Is there any of the Ten Commandments that gets less publicity than the eighth? We know about breaking the Sabbath, taking God’s name in vain, not honoring authorities, murder, adultery, coveting, and even bearing false witness has gotten some press lately. But theft? Who worries about stealing these days? Isn’t it odd that an age preoccupied with money and possessions worries so little about the eighth commandment?
The Heidelberg Catechism reading for this Sunday is on the eighth commandment.
Q. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?
A. 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 merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God. In addition God forbids all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.
Q. What does God require of you in this commandment?
A. That I do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.
begins where we should: What are the lawful ways to get money? He lists three ways.
1. Inheritance-Money and possessions can be passed down to us from our parents.
2. Gifts-Someone can freely give us money or possessions.
3. Earning-We can get money through a lawful vocation.
Money earned any other way is not lawful according to Williamson. I am not sure he covers everything (what about interest on savings), but it is a good start. Theft is anything that does not fit one of these three categories.
Stating the Obvious
The eight commandment along with the rest of the teaching in Scripture is clear that we can actually own things. Private property is Biblical. The idea of communal goods is not taught in the Scripture. Nor is the idea that one person should be forced to give to another. Giving and generosity is a Biblical idea. But forced giving, whether by the government or someone else. is just a fancy way of stealing.
What is Forbidden?
This commandment forbids all injustice or even the desire to do an injustice to another human as regards their possessions. Straight theft is of course forbidden. When I go and steal a car, a candy bar from the store, or my sister’s doll then I am stealing. But many of us are sneakier than this. We swindle and scheme as the catechism says. We cheat our employer by spending our days on Youtube. We fudge on expense reports. We leave an hour early, but claim we worked the whole day. We take a small amount of money that isn’t ours and think nothing of it because it was just a little bit. We sell a low quality product for a high quality price. We promise our children money and forget to pay up or make excuses for not doing so. We charge excessive interest to people who are desperate for a loan. We claim we are giving a “gift” of money but in reality we are giving a loan that we will collect interest on later. We shade our resume a certain direction to get a higher wage. On and on it goes. The human heart has no boundaries on the ways we can come up with to get more than we have earned or to cheat someone else out of what is rightfully their’s.
Then you have means of theft that are “legitimate.” Here we find employers who promise employees a certain wage, but through technicalities refuse to pay. We have older employees fired or let go before they reach retirement so the company does not have to pay out as much. We have the government’s constant printing of more money thus reducing the value of the money we currently have. We have changes in laws that make us poorer. Welfare and all government programs like it , despite being legal, are a form of theft. Many times theft is accomplished with the full consent of the law. All the “ts” are crossed and all the “is” are dotted. But it is still theft.
Why Do We Steal?
Theft is usually motivated by two things that often interlock; greed and laziness. We want what we do not have and are not willing to lawfully work to get it. A third leg might be jealousy. This is what drives many of the policies of theft that the government uses. The rich in the government stir up jealousy among the poor (it isn’t fair) in order to take from the rich in the private sector. In the end the rich in the government get richer, while the private sector rich get poorer and the poor stay poor. There is more than that going on. But that is certainly part of it. The Bible calls this the love of money, the love of our stuff. We steal or want to steal because we love our stuff more than we love God and our neighbor.
Kevin DeYoung rightly says, “It is impossible to give a one-sentence summary of the Bible’s perspective on money. But it is possible to give a one sentence summary on what God thinks about loving money. The love of money is a very, very bad thing.”
One sign that we are greedy and lazy is we are always looking for a quick fix financially.
Squandering God’s Gifts
The catechism tells us that this commandment does not just forbid theft, but also the squandering of God’s good gifts. We are stewards of what God has given to us. He wants us to use our possessions wisely. Good stewardship is not easy in our day, mainly because we have so much. If we were scraping for food we would not be as tempted to throw food away. If I had no easy way of getting a winter coat, I would save and scrap until I knew I would be warm come January. But few, if any of us, are in this scenario. We can waste and still pay the bills, have warm clothes, eat nice meals, etc.
How can we be good stewards? Here are a couple of quick pointers.
First, tithe to the church. Money given to the Lord is good stewardship.
Second, pay your bills and provide for your family. There is balance between luxury and being too stingy. Provide well for your family. This does not mean they need a BMW and a 5,000 square foot home. But is also doesn’t mean eating rice five nights a week.
Third, be generous. Most of us have money left over after we do the two things above. Our temptation is usually to pour that money back into ourselves through things like savings and home improvements. I would encourage generosity before that. Can you give 20%? Does someone at church need a little extra? Is there a missionary you know who could use a nice care package?
Fourth, save for the future. A wise man saves money because he knows things go wrong. Cars break down. Water heaters burn out. Jobs are lost. Why do I put saving behind generosity? This is the priority the Scriptures set. As long as generosity is not equated with the throwing money away with little thought or wisdom you can be generous and still save. But remember generosity should hurt, at least some to the time. If your giving never hurts then you are probably saving too much,.
Frugal and Still Loving Money
Frugality has reached epic proportions in our age. From clipping coupons, points on our credit cards, reward programs, garage sales, and reselling our used items we are all looking for ways to save money. Does frugality equal holiness though? It can be a good use of our resources. But there is a danger here as well. Frugality can be a cover for our love of money. We put our frugality in “righteous” terms. We are being “good stewards.” We are “wisely” using our money. We quote Bible verses about how important it is to be prudent with our money. And all this is true. But our hearts are easily deceived. Too many folks claim to be prudent with their money when the truth is that they are greedy and rarely sacrifice for others. They carefully manage their money not to give more (Eph. 4:28), but to protect themselves from harm.
Then End of the Matter
Work hard. Be completely honest in all your business dealings whether formal or informal. Keep your financial promises no matter how small. Never excuse theft, lying, cheating, deceit, or swindling of any kind. Tithe. Provide for those in your care. Give generously to those around you. Save. But above all fight the greed in your own heart. Guard your heart against the love of money (Prov. 27:20, I Timothy 6:10).
Other Blog Posts on the Heidelberg Catechism