VIII. You shall not steal.
Today we are on to the eighth commandment. In the second table – that second tablet that teaches us how we are meant to live with one another. And today we are talking about stealing. Theft. Larceny. Burglary. Misappropriation. Swindling. Embezzlement. Fraud. Knicking. Snatching. Raiding. Pillaging. Mugging. Pinching. Heists. Break-ins. Looting. And all the other synonyms you can think of.
Generally, when we think of this commandment we think of petty thieves who do stupid things. Sometimes, we might think of much bigger thieves, like Jesse James back in the old west or pirates or vikings. And then occasionally, we might remember that the way we finally got to some of the biggest gangsters in history was by proving tax evasion – yet another type of stealing.
So, let’s talk some history, as has become our practice with these commandments from God. The Hebrew Bible was very clear about stealing. If you steal something, the punishment is restitution. In other words, making it better. But the patriarchs went beyond simply restoring what you took. For example, if you stole a sheep, you must restore four. If you stole an ox, you must restore five. In the book of Numbers, whatever is stolen, must be repaid plus one fifth its value. According to Proverbs, anything that is stolen must be restored seven times over.
Getting the picture yet? Stealing is a very big deal.
In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the penalty for stealing a person is death. Though we were not alone in this particular sin in the world, I want us to think about the generations of trauma done to bodies on our own soil – not only humans stolen from other places, but children and spouses and siblings stolen from their families arms. For hundreds of years. All in the name of profit. In the name of loot.
There is another historical and theological aspect to this commandment that we do need to acknowledge. This one comes to us from the prophets: ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn the needy aside from justice and rob the poor of my people of their rights, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment…? It is not only things that we can steal. Nor do we have to go so far as stealing a whole person to ruin lives and leave people destroyed in our wake. Also note that this is not written only for individuals. This is written to the full body of people. To the nation. Meaning that it is not only us as individuals who can ultimately steal from one another. We as a body, as a governance, can also do so. And God will not hold us innocent if we stay silent in the face of so many getting hurt.
Think back to the British Isles and everyone’s favorite hero of the people: Robin Hood. Everyone remember the dashing Lord turned rogue? Brad and I actually read Roger Lancelyn Green’s classic to the boys when they were just babies about the green hooded thief and his merry men. He was the perfect example of chivalry, fighting for true king and country, against the evil pretender. But do you remember the heart of that story? The rich paid no taxes while they taxed the poor to the point of extreme poverty – pushing good old Robin to act. Disney’s animated version does the best job envisioning what this looked like. We love a good hero of the people, don’t we?
But what about when we end up siding with the rich? Think about the parable from Luke’s gospel: the story of Lazarus. It is one of Jesus’s most scandalous parables. Remember that this is not Jesus’ best friend, but the poor wretch. Lazarus lives a terrible life. Never able to get food, not scraps at the rich man’s table. Even dogs come and lick his sores, exacerbating his pain. Then he dies and goes to heaven, to nourishment, to wholeness, to rest. The rich man dies and goes to hell. And the tables are turned. Still, the entitled rich man demands that the poor Lazarus serve him in death. Finally, he is denied. Now, this Lazarus is named, while the rich ruler is not. Why? Because Jesus wants us to put ourselves in this story. But not in the hero’s role.
We often think that Jesus spent his life giving comfort to everyone. However, that was not actually the case. Much like the God of Israel, Jesus often shared a vision of God’s kingdom that deeply disturbed many, especially those who already had comfort in this life.
He instead spent much of his life ensuring that those who would otherwise not have comfort gained what they needed. Those who needed to be healed. Those who were physically blind. Those who were poor. Those who were outcast. Those who were overlooked. Those who were dead. And in the final week of his life, Jesus accused those in the highest echelons of authority among his people of outright stealing from the poor – those whom God had told them to help.
We must never forget that there are countless ways we can steal from others. Ways we can loot their lives. It is not just about objects or property. It is also about health. About livelihood. About reputation. About their future. About their ability to flourish. Sometimes even their very life.
And the scriptures have made it very clear that when we have taken from another, it is not enough to merely make amends with a simple “I’m sorry.” We are to make amends with a process of reconciliation – one that takes into account what has been lost and works to reinstate far more than was extracted in the first place. Something God has held God’s people to as individuals and as a body, throughout history. Something we are meant to hold one another and our leaders to, as well.
So, what then shall we do with this eighth commandment? Well, first and foremost, if we start by following in our Lord and Savior’s footsteps, by loving our neighbor as ourselves – with gumption and gusto – that will certainly help. Next, we must open our eyes to how we continue to break this commandment as individuals and as God’s people, so that we might begin to finally fix the looting that has far too long gone unchecked in our midst. And finally, we must remember that there is always a Lazarus nearby. Always someone Jesus is calling us to find in our midst who needs our love. Our respect. Our aid. We should give it, without judging who is worthy. This day and always.