How is the eighth commandment applicable to us today? Does it involve more than just stealing? What is a biblical perspective on wealth and owning personal possessions?

2006. 11 pages. Transcribed by Diana Bouwman. Transcription stopped at 41:02.

The Eighth Commandment The Ten Commandments Series: Part 8

My family and I were on the beautiful sun-drenched campus of Stanford University, and I was spending considerable time in the bookstore. My family was waiting patiently, but Christopher had a particular interest in the bookstore and in finding a book that I had not seen before. Christopher was finding books and he would bring them to me to see if it was something I might want to purchase, and then he would go back. Then at some point I made some purchases and made my way outside of the bookstore, and I had lost Christopher. And Christopher, who was then about twelve, saw me outside the store and came running outside the store with a book that he wanted to show me. All of a sudden, he realized and I realized that he was on the wrong side of the law!

(Transcription of audio file from 01:02 to 01:30 omitted.)

Childhood experiences often inform how we think about even the Ten Commandments. We are taught from earliest age not to steal. We are told, “This is yours.” We learn the possessive so very quickly: yours, mine, ours, theirs. But even as children we can come to understand that it can get a little complicated.

I learned this as a boy. My youngest sister Jan had always wanted a kitten. She wanted a kitten more than just about anything else. She was about five-years-old, and she was possessed by a desire to have a kitten. She wanted it desperately. We were visiting one of my aunt’s homes, and she came back to the aunt’s house with a kitten from the neighbours, and told us that the kitten had been given to her. It was a wonderful announcement for her. We had a kitten. We had a very happy sister with a kitten.

A couple of years later, a conversation at the same aunt’s house went something like this: “That kitten that Jan got…did they actually give that to her?” It turned out that Jan decided that it was a gift, and we had actually kitten-napped! What made the story very complicated is that the people who had previously possessed the kitten were thrilled with the theft. If you have ever tried to give kittens away, you understand the difficulty of this. So at age eight or nine I can remember being struck by the moral quandary—what do you do with a “hot” kitten, two years after the theft, when the people from whom it was stolen are relieved to know that it was stolen to a good home?

The commandment is so simple and straightforward: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). It comes in a series. We find ourselves at the eighth commandment, and we understand the sheer simplicity of this is a part of what makes the Ten Commandments so very powerful. These Ten Words given in the covenantal context of Israel are Ten Commandments which frame, in how we might summarize the first table of the law, our relationship directly towards God and our duties towards our Creator, and in the second table of the law our duties towards our fellow human beings (which are also duties to God). You shall not steal.

The Bible presents a theology of personal possessions. It is interesting that in the Ten Commandments we confront the bookends of a theology of personal possessions and personal property. One of the temptations in addressing the eighth commandment is to go ahead and preach the tenth commandment simultaneously; and yet, they are not repetitious. They are not saying the same thing. They are as bookends. The first commandment concerning personal property we encounter here is the command not to steal; the last commandment we shall encounter is the commandment not to covet. So material acquisitiveness is addressed in the last commandment; the impulse to steal is addressed in the eighth.

When we do take this text with full significance and when we take this text within its biblical context and we understand the fullness of a biblical theology of personal possessions and personal property, we begin to understand the radical revolution that takes place within the biblical ethic over against the ethic of the peoples of the world, over against the ethic of our natural fallen state, over against all economic theories and all social analysis. There is to this text, of course (as we always must keep in mind in relation to the Ten Commandments), a covenantal context. These are words addressed to Israel as the chosen nation, the people of the covenant. These are words addressed to Israel so that Israel might know what behaviour is expected of her, first of all so that in her inner life she may be pleasing unto the Lord, but also so that in her inner life she may give an external testimony to the holiness of the God who has made his covenant with Israel.

In presenting a biblical theology of personal property, the Bible dignifies the fact that we do have and are meant to have personal possessions. We do have and are meant to have claim upon personal property. The Bible dignifies personal property and roots this dignity of personal possession in the dignity of what it means to be human and what it means to be made in the imago Dei, the image of God. We might summarize this command “You shall not steal” found in Exodus 20:15 by understanding that to steal from another is not merely to steal her possession. It is not merely to steal his stuff. It is to assault another's dignity as a human being who has the right to the toil of his hands, to the produce of her talents, to the property that is rightfully ours.

