We all know the sinking feeling we get when something is missing. And it’s worse if we think if it has been stolen. But this commandment is not about what might happen to us. It’s about what I may do myself.
God is a giver, and he wants us to be like him. Taking what doesn’t belong to us is no part of his economy! Let’s look at some of the ways this taking and giving happens.
The most obvious stealing is taking someone else’s property—by violence or stealth. Some are clever enough to do it legally. There are many kinds of property, including intellectual property. A thief puts his own interest above that of others and above the well-being of the whole community.
Then there’s stealing by withholding what we owe someone else. This doesn’t attract the same attention as direct stealth, but it is just as damaging. For example, if someone employs you, you owe them your good service. And if someone provides a service to you, they need your prompt payment. Failure here breeds distrust and broken relationships. It’s stealing.
On a more personal level, Paul says, ‘Owe no man anything except to love one another’ (Romans 13:8). In other words, pay your bills, but you’ll never finish paying the debt of love to those around you. God’s love has filled you up so full that you have the resources to help others. If you close up your heart, you’re not paying your bill!
Love is powerful. It builds and heals and provides and creates hope. Withholding of love is also powerful. It breaks and bruises and steals and creates despair.
Paul tells thieves who’ve become Christians not to steal anymore. Rather, they should work at something so they have enough to look after themselves and to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28). God has designed us to look after things, and each other.
God is not running his creation legally—as though we only have to do a minimum to keep ourselves out of trouble. He wants everyone contributing what they can, and as they have opportunity. John tells us that if we have resources and see someone in need and do nothing, God’s love doesn’t live I us (1 John 3:17). That’s serious!
By telling us not to steal from one another, the Lord has raised the matter of property. This is clear from the fact that we are not to take what belongs to someone else.
But is owning certain things a right? We talk about it all the time in the community. But the value of property is greater than a right. It’s a gift. James tells us, ‘Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father…’ (James 1:17).
This means that if I steal from someone else, whether property, or service or opportunity, I am not merely offending the victim, I am messing with God’s generosity.
We may think that if we work consistently and well, we deserve to have what we have earned. But God sees us doing our job as his gift (Psalm 104:23-24). He’s given us a planet with its seasons and systems that enable things to work. He ensures the success of our work—or otherwise. And he’s given us the joy of participating in making everything function well. And then he gives us the fruits of our own work.
The Lord who gives us these commands is leading Israel to their own country. They are going to have their own plot of land—and it will be protected, productive and pleasurable (Deuteronomy 26:8-10).
And this is true for all of us. The Lord gives freely to all the peoples of the earth so that everyone can eat heartily and enjoy their life (Acts 13:15-18; 17:24-26).
So, the Lord is telling us not to get in the road of his generosity to all his creatures! We’ve been made to reflect his kindness, not obscure it.
People who steal don’t understand what it means to be a human being. They are trying to get something for nothing. This denies our need to contribute, to grow and to love.
Thieves may want to be rich, or fulfill an ambition, or get out of trouble, or impress someone, and take the shortest route to get there. But they are saying ‘No’ to hard work, to difficulty, to saving, to waiting. They are also saying ‘No’ to caring for others, to development of character and to love.
God gives to Israel some interesting laws that show how important it is to be concerned about the property of other people. You can check them out at Exodus 22:26-27, Leviticus 19:9-11, and Deuteronomy 15:12-18.
Perhaps we’ve been taking something that’s not our own, or of not providing something we should have given. Our situation is more serious than civil courts can deal with. Our hearts are being exposed for what they are (Mark 7:21; Romans 7:14-24). The love of God is not there! We are not in a good place. If thieves go on stealing, they won’t be part of God’s future (1 Corinthians 6:10).
But if you feel exposed, that’s what this law was meant to do. And it is meant to take you back to the Saviour who saves you. The wretchedness we may feel does not come down from God so much as up from our own hearts. We know this is no way to respond to God’s kindness!
So, we turn from feeling proud of ourselves to being what we are—sinners saved by grace. And we resolve, not to try harder, but to receive the ministry of the Holy Spirit who is showing us who we are, what we have received, and how we may serve our neighbour.