First Glance: Exodus 20:15

Photo by Hoffsnungsschimmer
Photo by Hoffsnungsschimmer

“You shall not steal” Exodus 20:15

Q110. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?

  1. God forbids not only outright theft and robbery, punishable by law. But in God’s sight theft also includes all scheming and swindling in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves, whether by force or means that appear legitimate, such as inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandizing; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God. In addition God forbids all greed and pointless squandering of gifts.

Sorry, Gordon Gecko, but greed is not good. It is not right, it does not work. It is not simply a necessary evil. We cannot baptize rampant self-interest for the sake of the common good. We cannot say, as President Ronald Reagan once did, that there is really nothing wrong with greed since it turns the engines of the market. Greed, for lack of a better word, is sin.

In the eighth commandment, “God forbids all greed and pointless squandering of gifts.” The challenge of the eighth commandment today is that breaking it seems so normal, so innocuous. None of us feels like a thief.

Few of us have picked a lock on our neighbor’s house and walked away with their TV. But ‘fraudulent merchandizing’ by selling a product for significantly more than it is worth is considered ‘good business.’ We live in a world where work and production have no inherent value, but only the value that we can get others to pay for it. This easily leads to exploitation on both extremes. Work has no set value, so paying our laborers as little as we can get away with is just a way of ‘cutting costs.’ Our products have no inherent value, so we feel justified charging whatever others are willing to pay, regardless of the real value of what we made. Both instances are called ‘theft’ in Scripture. Both paying our workers too little or charging too much is a sin.

Few of us have walked into a bank and demanded the safe be emptied. But how often are legitimate and legal means used to ‘get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves.’ When a government (or a denomination) levies taxes to support the common goods, the poor and the needy, but spends more money supporting the existing infrastructure and bureaucracy, it steals from its people. When we spend more than we make and intentionally and knowingly live beyond our means, we steal from others, because not only are we refusing to pay, but we are forcing someone else to pay for our lifestyle. When we slack off at work, we steal from our employer and bring shame upon the name of Christ. When able-bodied people refuse to work because of laziness, we break the eighth commandment. When we work hard and produce wealth, but only spend it on ourselves or admirers, we rob our neighbor, the poor, and the needy of the gifts God has given us. As Paul puts it, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” (Ephesians 4:28, italics added).

The challenge of the eighth commandment today is that ‘not the way life should be’ has become simply ‘the way life is.’ We are blinded to our own complicity in theft because it has become normal. When confined to ‘outright theft,’ most of us look innocent. But when we delve deeper, we find that all of us are thieves.

Our theft is both personal and systemic. We personally rob our neighbors when we do not do everything we can to promote their welfare. We also steal from our neighbors by supporting larger systems that support greed and its offspring: injustice and exploitation. Our response should engage both fronts in long, deliberate, and thoughtful effort to bring about a more free and just existence for ourselves and our neighbors.

But we must begin by recognizing the problem. We are all like the thieves crucified next to Jesus. They deserved to be there, but Jesus did not. They were guilty, but he was innocent. While they suffered under the judgment of Rome that day, the thief who clung to Jesus did not suffer God’s judgment. Jesus did. And he told the thief, “today, you will be with me in paradise.”

May we, too, cling to the one who hung from the cross and rose from the grave. And may we then rise to love both God and neighbor.

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