“You Shall Not Steal” (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The eighth commandment is another that takes work as its primary subject. Stealing is a violation of proper work because it dispossesses the victim of the fruits of his or her labor. It is also a violation of the commandment to labor six days a week, since in most cases stealing is intended as a shortcut around honest labor, which shows again the interrelation of the Ten Commandments. So we may take it as the word of God that we are not to steal from those we work for, with, or among.

The very idea that there is such a thing as “stealing” implies the existence of property and property rights. There are only three ways to acquire things—by making them ourselves, by the voluntary exchange of goods and services with others (trade or gifts), or by confiscation. Stealing is the most blatant form of confiscation, when someone grabs what belongs to another and runs away. But confiscation also occurs on a larger, more sophisticated scale, as when a corporation defrauds customers or a government imposes ruinous taxation on its citizens. Such institutions lack respect for property rights. This is not the place to explore what constitutes fair versus monopolistic commerce or legitimate versus excessive taxation. But the eighth commandment tells us that no society can thrive when property rights are violated with impunity by individuals, criminal gangs, businesses, or governments.

In practical terms, this means that stealing occurs in many forms besides robbing someone. Any time we acquire something of value from its rightful owner without consent, we are engaging in theft. Misappropriating resources or funds for personal use is stealing. Using deception to make sales, gain market share, or raise prices is stealing because the deception means that whatever the buyer consents to is not the actual situation. (See the section on “Puffery/Exaggeration” in Truth and Deception at www.theologyofwork.org for more on this topic.) Likewise, profiting by taking advantage of people’s fears, vulnerabilities, powerlessness, or desperation is a form of stealing because their consent is not truly voluntary. Violating patents, copyrights, and other intellectual property laws is stealing because it deprives the owner of the ability to profit from their creation under the terms of civil law.

Respect for the property and rights of others means that we don’t take what is theirs or meddle in their affairs. But it does not mean that we look out only for ourselves. Deuteronomy 22:1 states, “You shall not watch your neighbor’s ox or sheep straying away and ignore them; you shall take them back to their owner.” Saying “It’s none of my business” is no excuse for callousness.

Regrettably, many jobs seem to include an element of taking advantage of others’ ignorance or lack of alternatives to force them into transactions they otherwise wouldn’t agree to. Companies, governments, individuals, unions, and other players may use their power to coerce others into unfair wages, prices, contract terms, working conditions, hours, or other factors. Although we may not rob banks, steal from our employers, or shoplift, we may very likely be participating in unfair or unethical practices that deprive others of what rights should be theirs. It can be difficult, even career limiting, to resist engaging in these practices, but we are called to do so nonetheless.