Everybody knows about the Ten Commandments. Not everybody knows what they are, and nobody obeys them perfectly, but the term is pervasive as an expression for Doing Good.
It’s been often observed that the commandments come on two tablets—not just literally (Ex 31.18), but logically as well. Commandments 1-4 address our relationship with God, answering to the Great Commandment (“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” Mt 22.36-38), while commandments 5-10 address our relationship with other humans, answering to the Second Commandment (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” Mt 22.39). And within that second table, many have noticed that the last 4 seem to be related:
14 You shall not commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (Ex 20.14-17).
Adultery and coveting (especially coveting your neighbor’s wife) seem of a piece, bookending the prohibitions on stealing and lying, or “bearing false witness.”
I’d like to spend a post or two on these last-mentioned two as connected. Stealing, I’d suggest, is really just a form of lying—which is why the two so often travel together.
Stealing, as we all know, is taking something that doesn’t belong to you. We know instinctively that that’s wrong, but it’s worth our time to think systematically through the reasons why.
- Like all the other sins listed in the Second Table, stealing is failing to love your neighbor, since you’re depriving him of something that he has earned:
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (Ro 13.8-10).
- But when you do that, you’re engaging in a whole list of lies. You’re saying that
- Your neighbor is not in fact in the image of God, deserving your respect;
- What you’ve taken really and rightly belongs, or should belong, to you;
- God, your abundantly generous heavenly Father, hasn’t given you everything you need;
- You need more—and God doesn’t care enough about that need to give you what you need in a legitimate way;
- If you’re a believer, you’re saying that you haven’t taken off the cloak of ungodliness and put on the cloak of righteousness (Ep 4.17-25). You’re saying that God hasn’t fundamentally changed you from your unbelieving days. As a believer, you’re living as though you’re still by nature a child of wrath (Ep 2.3). That’s like being a square circle—it doesn’t make any sense at all.
So when you steal, you’re lying, in multiple and obvious ways. It’s no surprise, then, that Paul mentions both together:
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. … 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy (Ep 4.25-28).
Note his requirement that thieves work “honestly” with their hands, in contrast with the lying way they had “worked” before.
When you steal, you’re not telling the truth, and you’re not living the truth. And there’s nothing good down that road. Since you don’t like it when other people do that to you, how can you possibly excuse it in yourself?
In the next post I’d like to look at an incident of lying and stealing in the Bible.