and human beings possess the innate sense that outright stealing, such as burglary, is wrong. Yet we must remember that theft can occur in less blatant ways as well. John Calvin aptly comments on today’s passage that “not only are those thieves who secretly steal the property of others, but those also who seek for gain from the loss of others, accumulate wealth by unlawful practices, and are more devoted to their private advantage than to equity.” Calvin is not commending equity in the sense that it often appears in our day, so he is not saying that the law prescribes an equal financial outcome for all people. Economic systems such as socialism and communism are contrary to God’s Word. What the Reformer is getting at is that the commandment against theft includes within it an approval of generosity that goes against our natural drive toward selfishness. Essentially, the law forbids us from advancing ourselves economically by taking advantage of the weaknesses of others.
Coram Deo Living before the face of God
There are many cries for “economic justice” in our day. Many of these cries, however, ignore the fundamental goodness of ownership and the Bible’s recognition that a society can be just even if not everyone enjoys the same standard of living. If we want an economically just society, we must encourage private ownership and the proper stewardship of our resources.
For Further Study
- Genesis 23
- 1 Kings 21
- Proverbs 10:4
- Ephesians 4:28