Now, at one level we can understand that this principle is absolutely necessary for the functioning of society. There can be no functioning society in which there is not an adequate confidence that that which is ours will not be stolen from us. As we shall see, one of the symptoms of the breakdown of a civilization is the breakdown of this trust. To steal from another is to destroy that trust which is absolutely requisite, absolutely fundamental, absolutely necessary for a society, without which there can be no stable economy or stable commerce. And beyond that, there can be no confidence that our neighbours do not mean to steal our stuff and to rob us not only of our possessions and property but of our dignity.

Right to Personal Property🔗

I want us to see, first of all, the right to personal property. One of the things we might note when we think about a biblical theology of personal possessions or personal property is how much of the Old Testament law is actually given to the regulation of this right and how much specificity is given, so that we would know exactly how we are to do business with one another, how we are to respect one another's property, and how we are to respect one another's dignity by respecting one another's property.

The Old Testament tells us a great deal about boundary lines with real estate and how real estate is to be transacted. The Old Testament tells us a great deal about weights and measures and how we are to do business with each other (making certain that we take advantage of no neighbour in the doing of our business), the laws of inheritance, the patrilineal law (that makes very clear the primogeniture and the survival of the family, in order that that property be intact so that successive generations can inherit from ancestors what was earned by the hard toil, by the working of the land, by the planting of the seed and the harvesting of the crops thereof).

The right to personal property is essential for personal security, for our personal well-being and for the continuation of family. There is a tie especially to the land and to the produce of that land, [for] just two chapters after we encounter this most succinct command “You shall not steal,” we come across an elaborated set of regulations in Exodus 22 concerning property rights. “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox, and four sheep for the sheep” (Exodus 22:1). Just as when we were looking at the commandment about murder we saw that murder was treated as an assault upon the dignity of the Creator in the taking of another's life, so also we understand that the taking of another's property is an assault upon his dignity as one who is made in the image of God. But it also has social consequences, and the law in the Old Testament limits those consequences. It does not allow an infinite consequence; rather, it spells out here a very expensive consequence.

If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.

If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.

If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed bare and lets his animal loose so that it grazes in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard.

If a fire breaks out and spreads to thorn bushes, so that stacked grain or the standing grain or the field itself is consumed, he who started the fire shall surely make restitution.

If a man gives his neighbor money or goods to keep for him and it is stolen from the man’s house, if the thief is caught, he shall pay double. If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges, to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any lost thing about which one says, “This is it,” the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he whom the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor.Exodus 22:1-9, NASB

It is very interesting that in such a close confinement of Israel's experience, where neighbour lives so close to neighbour in the kind of community we can all recognize, when a coat is missing and it shows up on someone else and the owner says, “This is it,” then it goes before the judges. The same with cattle or lamb: 

If a man gives his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep for him, and it dies or is hurt or is driven away while no one is looking, an oath before the LORD shall be made by the two of them that he has not laid hands on his neighbor’s property; and its owner shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution. But if it is actually stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. If it is all torn to pieces, let him bring it as evidence; he shall not make restitution for what has been torn to pieces.

If a man borrows anything from his neighbor, and it is injured or dies while its owner is not with it, he shall make full restitution. If its owner is with it, he shall not make restitution; if it is hired, it came for its hire.Exodus 22:10-15, NASB

This is technical stuff! Do you wonder how the statutory law of our own civilization builds up to where it makes the lawyers bookshelves simply sag with weight? It is because of just this kind of situation. Israel had all the case law that we might imagine in an agrarian society of its time. What happens when an animal dies when someone else has borrowed it? What happens when a flame is started and it goes to a neighbour's farm? This is all a matter of property. It all comes down to stealing. It is all derivative of the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal.”

