There is controversy concerning this commandment. Since the command does not have an object, there is discussion about whether the object of stealing in this command is property or only human beings. Some interpreters don’t like the idea that protection of property is commanded by God since it seems to favor those who are wealthy. However, since the object of the word steal can also be property (Genesis 44:8), there is no reason to limit the object of the command not to steal to persons. The context of the law is the building of community and stealing somebody’s property destroys community as much as stealing persons (kidnapping). Also, a person who defrauds others is manipulating them for his purposes, which is akin to stealing persons.
In the seventh commandment, God commands us to put a fence around our sexuality. In the eighth commandment, God commands us to put a fence around our neighbor’s property. We are commanded to keep our hands off others’ property. We cross fences when we take what is not ours.
Everything, including our bodies and our own possessions, belongs to God. God gives possessions as a blessing (Ecclesiastes 5:19). Possessions obtained legitimately- inherited, given as a gift by another person, or worked for; are gifts from God. This does not mean that the amount of possessions determine how much God favors a person. Sometimes wealth is viewed as a curse, something that is empty. A person keeps on trying to amass wealth, gets preoccupied with it, but in the end somebody else enjoys it (Ecclesiastes 2:26). There is a preferential option for the widows, the orphans, the poor in general. God repeatedly tells his people to take care of the poor among them. Taking care of the poor is something that pleases God and not taking care of the poor is cause for God’s anger (Isaiah 58).
What is the usual way God distributes possessions? The usual way God distributes possessions is through work. Work is commanded by God since creation (Genesis 2). God tells the man and the woman to take care of the garden God put them in, meaning to make it more beautiful. He tells them to fill the earth and subdue it, meaning take control of it for the benefit of all human beings.
This should put the idea of work in perspective and gain an appreciation for all the work that people do. People whose job it is to keep places clean are keeping everyone healthy and protecting property from deteriorating. Even if property is made by human beings, it is made up of materials from creation. The factory worker directly manipulates creation. The grocery owner brings in supplies for people’s benefit. People in human services help people, who are part of creation, become productive. Government workers keep society running smoothly. The person who works on a desk is doing work for a company that is working to make creation benefit human beings. In some way, all work is a fulfillment of the command to subdue and take care of creation.
The bible consistently condemns the person who does not work. He is called a sluggard, a fool (Proverbs 6:6-10). One writer even says that if someone does not work he should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). He also says that a person who does not provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8). God rewards the diligent and condemns the lazy (Proverbs 10:4).
The propensity against work is one factor in stealing. Stealing is taking what belongs to someone by violence (robbery) or by deception (fraud). To obey the 8th commandment is to act justly and to care about justice. To care about justice means to care that a person is given his due and that nobody is taken advantage of.
Another factor in stealing is the desire for what somebody has. We will look at that in our discussion of the last commandment.
A person can plainly refuse to work or pretend not to be able to work. A person can also get more value for the service he provides than is agreed upon by him and his customer, or by society as a whole. A person may trick others to get something he did not work for. These are all are forms of stealing.
When you gain something, make sure you worked for it, or it was given to you as a gift, or you inherited it. You also have to work according to what you agreed upon with your employer. Taking what you did not work for, nor inherit, nor given as a gift, is a violation of the 8th commandment.
Concerning gambling, a person may put his hopes on winning some lottery. If a person’s goal in life is to win a lottery so he does not have to work, that shows a negative attitude towards work. When we don’t respect work, thinking that it is a complete drudgery that needs to be escaped from, we are displeasing God who commanded us to work. This does not mean that we are absolutely bound to our work. It means that we should have a desire to take responsibility for creation, which is the meaning of work.
Why does God give us things? God gave humans creation for their benefit and he blesses human beings with possessions. However, he also commands those who have resources to share with those who do not have. God commands us to work so we are not dependent on others and so we can share with others (Ephesians 4:28). This is a call to generosity, going with less so others can have more. Not only are we to uphold justice (people getting what they deserve), we are called to be generous, not turning our backs on the needy. Generosity is supposed to be the attitude of the Israelite community towards the powerless; the poor, the widows, the orphans, the aliens (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). Jesus showed generosity by giving himself to us who are powerless in the face of an uncertain future so that we can have a secure future.
How should we live with our possessions? We are not required to give up everything we have but we are required to be generous. The first Christians gave up their possessions to the needy as an expression of generosity. There was a man in the first century named Cornelius. He was a centurion and was a generous man. This implies that he has the means to give. When he became a Christian through the Apostle Peter’s preaching, he was not required to give up all he had (Acts 10). Jesus was friends with some rich people whom he loved; Lazarus, Martha, and Mary (John 11:35). Wealth is not condemned if it is not gotten through injustice, or if wealth is shared with the poor.
Spending money is not wrong. Spending keeps the economy going. People need to spend to benefit the sellers, who in turn benefit workers, who benefit other sellers, and the cycle goes on. However, in spending money, needs must come before wants and we may be called to forgo our wants so we can be generous.
We live with our possessions by taking care of it as a gift (being careful not to break it or lose it) and “using” it to express generosity towards others. “Using” implies purpose (see note 1). Looking at yourself as a “user” is to have the attitude that your things are given to you as a gift to help you live and to express generosity. The purpose of an MP3 player, for example, could be to help you relax so you can go on with your day cheerfully, and to share it with friends. The problem comes when gaining possessions is your whole focus in life. That would mean that possession has become your obsession. There is more to life than meeting your own needs or desires. God calls us to be generous.
Possessions can become a source of pride. Possessions have then become an idol and it is not possible to be generous with an idol. You can’t afford to lose it. Instead of taking pride in your possessions, find your value in God who provides everything you need, including a secure future through the death of Jesus.