Summary: the caommandment not to stealis a commandment to maintain one’s integrity in everything we do.
What images come to mind when you hear the eighth Commandment "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19)? You shall not take what doesn’t belong to you. If you are like me you might have an image of a masked thief in a stripped shirt climbing over a wall with a bag of loot over his shoulder. One writer on the Commandments suggests that from a biblical perspective, stealing means: "the desire to get as much as possible while giving as little as possible" (Colin Smith). But the Bible seeks to reverse this formula: instead give as much as possible while taking as little as possible.
We have seen again and again in this series that Jesus often gave a new perspective on the Commandments. A book I was reading this week suggested that Jesus "reframes" the laws of the Old Testament. I find that a helpful image. Jesus by no means declares the Commandments wrong. What he does is to put them in a wider perspective, as if he takes a picture and puts it in a new, bigger frame so that its full meaning can be seen more clearly.
But while Jesus "reframes" many of the Commandments in his Sermon on the Mount, he doesn’t make any specific comment on the eighth Commandment. But we find something unusual in Paul’s farewell speech to the elders in the church at Ephesus, in the book of Acts, chapter 20. In Paul’s speech a saying of Jesus that isn’t recorded in the four Gospels. Paul says to the elders:
"In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the word of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ’It is more blessed to give than to receive’" (Acts 20:35).
Paul encourages the elders to do what he had done and what Jesus had recommended: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" – in other words, the desire to give as much as possible while taking as little as possible.
But we all sense, don’t we, that this is exactly opposite of what much of our society is saying to us? Look after number one! I want it all and I want it now! God’s message in the Bible which we find in the eighth Commandment and in the words of Jesus and of Paul is really "counter-cultural" isn’t it?
A few weeks ago some members of this congregation including myself were invited to be on a panel to answer questions from the youth group. We were given a list of some of the questions in advance. One question that didn’t get answered was "Is it a sin to download music off the Internet?" Based on the eighth Commandment it seems that the answer is clearly "no" if you are paying for it. But if you are stealing it then God’s answer seems to be a very firm "yes".
But stealing from a biblical perspective is not just about a person taking illegally what doesn’t belong to them. The eighth Commandment is about all the different ways people attempt to get a lot while giving a little.
Let’s apply this definition of stealing to some practical areas of life, such as people’s attitude towards their work. If we are employees then the eighth Commandment seems to me to suggest that giving full value in work is a priority. Paid work is relationship of trust to do the work being paid for. If stealing is the desire to get as much as possible while giving as little as possible, then at work it might include things such as:
Taking extra breaks
Expanding the work to fill the time available
Avoiding the parts of our work we are paid to do but don’t like doing, or using work time
Pursuing our own projects.
For employers paying fair wages for work done and sharing our income with those whose work helped to produce it is important. In the letter of James he writes: "Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts" (James 5:4). It has been said that the employers here asked the wrong question: Instead of asking "What’s the minimum amount I can get away with paying?" they should have asked, "What’s the value of my workers?" (Smith).
If we are in business the eighth Commandment draws attention to the importance of:
Charging fair prices
Doing a good quality job without cutting corners to make the job more profitable.
In today’s reading the prophet Amos criticised traders for using false weights and measures: "We will make the ephah (the container) small and the shekel (coin) great, and practice deceit with false balances..." (Amos 8:5). Both in business and privately the Commandment prioritises paying our bills on time. Paul wrote: "Pay to all what is due them, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due" (Romans 13:7).