The dignity of work is made clear within Scripture. We understand that the dignity of work is grounded first of all in creation itself, when human beings are told to subdue the earth, to work the earth, and to enjoy the produce thereof. But we also understand that a biblical theology of work has to take into account the Fall, when we are told that as the consequence of sin, therefore the earth will no longer yield its fruit so gladly and its produce so willingly, but rather there will be far more toil required in order that the earth will yield its fruit. The cultivation of the land and the tilling of crops and the entire process of work is now made far more difficult because of the Fall. But that does not remove the dignity of work. Work is itself dignified, and so is the produce of one's hands, so is the result of one's work, so is the yield of one's investments. The biblical theology of personal possessions understands the dignity of such possessions.

Was it always to be so? Augustine, we famously remember, spent many pages and paragraphs contemplating what sex and reproduction would have been like in the Garden had there been no Fall. Others attempt to do the same thing with economics and personal property. What might it have been like had there been no Fall? Would there be personal property in a world in which there is no sin? We do not know. But we do know that there was even before the Fall a clear linkage between work and its product. The dignity of one who is made in the image of God and is also able, as one made in God's image, to fashion and to work, to make and to harvest.

This whole idea of a biblical theology of personal possessions turns economic theory on its head. The economists do not ground our economic value and our economic agency in creation (as we must) in a responsibility to subdue the earth and to link together the toil and the reward, the work and the product. The Fall explains human depravity. The Fall explains why we not only have the work of our hands but why we also must have banks with armed guards, and safes with steel doors and locks, and the Security and Exchange Commission, and all the rest. Why do we have to have all of these burdensome Internet passwords? It is because we live in a fallen world where there are those who will steal from us. And we know it. Our moral instincts are now attuned to the fact that there are those who would steal from us.

When you go to the mall these days and you see people get out of their vehicle and you see them getting ready to walk into the store, and what do they do? They click that lock, and they click it twice. We have turned into a parking lot of chirping cars. Chirp…chirp… “Is it locked? Yes, I locked it.” On the other hand, we also know that we are living in a world that does not take alarms seriously either. When you hear a car alarm going off, you do not assume that a car is being stolen; you assume that a fool has mishandled his car alarm. We are living in a world in which all these things supposedly make sense.

The Bible not only allows for personal property; it honours the concept. Thus, we post the boundary lines. Thus, we put protections around property. Thus, we respect one another's worth, one another's personhood. By respecting one another's stuff, we link together reward for labour and toil and investment and thrift. Jesus, in speaking of the parable of the talents, made clear that investment is also to be honoured. The proverbial wisdom found in the wisdom literature makes clear that thrift, honourable business practices and labour are to be rewarded.

God Hates Theft🔗

But not only does the Scripture put forth a positive theology of personal possessions and such that it is right and it is proper to own certain things, the Bible also makes clear that God hates robbery. God hates stealing. Strong language used. Consider the prophets themselves, as they thunder not only about oppression of the poor but about the business practices of thievery that institutionalized that oppression. Consider what would happen if you were to take the Old Testament alone and remove all of the statements whereby God makes clear his hatred of those who steal and his hatred of the act of robbery. All the statutes and penalties found in the biblical testimony are themselves a testimony to this. A crime against property is a crime, a sin of great consequence, according to the Scripture.

This does seem somewhat strange to us, doesn't it? I mean, it is just stuff. It is just stuff! We know that and we tell ourselves that. It is just stuff! And yet, if we are really honest with one another, we know that it is never just stuff; it is my stuff. You have your stuff. We might even have some of our stuff. We use other people's stuff. When we are invited to come to another person's house, the anticipation is that we will not steal. We live in a very, very strange world—a world in which we understand every single human to be made in the image of God, and simultaneously, every single human being to be a sinner. It complicates everything. We have houses filled with stuff. We put our stuff in safe deposit boxes. Most of us have so much stuff we have to build rooms just to hold stuff. We do not want to part with our stuff, but if we do part with our stuff, it just gives us more room to get other stuff.

