Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 42 - Do Not Steal
- The eighth commandment:
You shall not steal.
Question 110: What does God forbid
in the eighth commandment?
Answer 110: God forbids not only outright theft and robbery
but also such wicked schemes and devices as
false weights and measures,
we must not defraud our neighbour in any way,
whether by force or by show of right.
In addition God forbids all greed
and all abuse or squandering of his gifts.
The eighth commandment touches on the material side of life like no other. It speaks out about everything that has to do with making money and spending money. An endless row of topics presents itself: ordinary theft, misleading competition, false advertising, tax evasion, combating poverty, striving for prosperity, donating to worthwhile causes, consumerism or stinginess, the new economy, and so on. It is a complicated matter, but in answer to the many questions to be asked here, God simply commands: do not steal. It is all-inclusive.
No commandment gets as much public approval as this one. There is no country in the world where theft is officially permitted. Anyone who has been robbed can report it to the police anywhere. This is why the Catechism speaks openly of the stealing and robbing “that the government punishes”.1 It condemns those who commit burglaries, crack safes or extort money under threat. It also prohibits all kinds of devious practices that victimize others without the use of a crowbar or gun. Tampering with accounting records is a criminal offense. Measuring scales must meet high standards. Products must meet specific criteria. A broad set of rules secures citizens from fraud and scams. All in all, the government protects our property very reasonably from violence and fraud.
Yet in civil law, not everything is always called theft that is theft. Even in a modern society, certain opportunities remain to “acquire our neighbour’s goods” without the government being able or willing to do anything about it.
God’s law has no such loopholes. It also classifies as theft any and all evil intentions to take possession of another’s property. Often such a plan may fail and the embezzlement is called off, yet God calls it theft. The government does not condemn anyone for greed, as long as one does not violate another’s property, but to God greed itself is a form of theft. The same is true of squandering. The government does not punish anyone who squanders his own money, earned in an honest way, yet in God’s eyes such a person is a thief.
The Dutch government (to use an example) apparently has a rather different conception of property. According to the Civil Code, ownership is “the right to freely enjoy a certain matter and to make use of it or to dispose of it in the fullest sense”. This description originated from the legal views of the pagan Romans.2 According to them every owner had an absolute right to his property. He could do with it whatever he wanted. That is also the nucleus of Dutch property law. Everyone is allowed to do what he wants with his property, as long as he does not harm others and follows the legal provisions.
How does the Bible speak about property?
The Earth Belongs to God
At no time was the earth some kind of “no man’s land” that was gradually taken possession of by man. God made it. Therefore, this planet is his;3 he gave it to man.4 They were given the stewardship, i.e., the management of it, but they did not become owners. God did not turn the earth over to man. Adam was not like a large landowner. Paradise was not his own garden or his private property. Even after the Fall God did not dispose of the earth. Farmlands, fishing grounds, oil- and gas fields remained his own. Therefore, no one has the right to dispose of his property “in the fullest manner”.
The occupant of a rental house realizes that it is not his own house. He is aware of this with every hole he drills in a wall. How far he can go is regulated in the lease. Whoever disregards this can eventually be evicted from “his” house.
God has given the earth to people to manage it. He has recorded their rights and obligations in his Word. The Bible is the document in which he has recorded his ownership and all its conditions. Masses of people do not know or laugh at this title deed of God. That does not take away any of its validity. The earth belongs to him. Those who do not respect this are committing a fundamental error and will sooner or later disappear from the earth. Where does the misconception — as if the earth is ours — come from?
The Great Theft
Once a thief — always a thief. Therefore, watch out for that first-time occurrence! According to the Bible, that one time has been there for all humans. Their ancestors Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit and thereby — intentionally — stole God’s earth. They were stewards, but instead they wanted to be their own bosses. We are their children. Therefore, stealing is innate to us. We have inherited it from them. An extension of their stealing is the mentality we encounter all around us and also in our own hearts: one takes, we take.
Stealing does not start with taking away other people’s stuff. Many never get to that point. They spend their lives in earnest honesty. They work for a fair and just distribution of wealth. They participate in all kinds of relief efforts. That is to be commended in them. Helpful as they are, they “naturally do what the law requires”.5 To that extent, they are often an embarrassing example to tight-fisted Christians.
Yet in this commandment God demands first of all that we recognize that everything belongs to him. Anyone who thinks this makes no sense is making a false start in his social actions. He is talking — possibly with full and sincere compassion — about an earth that has been stolen from God. His struggle for social justice is in fact a plea for the fair distribution of booty. After all, he pretends that the earth does not belong to God, but instead to all people and therefore for all people. In effect, he is thus cashing in on the great theft of our ancestors in paradise.
