The Seventh Commandment
“You shall not steal.”
What does this mean?
“We should fear and love God, and so we should not rob our neighbor of his money or property, nor bring them into our possession by dishonest trade or by dealing in shoddy wares, but help him to improve and protect his income and property”
(Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, Tappert edition).
One of my favorite older dark comedies (1978), “The End,” stars Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise. Reynolds’ character has just learned he has a terminal illness. Leaving the doctor’s office, he stops at a Catholic Church to make his first confession in 35 years. A very baby-faced Robby Benson, “Fr. Dave,” is the only available confessor; he insists on being called “Dave.” The confession begins: “Bless me, Dave, for I have sinned…I think I would rather call you ‘Father.’” He continues, “I sell real estate for a living.” Fr. Dave asks, “It’s a sin to sell real estate?” Reynolds’ character responds: “It is the way I do it.”
Writing almost 500 years ago, Luther gets at this in the Large Catechism where he writes, “…a person steals not only when he robs a man’s strongbox or his pocket, but also when he takes advantage of his neighbor at the market, in a grocery shop, butcher stall, wine-and-beer-cellar, work-shop, and, in short, wherever business is transacted and money is exchanged for goods or labor” (Tappert 395:224). He adds: “The same must be said of artisans, workmen, and day-laborers who act high-handedly and never know enough ways to overcharge people and yet are careless and unreliable in their work” (395:226). With just a slight change in vocabulary, these words still apply today.
One wonders what Luther would have to say about thieves on Wall Street or those that purposely bankrupt a company to deprive retirees of their earned pensions and benefits. Luther warns: “A person who willfully disregards this commandment may indeed get by and escape the hangman, but he will not escape God’s wrath and punishment” (397:234). Luther reminds us that the Christian story does include theHighest Courtfrom which there is no appeal.
How does one positively strive to do God’s good and gracious will in this regard? Luther explains: “…help him [your earthly neighbor] to improve and protect his income and property.” One thinks of helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house or doing home repairs for the elderly poor as accessible mission projects for Christians of a wide variety of ages. Those involved in disaster relief or retirees helping to build a church are two more significant examples. Because, as Harry Wendt of Crossways Bible Study says, money is stored labor, Christians can always contribute to Lutheran World Relief (lwr.org) or others on the front lines as a way of being there without doing the work.
Christians involved in teaching English as a second language here in the USor tutoring those that cannot read can also be part of helping the neighbor improve and protect his income. If you can help someone become literate or assist them as they prepare to earn a GED, then you have captured the spirit of the 7th commandment. The grandparent or godparent or teacher that urges someone to develop and hone their skills and talents is likewise doing the Father’s good and gracious will.
It is more challenging, at times, to be a supervisor or boss who has the painful task of firing someone or reassigning them to a different position. You also are doing God’s work as you hold someone accountable for poor performance and help them to find or point them towards work that they could more likely embrace with enthusiasm and diligence. We do no one any favor, indeed it is irresponsible, when we allow them to continue to “steal” from others by not performing their job adequately. Because we are all frightened by the thought of losing income, we sometimes have to try to reason with someone who is anxious and unable to accurately assess her or his own performance.
Pain is a great teacher. Indeed our best lessons are learned through pain. Many an unhappy, underperforming worker has, in time, been able to say that the loss of a job they hated turned out to be the best thing that ever happened. Sometimes the worker chooses retraining for new work or uses the same skills but in a new environment, and that person actually thrives in a new setting. There is, after all, a word for someone who takes money to do things that violate both body and soul, and no one really wants to see him- or herself in that way.
Pain is also a great teacher for those that hire, fire, and reassign. Most pastors do not have adequate training before they become heads of staff. Sadly, pastors learn from their mistakes, and those mistakes are always painful for the employee, the pastor, and the congregation. Invariably, when a church employee is fired, hurt extends outwards into many relationships in the congregation in a way that would never happen in most workplace settings. It becomes emotional gasoline that feeds fires that are slow to put out and leave long-term damage. Pain is a great teacher, and pastors become better but not infallible bosses. Most pastors in larger churches would gladly have an administrator to serve as a buffer precisely because they have lived either with keeping an employee too long or have been vilified for letting go someone who was not a good fit in that parish.
Theft is, then, much more than the wrongful acquisition of some thing that is not one’s own. It is lying to God and neighbor about the basic stuff of day-to-day living. Mostly the thief steals from him- or herself by pretending to have a right where one has no right. As the Lord Jesus explained in John 10:10, the thief (Satan) comes to steal, kill, and destroy. So, then, the source of all theft is the one who tempts and seeks to deliver us into evil.
The gifts of Scripture and scriptural prayer are essential resources for keeping the 7th commandment. Christians live under God’s command and judgment as we manage God’s things and God’s people in this life, and we need God’s Word and prayer to help us to be wiser stewards. As with all the commandments, the 7th convicts us of sin and drives us to the cross of Christ for repentance and forgiveness. We live in God’s presence. He has given us our lives and all that entails as the witness stand where we respond to God’s providence and grace. We have been created to serve the neighbor as God wills!