I would venture that there are few, if any people in the world who reach adulthood without experiencing theft of their personal possessions. Burglary, smash and grab, pick-pocketing, fraud, and many other strategies are used to take what belongs to someone else. We all feel violated and outraged when we are victimized by any of these crimes. Beyond the pain of losing money or valuables, we react sharply to the feeling of injustice.
However, if we are honest with ourselves, we will probably have to admit that we have also been guilty of the Eighth Commandment, which reads simply, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). We may not have committed any of the crimes listed above, but there are many forms of theft that are more subtle and passive.
For example, you might borrow something (such as a book or a CD) from a friend and never get around to returning it. You may damage someone else’s property and cover it up rather than offering to fix or replace it. In the digital age, millions have openly stolen from the comfort of their own homes via piracy of movies, music and software.
So perhaps we are a bit hypocritical when we become so outraged about stealing. As the Apostle Paul wrote, "You preach, "Do not steal"---but do you yourself steal?" (Romans 2:21b)
The Bible names and prohibits many different types of theft, most of which are still prevalent today in some form. Leviticus 6:1-5 describes theft through deceit (such as failing to return a deposit, or failing to return a lost-and-found item). Indeed, the close relationship between theft and deceit is apparent throughout Scripture (Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 11:1). Modern crimes that combine deceit and theft include fraud, ‘phishing,’ and identity theft.
Normally the penalty for theft, as for destruction of another person’s property, was to restore the value and then some (an additional 20% in Leviticus 6:1-5, or up to five times as much for outright stealing in Exodus 22:1-4). If, however, it was a human being who was stolen (kidnapping or human trafficking), the penalty was death (Deuteronomy 24:7).
There are certain forms of theft which are usually perpetrated by the rich toward the poor, which could be generally described as oppression or exploitation. These include withholding of a worker’s wages (Leviticus 19:13), charging interest on loans to the poor (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19), and false balances or scales (Leviticus19:35-37; Deuteronomy 25:13-16). In the ancient world, balances were the standard by which goods and currencies were weighed in business transactions. A dishonest businessman could rig his balances in order to cheat his customers, thereby stealing from them. Since businessmen tended to be people of privilege, this sin too was associated with oppression of the poor by the rich (Amos 8:4-6).
Another class of theft could be generally described as abuse of power or corruption. In particular, people who hold positions of influence (such as politicians and judges) are prone to bribery (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:9; Micah 7:3). God also warns against using threats to exact money from someone else (under which fall robbery, blackmail and extortion) (Ezekiel 22:12; Luke 3:14).
Another form of theft which remains relevant in today’s society is tax evasion. Jesus commanded disciples to pay taxes to the authorities of the day (Matthew 17:24-27; 22:17-21), which was echoed by Paul (Romans 13:6-7). Obedience to God requires compliance with tax laws regardless of how the government may use (or misuse) tax revenues.
How many of us have returned everything we have ever borrowed? Paid every cent of tax that we owed? Refrained from paying or receiving a bribe when it would save us a lot of time and money? How many have never taken something that didn’t belong to us? Have never tricked another person out of their money or goods? Have never illegally downloaded a movie, song or software package? Have never scratched a rental car and returned it without informing the company, hoping they wouldn’t notice (okay, maybe it’s just me who’s done that). We may be outraged at someone who breaks into a house to steal, but are we not guilty of the same sin in some measure?
Let there be no doubt that God takes all forms of theft seriously. Jesus listed theft among the basic forms of sin (Matthew 15:19) and endorsed the Eighth Commandment as still binding (Matthew 19:18). Paul listed theft among the sins that exclude one from the kingdom of God, apart from the cleansing that comes through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
It is probably time for all of us to pause and offer a heartfelt prayer of confession and ask God’s forgiveness. Having confidence that our sins are now forgiven on account of Jesus Christ, how do we go about “Bearing fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8)? Paul’s advice for the reformed thief was this: “If you used to rob, you must stop robbing and start working, in order to earn an honest living for yourself and to be able to help the poor” (Ephesians 4:28).