No Stealing

Reading: Jeremiah 7.1-11; Matthew 22.15-22

We live in a material world and have many legitimate material needs. But we have a problem – we have become obsessed with the pursuit of possessions, some of the pressures we will consider when we look at the tenth commandment.

Bob George, who was on the Sunshine Coast three or four years ago for the Capernwray Winter School, tells the story of his successful business career before he became a Christian. He set a goal of making a million dollars, but when he reached a million he was aiming at two and when he reached two he was aiming at four. He observes, "Someone asked Rockefeller one day, ‘How much would it take to make you happy?’ Rockefeller replied, ‘Just a little more’."

That kind of attitude is too widespread in our society. It is little wonder that burglary and robbery are on a dramatic increase in our society. It is reported that our present prisons are inadequate for the criminals being apprehended.

Ten years ago CBS sent a camera crew to Fort Worth, Texas, to do a special story on big city crime. As the crew was unloading its equipment, their $30,000 camera was stolen. That sounds like a good introduction for their story.

Ownership and Stewardship

The commandment, "Do not steal" (Ex. 20.15), presupposes the right to own property, and specifically forbids any act which would defraud another person and obtain his/her possessions dishonestly.

The nation of Israel had just emerged from 400 years of slavery in Egypt with only basic experience of personal ownership. As they prepared to occupy the promised land, such basic principles as ownership rights needed to be clearly understood.

One writer has noted, "The true intent of the Eighth Commandment… is to guarantee to [persons] the privilege of responsible stewardship in the possession and use of material values… to provide the guarantee that the stewardship privilege granted by God shall not be annulled by [humanity]… Stealing is interference with the stewardship of another by appropriating or removing from his control any part of that which God has entrusted to him/her."

This view of ownership in terms of stewardship is very striking. It means that we never own anything absolutely. In 1 Chronicles 29 we read of gifts received for the construction of the Temple. We are told that "the people had given willingly to the LORD, and they were happy that so much had been given. King David also was extremely happy" (v. 29). In the midst of David’s praise and thanksgiving, we hear him pray, "Yet my people and I cannot really give you anything, because everything is a gift from you, and we have only given back what is yours already" (v. 14).

No Stealing

Stealing does not imply violence, and takes many well-respected forms, so that our moral sensitivity becomes blurred.

We easily recognise the crimes of burglary, fraud or embezzlement. But to evade a little tax doesn’t seem so serious! We recognise a wrong done if a government authority resumes land without adequate compensation, or if employees are underpaid. But what about the failure to give an employer the labour for which he pays?

The principle involved in gambling needs to be viewed in the light of this command. Here one person’s winning depends entirely on another’s losing. In the casual use of the term, it is sometimes said that "farming is a gamble". However, in primary production – subject to the weather and other variables – there is the opportunity for all to gain. But the implicit principle of gambling is that for one to win another must lose. For this reason, it has sometimes been called "robbery by consent".

The law of Moses provided clearly for restitution. This was not only the restoring of the thing stolen or its equivalent, but often a payment several times the value of the thing taken. So in Exodus 22 – "If someone steals a cow or a sheep and kills it or sells it, he must pay five cows for one cow and four sheep for one sheep" (v. 1). (The Hebrew suggests "ox" rather than "cow" – more valuable than a sheep because it was used for ploughing and other purposes as well as for food.)

In the New Testament, it is quite clear that only absolute honesty is compatible with the Christian life. Paul says that those who steal will not possess the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6.10). In response to the Lord’s forgiveness, we hear Zacchaeus saying, "Listen, sir! I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much" (Lk. 19.8).

We note that Jeremiah’s call to repentance went beyond renunciation of evil acts. He said, "Change the way you are living and stop doing the things you are doing. Be fair in your treatment of one another. Stop taking advantage of aliens, orphans, and widows" (Jer. 7.5-6). Again and again in the Old Testament there is a strong emphasis on our responsibility to care for the poor, widows. strangers… In a caring compasisonate society, the likelihood of stealing is also lessened.

Caesar and God

The pressures of materialism bring to focus the tensions between ownership and stewardship, between right and responsibility. We understand well enough the command not to steal, but where do right and ownership really lie. Our conscience seems to get particularly blurred when we are dealing with "big brother" – whether "big brother" is some earthly Caesar or God himself!

Jesus was teaching in the Temple and the Pharisees were trying to catch him out in what he was saying. The Pharisees were ardent nationalists. On this occasion they allied themselves with the Herodians, a group which gave some support to the Roman regime. Together they brought the trick question, "Is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor, or not?" (Mt. 22.17) If he answered, "yes", the Pharisees would stir up public opinion against him. If he answered, "no", the Herodians would immediately report him to the civil authorities.

Even where we have a democratically elected government, I don’t find people over-fond of paying taxes. For the Jews, however, it was not just that it was a foreign power. There were some real religious qualms involved. Some of Tiberius Caesar’s subjects gave him divine honours. One such coin reads, "Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus." A coin bearing his image, name and titles could well be considered offensive to the Jewish religion.

Jesus asked for a tax coin – yes, one of these coins bearing the Emperor’s face and name. He said, "Well, then, pay the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay God what belongs to God" (v. 21). Their question had used the verb "give", but this verse has the sense of "giving back". It is returning what rightly belongs to the Emperor and to God.

We all share in the rights and privileges of living in society. The very currency we use is a reminder of our inter-dependence within society as a whole. R.V.G. Tasker has noted, "The payment of a tax, he insists, is not a gift to him who levies it, but a debt owing to him for benefits received" (Matthew, Tyndale, 1969, p. 121).

In Romans 13.1-7, Paul insists that we are to take our place as responsible members of the earthly state, honouring our rulers and paying our taxes. The Emperor at the time, by the way, was the brutal Nero, under whom Paul would eventually lose his life!

But Jesus went further than the paying of taxes – he re-emphasised our total stewardship before God.

The very last book in the Old Testament – the prophet Malachi – had written, "I ask you, is it right for a person to cheat God? Of course not, yet you are cheating me. ‘How?’ you ask. In the matter of tithes and offerings. A curse is on all of you because the whole nation is cheating me. Bring the full amount of your tithes to the Temple, so that there will be plenty of food there. Put me to the test and you will see that I will open the windows of heaven and pour out on you in abundance all kinds of good things" (Mal. 3.8-10).

Jesus, of course, was going beyond the question of tithing. To "give back to God what belongs to him" is to bring all that we have and are. There are times when our loyalty to God must over-ride our loyalty to Caesar. Jesus calls us into the Kingdom of God – to live under the Rule of God. That is not a life that can ever be all centred on ourselves. It is a life to be lived out with responsibility and integrity within this world day by day.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 15th March 1998.
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.
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