But the stuff really is an extension of who we are! More than we would ever want to admit, more than we might ever be able to take into full effect and into full consequence, we are, to a degree greater than we would ever want to imagine, defined by our stuff—our homes, ties to land, even the stuff we wear and the stuff we read and the stuff to which we listen. It is just stuff! The Bible dignifies this stuff. It dignifies the right to personal property and the right to own what is lawfully ours, the right to the work of our hands, to the toil of our brow, the yield of wise investment.

God clearly hates stealing. God hates robbery, because it is an assault on human dignity. A thief takes what he has no right to have. He takes stuff which is not his stuff. It is an assault upon dignity and upon personhood. It is stolen toil. It is stolen labour. It is stolen talent. It is stolen time. It is stolen investment. It is stolen reward. It is stolen memory. It is stolen trust. It is not just stuff! We are not able to ever treat stuff as mere stuff. Property is more than the material it represents. It has a lot to do with who we are individually. It is an assault upon who we are corporately. It is an assault upon the entire community. The covenant nation is told explicitly, over and over again, that its tolerance of robbery, of thievery and of stealing is an assault upon the very foundation of civilization itself.

Francis Fukuyama, in his book Trust, convincingly argues that the one single cultural characteristic most requisite of cultural success is trust. He demonstrates that high trust societies tend to thrive economically, socially and culturally, but low trust societies tend to fail. And furthermore, low trust societies institutionalize thievery.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells the story of how this happened. During the Soviet years, institutionalized thievery was the only way you could often survive. It was understood that the only way one might be able to even take care of one's family is by stealing. It was an attack upon the very heart of the civilization. The story was told of a man who worked in a factory, and every single day the commissar, the guard, noticed that he was trying to take stuff out of the factory. He was trying to steal. Every single day he would take a wheelbarrow and fill it with stuff, and he would go out, and every single day he would get caught. One day he would be trying to take out cylinders; another day he would be trying to take out iron ore; another day he would be trying to take out some other kind of stuff in order to sell it, in order to feed his family. He did it every single day, and he was caught every single day, and the stuff was taken away from him every single day.

Finally, it came to be his last day at the factory. The commissar was waiting for him to come out with the contraband. He got to the door of the factory, and sure enough, they pulled back from the wheelbarrow and there was stuff. They confiscated it, and they said to him, “You are a fool! We caught you every single day. You got away with nothing!” And he said, “Sir, Mr. Commissar, you are the fool. I have been stealing wheelbarrows.”

When you institutionalize thievery, the trust of the society is destroyed. And if ever there would be a compromise of the covenantal character of Israel's responsibility, it would be the allowance of stealing—the institutionalization of theft, of unjust business practices, of two sets of weights, of movable property lines.

God warned his covenant people that the toleration of stealing would destroy the nation. The prophets then thundered about the oppression of the poor, the thievery and the cheating, and the larceny that would come to represent not just Israel's material sin and the rise of a criminal class, but rather the nation's covenantal unfaithfulness, which would provide the opening for such sins to infect the nation and do such grotesque damage. The one who steals is an enemy of the people of God. This explains, in part, why there is so much antipathy to the tax collector in the time of the New Testament in first-century Judaism: they institutionalized thievery, and thus were hated by their own people.

The Reality of Theft in the Fallen World🔗

Thirdly, I hope we will see the reality of robbery, the reality of thievery, in a fallen world. Martin Luther put it this way: “If we look at mankind in all of its conditions, it is nothing but a vast wide stable full of great thieves” (The Large Catechism). Let me ask you a question: If you leave your house unlocked, or if you leave the keys in your car, or if you leave cash out on the table, are you surprised that it is stolen, or are you surprised, in this fallen world, that it is not? The logic becomes to be reversed. We come to expect that there are people who will steal from us. We come to expect there are people who will take from us. We come to expect that that which is ours is at risk. We face this reality.

