You look at your watch as you wait in line at the grocery store checkout counter. You’re in a hurry. You load your groceries onto the conveyer belt as the barcode scanner beeps for the person in front of you. “Let’s get a move on it,” you think to yourself. The person in front of you pays. After your groceries are scanned, you quickly give your cash to the clerk who in return gives you your receipt and change. Into your pocket, it goes, and off you go to your next stop. Later that night, you empty your pocket at the kitchen table, and as you rest, you look at the receipt and change. Then you realize the clerk gave you an extra dollar. What do you do? Sure, you got too much change, but one dollar hardly seems significant enough to go through the hassle of returning to the grocery store. What do you do?
When we think of theft, we don’t often think about getting too much change at the grocery store and not returning to make it right. We don’t often think of ripping a friend’s CD instead of purchasing it, taking towels from the hotel room, borrowing someone’s pen and not returning it, using a friend’s Netflix account, or plagiarizing a thought that is not your own in a term paper. And what about waiting to check out in a long line, another register opens, and you beat out all the others who were rightfully in front of you. Aren’t these things, things we hardly give a second thought, a form of theft? Perhaps our sin goes deeper than we suspect. Perhaps we don’t love others as much as we assume.
The Eighth Commandment is straightforward, just two Hebrew words meaning “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15). To steal is to secretly take something that does not belong to you. Now, it’s unlikely that many of you listeners would head into Old Navy and stuff a few shirts into your purse or jacket and walk out without paying. But the Eighth goes much deeper than outright physical theft or robbery.
Heidelberg Catechism 110 asks, “What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?” and answers:
God forbids not only outright theft and robbery but also such wicked schemes and devices as false weights and measures, deceptive merchandising, counterfeit money, and usury; we must not defraud our neighbor in any way, whether by force or by show of right. In addition, God forbids all greed and all abuse or squandering of His gifts.
Focus on that one little phrase: “we must not defraud our neighbor in any way.” To defraud someone is to withhold from them what is rightfully theirs. We deceive to get what we want. We take without asking. We cheat. We try to stop someone from getting what is rightfully theirs. So, if we think carefully, we realize that theft includes stealing the car and taking credit and praise for someone else’s work in order to look good; mugging someone and getting the test answers from another student’s paper; embezzling funds and nabbing someone’s parking spot. See, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that love for our neighbor is the heart of the Eighth. The Eighth calls us to love our neighbor so much that we want her to have what is rightfully hers.
I must promote my neighbor’s good wherever I can and may, deal with him as I would like others to deal with me, and work faithfully so that I may be able to give to those in need.
One motivation for not stealing is the threat of getting caught, but there is a much better motivation. Love. Imagine not stealing because we want our neighbor to have and delight in what is rightfully theirs, even if we have less than they do. Imagine not stealing because, more than coveting what they have, we want to promote their greatest good. Imagine not stealing because we are content with what we have and joyful at the success and prosperity of others.
Stealing is a matter of the hands and heart. You can steal without ever physically taking anything. Greed is stealing. Covetousness is stealing. Lust is stealing. Laziness is stealing. Wasting time is stealing. Withholding discipline and godly instruction from our children is stealing. There are countless ways to break the Eighth Commandment, and we are unaware of many of them. What if, by God’s grace, we began to more regularly notice our theft? What if the gospel empowered us to make some changes? My, how others would benefit! Think of how the Holy Spirit can help us love others more deeply through our increased hard work, generosity, praise, honesty, and kindness. People would take notice, wouldn’t they? And what would they notice? They would notice that Christ is alive and at work in us.
Ephesians 4:28 is a thought-provoking verse. It says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” This is the power of the gospel. The gospel of a crucified and risen Christ turns thieves into honest, hard-working, generous people. Only God’s grace can do that! The gospel compels us to stop stealing because we’d much prefer to do honest work, and as God blesses, we’d much prefer to give generously to others.
Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves why God would bless our hard work. Might it be that through our hard work we may be a blessing to our employers, our families, our church, and the poor?
God does not love us because we have not stolen anything. No, we’ve stolen plenty, and we will not earn God’s love by not stealing. Remember, true obedience is perfect obedience. We are sinners who continue to struggle with theft in our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. No, God loves us because He is merciful, gracious, and generous to send us His perfect Son Jesus Christ who never stole anything. Instead, Jesus, who knew no theft, became a thief on the cross in order to save us from our sins (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus took our theft upon himself on the cross and suffered God’s wrath in our place so that we may be liberated from theft in order to honor God through hard work, honesty, evenhandedness, generosity, and kindness.
As Spirit-filled Christians, the Eighth Commandment is cheering us on to good things, better things, God-glorifying things, and by the Spirit’s guidance, we are becoming a new kind of person, a person who finds delight in promoting, protecting, preserving, and pursuing our neighbor’s greatest good.
This version of the Heidelberg Catechism is used by permission from the Standing Committee for the Publication of the Book of Praise of the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). It has been lightly revised and edited. You can find the CanRC version printed in their Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter (http://bookofpraise.ca/).
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.