“Thou shalt not steal.”
I will not forget one Sunday morning at the gospel hall, when I visited the kitchen and found a little girl of about five years of age standing there alone. As soon as I appeared at the door, she seemed to freeze, but not before pushing her clenched hand up under the top she was wearing. She had taken something from the kitchen that was not hers and was trying to hide it from me. It happened many years ago, and I am glad that now I cannot recall her face, her name, or even what she had taken. But I do remember thinking that, although she was perhaps too young to have learnt “Thou shalt not steal,” she knew instinctively that what she had done was wrong.
There is within the human heart a conscience that signals right and wrong. If that inner voice is not heeded, the conscience can become seared so that it is less responsive and less troubled by sin. Children do not need to be taught to steal; it comes naturally. It is the act of attempted concealment that reveals that the conscience is still active. As people grow older, any sin can become a habit until it is committed almost without thinking and without one twinge of guilt or regret.
The Many Sides of Theft
There are different sides to the problem of theft. Some of the most obvious examples are the pickpocket in the street, the neighborhood thief who breaks into houses and helps himself, and the violent robber or hijacker who wields a knife or firearm before driving off in the stolen vehicle. Telephone and internet scams are now so numerous that the authorities have a problem keeping up.
We should not forget that some of the most monumental acts of theft have been committed by educated, well-dressed men speaking with quiet voices in private offices or boardrooms. In 2009, a prominent US businessman was sentenced to 150 years in prison for an elaborate fraud scheme, the largest in the country’s history, estimated at over $60 billion. Corporate greed is not confined to the capitalist world; it corrupts all societies. Many years ago, the communist USSR set up an exhibition showcasing the advances of “the new Soviet man.” They ran into problems when certain public exhibits kept disappearing!
As ever, the Bible does not gloss over human sin. Family life in patriarchal times was complicated, even if we go no further than the book of Genesis. Jacob and Esau were brothers in a divided home marked by parental favoritism. Rebekah plotted with Jacob to deceive the elderly Isaac. With guile and outright lies, Jacob deceived his father to claim the blessing of the firstborn (Gen 27:6-29).
After fleeing home and the wrath of his senior brother, Jacob became locked in a contest with his father-in-law, Laban, each one trying to outwit the other. When Jacob decided it was time to flee yet again, unbeknown to him his wife Rachel stole her father’s household “images,” valuable property relating to the family inheritance. Some days later, when Laban caught up with his fleeing relatives, the theft was denied by Jacob. As Laban searched their tents, Rachel remained seated, claiming that she was unable to stand up because she was having a period. The images remained concealed beneath her (Gen 31:20-35).
Rachel seemed to get away with it. Achan did not. Under the leadership of Joshua, the children of Israel crossed over Jordan to begin inhabiting the promised land. Before the conquest of Jericho, the Israelite soldiers were warned not to appropriate any of the spoils of war for themselves; all of the riches were to be consecrated to the Lord. In the heat of the battle, Achan had taken and later concealed a valuable coat, along with a quantity of silver and gold. After the shocking defeat at Ai, when the Israelites were routed and 36 soldiers killed, Achan’s sin was exposed. He and all his family were put to death (Jos 7). This story should cause us all to tremble. When there is sin in the camp, everyone, including the innocent, can suffer, even if they do not know why.
Ahab was a self-indulgent and paranoid king who was largely controlled by his ruthless wife, Jezebel. When he coveted the vineyard of a man called Naboth and the owner refused to part with it, he returned to the palace in a depressed mood. His wife, hearing of his frustration, devised a murderous plot that involved two false witnesses accusing Naboth of blasphemy. This resulted in his execution by stoning, and so Ahab had his vineyard at last. The Lord immediately directed Elijah to confront the king with his sin and inform him of the certain judgement of God that would befall him (1Ki 21:1-24).
The Complex Web of Sin
There is a constant interplay between the prohibited sins of these last commandments. Murder could be defined as robbing another person of life itself; adultery is stealing someone else’s spouse. The pride of the self-righteous Jew was addressed in the second chapter of Romans. He was one who claimed to be better than others and was quick to condemn them, but Paul challenged such a position: “Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? Thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? Thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonorest thou God?” (Rom 2:21-23 KJV).
Theft expresses the attitude that God has not provided me with enough and seeks to fast-track a remedy. It also robs another person of that which has been provided for them. In either case, it is an affront to a holy God. The believers at Ephesus were reminded of their new life and new responsibilities in Christ: “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph 4:28 KJV). Converted thieves were transformed to become those willing to help others.
Our blessed Saviour was eternally rich but voluntarily became poor so that we, who were spiritually poor and destitute, could through His poverty become so rich (2Co 8:9). He came to give and give it all. In humility He allowed Himself to be crucified between two thieves. What wondrous grace!