Before we distribute the earth and its riches fairly among ourselves, we need to recognize that only God has the right to do with it as he determines it, “to the fullest extent.”
Back To Serving God
Christ has said important things about possessions and property. He did not take his starting point in a just distribution of wealth, but in the recognition that everything belongs to God. He took upon himself the blame for our great theft in Paradise. For that reason he had to surrender everything. Even the clothes on his body were forfeited. People did that to him, yet the highest Judge was behind all of this. Whoever wants to know what he or she is entitled to, should look at this unclothed man on that cross. He hung there, robbed of his last possessions “so that by his poverty you might become rich”.6 He undid the great theft and brought his followers back into the service of God.
In this commandment, God is calling his people to serve him. The words “do not steal” are not just a command to grant each his own. It has a direct connection with the opening words. God said this to people whom he had set free from slavery, and to whom he was about to give a rich existence in a new kind of paradise. From the outset he emphasized that this magnificent land — just like Paradise — remained his personal property. No one was allowed to sell his land, or at most for fifty years. Every field remained God’s. He gave the guarantee that no one would lose his possession forever. Anyone who had been forced to sell it would receive it back in the Year of Jubilee. That was within half a century. In this way he prevented the rich from getting even richer and the poor from getting even poorer.7
Therefore the premise was not that the land belonged to all the Israelites together and that they had to share everything fairly. The land remained God’s. No one could take matters beyond stewardship. The same is true for Christians today. Christ brought them back to serving their God. That servitude encompasses their full existence on this earth. People are to realize and acknowledge that he is the lawful Owner of this earth and of all their possessions.
Our documents of ownership are of no value to God. No one can take matters further with him than of being a steward or tenant. We come across both of these terms in the New Testament, although in a different context.8 Both terms are well suited to our purpose and complement each other.
The steward is the person who manages the goods of his master. The profits he manages to make directly benefit his master. He has to account for and submit any amounts.
A tenant has more freedom and a greater level of independence. His only obligation is to pay the rent on time. He runs the business as he sees fit. To a certain extent, it is his field. The risks are his own responsibility, but any profits also end up in his own pocket. The position of believers has something of both. As stewards, they realize that the earth belongs to God. They are accountable to him. When Israel was on the way to the Promised Land, the LORD said, the land belongs to me. He underscored that by adding, they would be “strangers and sojourners” with him.9That did not classify them as second-class citizens, but as happy stewards. They were allowed to work and enjoy freely and independently as if the land were their property. We can even read repeatedly that Israel was allowed to “inherit” 10 the land of Canaan and to take possession of it.11
Normally a steward is not an heir or a possessor, nor is a tenant, but in practice the Israelite did inherit it. This line of thought is extended to the New Testament: they [the meek] shall inherit the earth.12
The strength of the terms “tenant” and “steward” is that they indicate well that all people live and work on an earth of which every square meter belongs to God. This should determine the way people earn and spend money.
Question 111: What does God require of you
in this commandment?
Answer 111: I must promote my neighbour’s good
wherever I can and may,
deal with him
as I would like others to deal with me,
and work faithfully
so that I may be able to give
to those in need.
Someone who steals is out for booty. He is not targeting a person, but he is focused on his property. Unlike murder and adultery, the damage done is usually limited to the material side. This will have something to do with the fact that a thief was not sentenced to death or another severe punishment, but to a multiple restitution of the stolen livestock.13
Care For Each Other’s Wellbeing
Theft cannot be made right with money alone. Those who have had a thief in their home feel victimized, even if everything is reimbursed and/or the valuables are recovered. Whoever touches someone’s property, touches another person. Therefore, this commandment is not just about someone’s belongings, but also about his well-being. This is all the more evident now that it has been rediscovered that this commandment also refers to human theft. The Catechism itself no longer mentions this form of theft, but in his commentary one of the authors still reminds us of this aspect.14 It is enlightening for the explanation of this commandment that this implication has been pulled out from under the dust. In fact, in practical terms this commandment says: steal no one and nothing.15 The Bible itself speaks clearly of kidnapping. This meant the theft or kidnapping of free citizens from their familiar surroundings in order to employ them as slaves or to sell them. An example of a victim of human theft was Joseph who declared that he had been “stolen from the land of the Hebrews”.16 This form of theft was punishable by death.17
The fact that the commandment also refers to human theft makes it particularly practical for our day and age. Hostage-taking, blackmail, forced prostitution and exploitation are modern ways of stealing people. Uncle Tom’s Cabin18 can be a modern apartment today, where a man leaves very little freedom for his wife. In a country that prohibits child labour, parents can hound their children to academic performance far beyond their abilities. Advertising can entice consumers to buy what they do not need. Propaganda and political election campaigns can turn people into “voting animals”.19 All of these are ways of exploiting others in this present time.
