The Seventh Commandment
September 19, 2010
Thou shalt not steal.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or goods, nor get them
by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business.
“You shall not steal.” Exodus 20:15
God owns everything. He says through the psalmist, “For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is mine, and all its fullness.” (Psalm 50:10-12) We will not understand what the Seventh Commandment means until we know that everything we have and everything our neighbor has belongs to God.
God teaches the sanctity of private property by giving us this commandment. If there were no such thing as private property there would be no such thing as stealing. You can hardly steal from your neighbor what doesn’t belong to him. But private property is not absolute. Everything we have is God’s. In the beginning, God blessed Adam and Eve and gave them dominion over the creation. It is under our care. We are stewards of what actually belongs to God.
The Seventh Commandment teaches us certain virtues, such as contentment, industry, generosity, and hospitality. It teaches contentment. “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” (1 Timothy 6:6-8) It teaches industry, or the willingness to work to get what we want. “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) It teaches generosity. We are not merely to pay what we owe and meet our legal obligations, but we are to give more than legally required. Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom.” (Luke 6:38) It teaches hospitality. In Hebrews 13:2 we read, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.”
Above all, the Seventh Commandment requires us to love our neighbor. To gain materially at the expense of our neighbor is to steal from him. But why would we want to take advantage of our neighbor, to gain at his loss, to benefit at his expense? Because we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves. Because we love what our neighbor has more than we love the One who gave it to him, that is, we love the creation more than the Creator. That is idolatry. St. Paul says that a greedy person is an idolater.
The Seventh Commandment is the foundation for any number of laws that the State enforces. God has established the civil authorities to protect life and property. The details of what these laws should be aren’t set down in the Bible, but when the government arrests, prosecutes, convicts, and punishes thieves it does God’s work. Property represents time and labor. To steal someone’s property is to rob him of part of his life.
The Bible teaches that the rich should help the poor. The Seventh Commandment requires charity, almsgiving, and hospitality toward those who are less fortunate. When St. James argues that faith without works is dead, he points specifically to providing food and clothing for the poor as the kind of works that true Christian faith produces. The government can help or hurt the poor, depending on the laws it passes and enforces. When Jesus told Pontius Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, it serves also as a warning to us not to identify Jesus and his Church with any government or political party or philosophy. The Bible doesn’t set down for us a blue print on what kind of government programs we ought to have or not have.
The Bible defends private property and the Bible warns against the rich oppressing and mistreating the poor. Nowhere does the Bible give any government the authority to take from the rich by force and redistribute their money to the poor. The notion that we can create a society that takes from each according to his ability and gives to each according to his need is an anti-Christian delusion. It denies the doctrine of sin. It claims that evil is in the social arrangements when we know that the evil is in the human heart. Marxism was the creed of the greatest thieves of the twentieth century – the Communists – who, in the name of helping the poor, stole everything they wanted in the nations they destroyed, impoverishing everyone in the process. The countries of the former Soviet Union have not yet recovered from the economic ruin handed to them by a government that fought tooth and nail against the Seventh Commandment for most of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps one can imagine, as the singer sang, “All the people sharing all the world,” but this will not happen, and so we must continue to support and defend the Seventh Commandment. This is the best way to protect the poor.
Do we respect the property of our neighbor? Do we want to help him improve his financial wellbeing? There is no commandment in the Bible to forbid gambling, but one wonders how someone can gamble while sincerely wanting the financial welfare of his neighbor. People defend gambling by saying that operating a business or farming is also a gamble. After all, you don’t know how you will do. But the problem with gambling is not ignorance of the future. It is that one person gains materially only when another person loses materially. That is the essence of gambling, but that’s not the way an honest business or farm operates. An honest business offers a fair exchange in which both the buyer and the seller can benefit. Gambling requires a loser. It appeals to greed, laziness, covetousness, and every other vice that is condemned by the Seventh Commandment. Just because no one is forced to participate doesn’t make it less of a vice.
The root sin of all sins is idolatry. All sins are false worship. All sins flow from a failure to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. In fact, all sins are merely reflections of this failure. The Seventh Commandment in particular forbids idolatry. God’s law protects private property. Why? Because God is the giver of all material goods. The One who made this world and all that is in it is the One who says that you must not take from your neighbor what belongs to him and your neighbor must not take from you what belongs to you. Since God is really the One who owns everything, every theft is stealing from God. To offer shoddy merchandise in exchange for good money is to rob God. To work hard only when the employer is watching is to cheat God. To hoard money and not give an offering to support the preaching of the gospel is to rob God’s temple and to defraud God and misuse his name. To pay folks a poor wage just because they have no choice but to accept it is to exploit God. To take and not give is to deny the very nature of God who gives every good and perfect gift.
God gives. As God gives we learn to know him. At the heart of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the vicarious atonement. This is the teaching that Jesus Christ has purchased us with his blood and set us free from our sins. This is how Luther expressed this truth in his Small Catechism:
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own . . .
We come to know God as God purchases us. He pays the price for our lives and takes possession of what he has purchased. Jesus bought us. The price of the purchase was life. Yet none of us could pay the price because we didn’t have it. Indeed, we were dead and had no life or truth or hope or future. Jesus bought us. His life was paid. To whom? To God himself. Jesus offered his life to God as the all-sufficient payment to set free from sin and death every single sinner who has ever lived.
This is an exchange. Jesus’ life is offered for ours. God accepts the offering. The exchange takes place. God now looks at us through the offering of Jesus. He sees us as forgiven of all our sins and covered with the righteousness of Christ. There is only one way to know God. That is through Christ. But not just through the person of Christ, but through his work. That is, through the redemption, the payment, the purchase. You cannot know God except through Jesus and you cannot know Jesus except in his suffering for you because there it is that he is redeeming you to be his very own.
When you know God through the payment of Christ’s holy life, then you discover something. You gain knowledge more precious than anything money can buy. You discover what is valuable and why. The stuff we have has no more value than the daily newspaper. It will be lost or stolen or it will break or just wear out. But Christ’s payment of his life on the Altar of the cross to the penal justice of God is a payment more precious than all the money in the world. And this payment now has been offered up to God and it has been received. So we now have the value that Christ’s life has placed upon us.
In a free market economy, any piece of property or merchandize has the value that folks are willing to pay for it. Your house is worth a hundred thousand dollars when somebody is willing to pay a hundred thousand dollars for it. So what are our lives worth? And what about the lives of our neighbors? Look at what Jesus paid for them.
Listen to the words of Jesus.
Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:34-37)
There is nothing a man owns that will pay for his own soul. His life is too dear. He cannot purchase his own life. If he tries he can only fail. If he tries to save himself he will be lost. No one can purchase his own life. But God can. God has. This is a very real transaction. God required payment. Only God could make payment, but man owed it. So God the Son became a man in order to offer his own life for all of mankind. He offered it to God. And that offering did in fact purchase us.
So we are bought and paid for. We belong to the one who bought us. This defines our life. This also determines for us our value. Now that we have the value placed on us by nothing less than the holy life and innocent death of Jesus, we can understand the relative value of everything we own. We are valuable, not because of the things we own or the works we do. We are valuable because of the price that Jesus has paid for us. Jesus asked the question, “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25) In Jesus we find our true worth. No one can take it away from us even if we lose everything we own in the world.
We won’t bow down and worship the dying creation, rather we will look to our Creator and we will see him pouring out his life-blood on the cross as our dear brother. Not only does he own us – we own him. Owning him, we own the world and have all the treasures of heaven. Amen.