We do live in the midst of a vast wide stable full of great thieves. Institutionalized thievery is not just something known in the Soviet Union. It is not just something Israel was warned against in the biblical testimony. We understand that it is also spreading on a massive global scale. When we look at our modern context, we realize that we have retained all the old ways of stealing and have added many new ways to these. We have invented new dimensions of sin and new ways to steal. To all the things Israel was warned against—larceny, robbery and theft, especially the theft of animals and the theft of real property—we must now add securities fraud, which is estimated to cost the American economy hundreds of millions, and perhaps billions, a year. We have to add to securities fraud, tax fraud; to tax fraud, insurance fraud; to insurance fraud, internet fraud and the new category of identity theft. We have to add such concepts as plagiarism, which is the theft of intellectual property. And now in this digital age we have to add theft by downloading, by bootlegging, by copying material, by stealing.

It is the same fundamental problem, but we can now accomplish theft on a far more massive scale than Israel could ever have imagined. We are not just part of an agrarian economy of a small civilization; we are part of a global economy in which it is possible to steal at a great distance from those we will never see. It is possible to steal and get away with it, because in this world of billions and trillions of digitalized messages and records, it is almost impossible to maintain any kind of adequate security. And thus we understand that in this mixed and messy global economy, all kinds of malfeasance and thievery is likely to be happening.

And furthermore, we might be a part of it unbeknownst to ourselves. We have dirty hands and we deal our business with dirty dollars. We are complicit in an economic system. We are tempted when looking at the realities of the free market of capitalism to remember what Churchill said about democracy: It “is the worst form of government” ever invented, “except for all the others.” One of the positive aspects of the free market economy is tha it does, like the Scripture, acknowledge the right to personal property. It recognizes the right to private possessions. It understands that this is not an unlimited right, but nonetheless, is an inherent right. It is a part of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is a part of the dignity of labour. It is one of the requisites for a successful civilization. That is a positive. It is also positive that it tends more than other systems to link together the risk and reward of investment and to link together the tie between toil and reward, between work and income. That is a positive. But it also allows for all kinds of marketing, all kinds of advertising, any number of business practices on a local and global scale that call out not the best, but the worst.

Marxism understood some of the worst, and sought to alleviate the entire problem by denying a right to private property. In so doing, it denied the personhood of those involved in the economy, with evidently catastrophic results. It is tempting, like Augustine on sex, to imagine what an economy might be like in an unfallen world. But we do not live in unfallen world! We live in an all too fallen world. And we understand that there is no economic system that can achieve absolute justice. There is no economic system that does not dirty our hands with complicity with evil. There is no economic system that does not create problems even as it solves problems.

How do you achieve something like justice in a world like this? We are the ones who realize that in a fallen world you can take everyone's stuff away and you can redistribute all the stuff so that everyone has equal stuff, and just a couple minutes later it won't be equal anymore. Someone will trade off his for someone else's stuff, someone will make a better trade, someone will make a worse trade, someone will neglect stuff, someone will simply lose the stuff, someone will spend all their stuff and have no stuff remaining. That threw the Marxists into ever deeper attempts at achieving some kind of enforced and coercive justice. You think of someone like the late philosopher John Rawls, who said you then must factor not only into the equation what one has, but even one's talent, even one's ambitions, even one's abilities, even one's work ethic, and thus, you must equalize all of that. So you have to have a continual reset of stuff. You have to have a continual confiscatory, mandatory, coercive attempt to equalize all the stuff. That does not work. It could not work. It cannot work.

According to the Scripture, indeed it shouldn't work. You can steal by confiscatory taxations, such that it destroys the rightful link between work and labour, risk and reward, investment and yield. But at the same time, we have to understand that in a fallen world, every single economic system entails its own problems. If we are really honest, one of the most difficult aspects of any contemporary economic analysis is that we are all deeply complicit in what honestly might be well defined, if not unavoidably defined, as stealing.

How do we avoid breaking the eighth commandment in a world in which we can walk into a store and see clothing that is available in terms of any sane economic theory at incredibly low prices, and we realize it is because someone somewhere (not here, but somewhere) has been paid almost nothing in order to produce this? How do we buy diamonds in a world in which we know that so many diamonds are blood diamonds, bought at the price of human lives? Very little reward, very little income, very little pay. Are we stealing?

