Stealing is big business. Shoplifting in France is described as a national pastime. In our own country, over ten million pounds per day are lost through shoplifting. Marks and Spencer spends twenty million pounds per year on security, but still loses thirty million in stolen goods. One woman boasts that she can make thirteen hundred pounds a day by shoplifting.
The most notorious theft in the history of British crime took place on Thursday, August 8th 1963. This was the date of the ‘Great Train Robbery’, when the robbers got away with two and a half million pounds in bank notes.
Stealing enters into many aspects of our daily lives. There are many who would never rob a bank, or mug an old lady, who would nevertheless willingly engage in ‘insider dealing’, corporate dishonesty, fiddling of expense accounts and so on. See Rom 13:7. In a two-and-a-half hour period, British Transport Police stopped a hundred people on Victoria Station in London who were travelling without a ticket. Employees steal from their employers by extended breaks and slack work, Tit 2:10. Other forms of stealing include failing to return an borrowed item, Ps 37:21; failing to clear a debt when able to do so, 2 Kings 4:7; wasting other people’s possessions, Lk 16:1; overcharging; tax evasion; fiddling of expenses
Stealing violates God’s law of property. It has been one of the features of Marxism that it has implanted a deep suspicion of property into the Western mind. In the words of Proudhon, ‘property is theft’. One effect of Marxism, however, has been to drastically reduce the industriousness of many held under its sway. There is a story of a farmhand in the former Soviet Union. He was awakened one morning to be told that his cows were calving. His sleepy reply was, ‘They are the people’s cows; let the people look after them.’ For the OT pattern see, for example, Deut 19:14.
The Eighth Commandment, however, establishes the right of private property. And, of course, in a culture in which insurance was unknown and in which land and flocks were essential to livelihood, if not to life itself, theft could destroy you. ‘Property, in the Hebrew view, was a gift of God; it gave you a stake in God’s creation; it offered you a patch of land to which you could devote your life’s work; it enabled you to plant vineyards to ensure the survival of your family or your clan.’ (Blanch)
Because of the ‘sanctity of property’, not even a king could impose compulsory purchase on a subject’s land, as 1 Kings 21:1-4 vividly illustrates. It took a Jezebel, a foreign princess who owed no loyalty to the law of Israel, to engineer trumped-up charges against Naboth and have him stoned to death, so that Ahab could have his land after all, 1 Kings 21:7,19.
Owning property is not sinful, only ownership brings responsibilities as well as rights. In God’s sight, the owner is also a steward, a caretaker. Ownership becomes sinful when we gain property illegally or immorally, if we have too much of it, or if we make it our god. Accordingly, the moral teaching of Jesus puts clear limitations on the right of private ownership, Mt 19:24 Lk 12:15. Moreover, the Son of Man himself had nowhere to lay his head.
Stealing may take the form of witholding from God what is his due. We can rob God not only of money, but of time and of talents. The Old Testament established the principle of tithing, Mal 3:6-10. Although the spirit of the New Testament would not be such as to enforce tithing as an absolute duty, Christians may well feel that under grace they should be giving more, not less, than the law required. From 2 Cor 8 and 9 1 Cor 16, and Mark 8 we can derive the following words which should describe our giving: sacrificially, joyfully, willingly, spontaneously, proportionately, abundantly, secretly, humbly, regularly, trustfully.
One of the effects of the Holy Spirit is that he touches our pockets, and loosens our grip on our possessions. See Lk 6:38.
‘To steal is to rob a person of anything which belongs to him or is due to him. The theft of money or property is not the only infringement of this commandment. Tax evasion is robbery. So is dodging the customs. So is working short hours. What the word calls “scrounging” God calls stealing. To overwork and underpay one’s staff is to break this commandment. There must be few of us, if any, who have been consistently and scrupulously honest in personal and business affairs.’ (Stott, Basic Christianity, 68)