The purpose and meaning of the Eighth Commandment
The Eighth Commandment safeguards everyone's right to legitimately acquire and own property. God wants that right honoured and protected.
“You shall not steal.” Exodus 20:15
The Eighth Commandment, which forbids theft, calls our attention to two opposite ways of thinking and living. An approach that emphasizes getting rather than giving wins all contests for popularity. But the giving approach epitomizes God's love for others.
Theft is the ultimate assertion of the greedy, lustful way of life, one that emphasizes acquiring material and intangible things with no regard for the rights and feelings of others. It scorns conventions and boundaries established by society and God. It is the epitome of selfishness. The spiritual intent of the Commandment against stealing tells us where the battle against selfishness begins. It originates when we learn to appreciate the rights and needs of others.
The right to own property
The Eighth Commandment safeguards everyone's right to legitimately acquire and own property. God wants that right honoured and protected. His approach to material wealth is balanced. He wants us to prosper and enjoy physical blessings (3 John 1:2). He also expects us to show wisdom in how we use what He provides us. But He does not want possessions to be our primary pursuit in life (Matthew 6:25-33). When we see material blessings as a means to achieve more important objectives, God enjoys seeing us prosper.
To Him it is important that generosity rather than greed motivate the choices we make. Because they are qualities of His own character, He asks that from the heart we put giving and serving ahead of lavishing possessions on ourselves.
God loves cheerful givers
Jesus addressed this approach when He spoke of assisting the less fortunate with risky loans. “Give to every man that asketh of you; and of him that taketh away your goods ask them not again. 31 And as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them likewise … 34 And if you lend to them of whom you hope to receive, what thank have you? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love you your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and you shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.” Luke 6:30-35
Basing what comes next on what He has already told us about having a generous rather than a selfish heart, Jesus continued, “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that you mete withal it shall be measured to you again.” Luke 6:38
God is willing to be our partner in serving others if we replace greed with a devotion to serving. He looks at the measure of the intensity of our commitment to that giving way of life. Paul expresses it clearly. “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work:” 2 Corinthians 9:7-8
God rejoices when He sees us, once our own needs are met, using any additional abundance in blessings to increase our usefulness and service to others. He then can know we are beginning to understand and follow His way of life.
Changing the heart of a thief
How does all of this relate directly to the command not to steal? Paul gives us the connection. “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” Ephesians 4:28
A thief must go far beyond simply ceasing his larceny to please God. Someone once wisely observed, “A thief who has quit stealing may still be a thief at heart—a thief just temporarily unemployed. He really ceases to be a thief only if and when he replaces stealing with giving.” A thief has to change his heart and outlook.
Other forms of stealing
Directly taking another's possessions is not the only way to steal. Con artists use sophisticated scams to swindle their victims. Deceptive advertisements do the same. Manufacturers who misleadingly advertise their products of substandard quality cheat their customers. Labourers who bill for more hours than they work or charge more than their services are worth are stealing from those who hire them. Then there are those who “borrow” but never return. Aren't they stealing? There are so many ways to take what is not ours that we must stay on our guard. We could be breaking God's Commandment against stealing without realizing what we are doing.
Employees who do not work although paid to do so are stealing from their employers. People who delight in consuming what others produce while refusing to carry their share of the labour and responsibility or their part in the production of goods and services engage in still another form of stealing. They siphon away what others produce but make little or no contribution themselves. They take and give little in return. Notice Jesus Christ's parable of the person who refuses to assume personal responsibility: “Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew you that you are an hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not strawed: 25 And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the earth: lo, there you have that is thine. 26 His lord answered and said unto him, You wicked and slothful servant, you knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:” Matthew 25:24-26
The man in this parable knew that his job was to produce for his master. But because of his own distorted outlook, he willingly chose to be unproductive. He knew the rules and responsibilities placed on him. He had no excuse for his slack behaviour. Jesus' parable continues, “You oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. 28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which has ten talents.” Matthew 25:27-28. The man's employer called him “wicked and lazy.” At heart he was no different from a thief. Therefore his boss gave his reward to another who had worked hard to benefit someone besides himself. Jesus used this parable to illustrate God's low opinion of self pity and selfishness.
Can we steal from God?
The Bible helps us recognize yet another form of stealing. From the time of Abraham (Genesis 14:20) forward, the Bible shows examples of how God's faithful servants formally acknowledged who really owns everything being of course God. They faithfully gave Him one tenth of their increase. In the covenant God made with ancient Israel, a tenth of the people's increase was set aside for the priests to finance their spiritual service to the nation. Needless to say, this practice of tithing (meaning giving a tenth) never became popular with most people. It required faith that God would amply supply their needs if they were a giving people.
By 721 B.C., general disobedience to God's laws had become so entrenched in ancient Israel that God sent the northern 10 tribes into captivity by the hand of the Assyrians, leaving only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and scattered Levites, in the southern kingdom of Judah. They continued the pattern of disobedience and were taken as captives to Babylon in 587 B.C. About a century later a small group of Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city and the temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. But their loyalty to God soon began to wane as it had before their captivity. Through the prophet Malachi, God reprimanded the priests for neglecting the teaching of His laws (Malachi 2:7-9). Meanwhile, He reproved the people for keeping His tithe for themselves. “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed me. But you say, Wherein have we robbed you? In tithes and offerings. 9 You are cursed with a curse: for you have robbed me, even this whole nation.” Malachi 3:8-9
The leaders of the Jews at that time reversed the nation's disobedience and instituted detailed regulations to force everyone to comply with the law. The physical aspects of these regulations were strict but many people continued in woeful negligence when it came to the spiritual aspects of the law. Later Jesus condemned their misguided priorities. He supported the Jews' continued observance of the physical aspects of the law and their faithful tithing. But He criticized their failure also to emphasize the spiritual virtues of faith, mercy and justice. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought you to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” Matthew 23:23. Jesus told them they should have been doing both, practicing the law of tithing along with exercising faith, mercy and justice. Jesus Christ affirmed the practice of tithing, of giving back to God a portion of what He gives us. We are not to take for ourselves the tenth that belongs to Him.
Beyond the here and now
God wants us to have confidence in the future. His Word is full of promises concerning our future in His Kingdom. If we believe those promises, we will invest our time and energy in acquiring a wealth of spiritual treasures that will last forever and treasures that no thief can take from us. That is the advice of Jesus Christ. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust does corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:” Matthew 6:19-20
We need to understand and apply true values to life. We need to concentrate on building character traits that will endure beyond physical life. At the heart of it all is love. Godly love defeats the desire to steal.