Should we turn the entire equation on its head and say if we were not buying these products they would have no income at all? If we were not buying these clothes, they would not have the small income that they are given. Would we say they would have no jobs at all and would simply be thrown back on a subsistence economy? Do we say about the diamonds that if we did not buy these diamonds, there would be no income at all, and the pitiable and fragile economy of these depressed nations would simply collapse?

These are questions that defy an easy analysis. The political and economic left is all too hasty in assuming that it knows how to alleviate such injustice, and all too often, the right conservatives are all too reluctant to see that there is a problem. In a Genesis 3 world, stealing and robbery and thievery are a lot more complicated than we first might think.

The Ultimate Theft🔗

Lastly, I hope we will see that stealing from God is the ultimate theft. Summarizing the Ten Commandments into the two tables of the law is something that comes quite natural to us, and there is a sense to it, but it probably misleads more than it suggests the truth. It is not as if you have five commandments addressed toward God and five commandments addressed towards humanity. They are all addressed in terms of our faithfulness to God. God makes claim upon all of us, in all of our relationships, in every dimension of our lives, so that our relationships with our fellow human beings are actually a reflection of our relationship with our Creator.

The ultimate theft addressed in Scripture is not thievery among human beings who will steal from each other, as awful as that is; the ultimate theft that is indicted in Scripture is stealing from God. Thus, when we talk about a biblical theology of personal possessions, we have to place that within a biblical concept of stewardship. And we recognize that this radically revolutionizes our understanding of personal property. God's covenant people, the people of the old covenant in Israel, and far more than that, the people of the new covenant in Christ, must recognize that this stuff is simultaneously is ours and not ours at all. It is God's and yet entrusted to us. It is ours in some real sense, and yet it is ours to be at the disposal of God's people and God's purposes.

A biblical theology of stewardship is the most revolutionary economic theory of all. It is so radical and so revolutionary that the Church hardly seems to understand it, and to embrace it and to live it. The prophets ask, “Would you rob God?” and yet we regularly do. We rob God of the praise that is due his name. We rob God of the worship that is his proper expectation. We rob God of time and talent that we invest in lesser things. We rob God of possessions and money and property. We rob God of our priorities and our passions. We rob our Creator.

God's new covenant people in Christ are to see wealth not so much as a sign of divine favour, but as a sign of incredible responsibility. It is not enough that we not steal; we have to put all that we are and all that we have at the disposal of God, understanding that he ultimately owns all. “All under heaven and earth is mine,” he declares. We ultimately must be willing to give all and, as Jesus said so pointedly, to lose all for the sake of the kingdom.

The eighth commandment is so clear and simple. “You shall not steal.” Charles Hodge, in summarizing this commandment, gets it just right in terms of the summary.

This commandment forbids all violations of the rights of property. The right of property in an object is the right to its exclusive possession and use.

The foundation of the right of property is the will of God. By this is meant, (1.) That God has so constituted man that he desires and needs this right of the exclusive possession and use of certain things. (2.) Having made man a social being, he has made the right of property essential to the healthful development of society. (3.) He has implanted a sense of justice in the nature of man, which condemns as morally wrong everything inconsistent with the right in this position, in this question. (4.) He has declared in his Word that any and every violation of this right is sinful.

The doctrine of the divine right of property is the only security for the individual or for society. If it be made to rest on any other foundation, it is insecure and unstable. It is only by making property sacred, guarded by the fiery sword of divine justice, that it can be saved from the dangers to which it is everywhere and always exposed.Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Volume III, 2016

Every one of his points is absolutely right. Every one of his points is absolutely correct. We cannot understand the eighth commandment without taking into full consideration every one of the points he made—and yet he did not go far enough. For in reality, we have to recognize that when we read the eighth commandment, we read this commandment as thieves. We are robbers, we are thieves, and we steal.

Let us remember that when Jesus was crucified, on his right and on his left were two thieves. The only difference was that the one was redeemed and the other was not—and it remains so even today.

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