This insight gives us a much better view of the positive side of this commandment. We must not only be careful with another’s property, but also need to watch over his wellbeing. This affects his person. We are to ensure as best we can that our neighbour is doing well. In order to achieve this we must put ourselves in his situation and so do to him “as you wish that others would do to you”.20 That is the first important step toward our neighbour: asking yourself how you yourself would want to be treated in his place. That attitude makes one resourceful in extending the proper help. The next step is: to put this into practice. God wants us to work as welfare workers in this uncaring and selfish society.
Work In Order to Give
Christians should work not only to receive and to have, but “also to be able to give to those in need”. This refers to a statement by Paul: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”21 In the society when Paul wrote this, it was a practical dilemma: to work or to steal. Government benefits did not exist. With “work” Paul is not thinking of a nice job, but of hard physical labour, causing blisters on their hands. The purpose of their toil is not only to earn their own living, but also to be able to alleviate the needs of others. This can only benefit them. No one becomes poor from giving, as the same apostle writes elsewhere. Giving is sowing. With this statement he recommends a collection for Jerusalem in Corinth.22 Someone who is sowing is apparently farming backwards. A farmer scatters his precious seed onto the ground. He can no longer sell or consume it. Gone is gone. However, such a farmer is not that short-sighted. He trusts in the future harvest. That confidence makes him into a generous sower. He who sows, invests. And investments will pay off.
That is also the secret of this collection campaign. The money earned with their own hands flows away to distant Jerusalem. It does not end up in the bank in any investments in the local area. In Corinth they will never see any of it again. But also for this collection Paul’s words are valid: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly”. That is what God provides. The poet of Proverbs (11:24) already knew this: “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.”
Not only in Jerusalem will people be blessed with this collection, but also in Corinth itself. The harvest is ultimately for those who sowed. With this harvest we should not think only of material blessings, but of the entire way in which God will repay the generous givers.
How far can and should our generosity go?
Should Christians sell their possessions for the sake of the needs in this world? Is that the ideal desire of the eighth commandment? If that is true, those who maintain their businesses or open up savings accounts should feel burdened. Taking a vacation or having a party — however modest — then puts people at odds with this commandment. Even spending on church or organ building comes under pressure. Aid to the third world should then receive the highest priority.
These and similar questions are raised in response to several radical appeals by Jesus. For example, a rich man asked him what he still lacked. Jesus answered: if you want to be perfect, “go, sell your possessions and give them to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me”.23 Are Jesus’ followers to sell everything? Or does Jesus mean by “possessions” only what is in their bank accounts, i.e., only what they own in liquid assets? This has been seriously defended 24 but the words “all that you have” (in the parallel passage of Luke 18:22) firmly include what someone owns in fixed assets such as real estate. Indeed, Jesus required this man to literally monetize everything he owned to create a fund for the poor. However, it was at a very special moment in the life of Jesus. He was about to let go of everything. Those who wanted to follow him at that critical hour — like this rich young man — had to be willing to give up all their possessions. So this call is not meant for all Christians at any given time or moment.25 The lasting meaning of this command is: Whoever wants to follow Jesus, must give himself unconditionally to his service with all his possessions. This may lead to profound measures: selling ones possessions in order to give to the needy.26 We encounter this attitude in the church after Pentecost, when “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own [personal property], but they had everything in common”.27
They did not have or advocate a common pot. The church did not turn into a commune. Everyone remained the owner of his own property. Even after sale, the proceeds remained entirely at the disposal of the owner.28 They were, however, prepared and willing to sell their possessions for the benefit of the needy.29 However, this willingness did not always require the same arrangement. When Paul was later collecting for Jerusalem, he urged the Christians in Corinth to give generously, however without demanding that they would sell all their possessions.
Giving everything away is by no means the best way to carry out this commandment. God has made us into stewards. The best steward is not necessarily the person who gives away his master’s property, but he who carefully manages it and does with it what his master wants. Those who are faithful in this will inherit the earth.