You shall not steal

by Matthew C. Harrison

What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income. (Small Catechism, Seventh Commandment)

 … as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Cor. 6:10)

What and who shall be my god? It is the strangest of joy-robbing distortions that the very things (money and possessions) that God Almighty showers “upon the just and unjust” (Matt. 5:45) are made into idols and false gods by us miserable children of men. Sin and our flesh deceive us into “worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25). Contentment is elusive no matter how much money one may possess. To whom or to what do I look for contentment, security and joy? Jesus’ clear and inerrant Word provides some helpful diagnostics.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt. 6:19–24)

If money is my god, then my heart will never be satisfied. If money is my god, then I will be eyeing the wealth of others and seeking in a sinful way to lay hold of what is not mine. If money is my god, then Christ the Lord cannot be my God.

Luther quipped that money makes a poor god, indeed. It has to be protected, locked up in a chest and worried about constantly. The very thing my misguided heart puts its hope and trust in can only render me, in the end, hopeless, disillusioned and joyless. And worst of all, if money is my god, then the greatest theft is from God Himself. For then I’ll be convinced that what I possess is a result of my doing and at my disposal alone, and not God’s gracious gifts to be used for His glory, the extension of the Gospel and the well-being of my neighbor.

The Catechism states all of this in the negative and then in the positive — that we are not to “take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way …” but instead, positively, we are to “help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.” The Letter to the Hebrews states, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for [God] has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (HEB. 13:5). St. Paul teaches a great deal about money and its use, particularly in the context of his great collection for the poor in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8–9). Paul wrote, “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:6). In God’s marvelous economy, generosity is richly rewarded: “God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:7–8).

How can my love of money and possessions be broken? How can I become generous so that I deeply desire to help my neighbor “improve and protect his possessions and income”? Only Jesus.

Only Jesus kept this commandment perfectly … for you, in your place. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). Jesus and His disciples kept a cache of money. In fact, it was the subject of Judas’ greed. Judas succumbed to the god of mammon (John 13:29; 12:6; Matt. 26:15). The disciples’ money bag was there to care for the needs of Jesus and the apostolic band, but also to provide for the needy whom they encountered (John 12:5).

Only Jesus. Jesus not only fulfilled the righteous demands of the Seventh Commandment, He spent Himself for a wretch like me, who has so miserably transgressed it in thought, word and deed. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (1 Cor. 9:9). This is St. Paul’s strong Christological argument — even more so, the strongest Gospel motivation for Christians not to be controlled by lust for money and possessions, but to be generous to others.

— Pastor Harrison

The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison is president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

1 thought on “You shall not steal”

  1. Give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
    lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the LORD?”
    or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God.
    Proverbs 30:8b-9

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