Protecting property

God says, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Luther explains, “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.”

Salvageable adds: God would not protect our property from others if he did not want us to have property. In one sense, we own nothing. Everything that we have belongs to God and has been entrusted to us for a time. We will not keep any of it beyond the time we die. We are merely managers of God’s property. In another sense, though, what we are managing for God is ours at the moment. Therefore God forbids us to steal—to take from another person what God has entrusted to that person.

Jesus did speak blessings upon the poor and woes upon the rich. He said it is easier to push a camel through the eye of a needle that to get a rich man into the kingdom of heaven. But God does not hate the rich. He blessed Abraham, Job, David, and Solomon with riches, not because he hated them, but because he loved them. Not merely in terms of suffering, but in terms of property, God will not give us more than we can handle. What matters is not how much money you control; what matters is how much money controls you. When you are tempted to steal, to add to what you have in a dishonest way, you are falling under the spell of a false god.

There are many ways to steal. Burglary is done in secret, but robbery involves the threat of violence. Taking something from a store without paying for it is stealing. So is signing a contract to do a job, taking the money, and failing to do the job to the best of your ability. In his Large Catechism, Luther condemned those who trick other people by selling things for more than they are worth, or buying things for less that they are worth. Some people would call that good business practice, but Luther insisted that when one person cheats another in regard to money and property, that person has stolen from the other.

In the positive sense, this commandment puts us under an obligation to help our neighbors. Damaging someone else’s property is stealing; the sinner gains nothing, but the victim loses something of value. Therefore, we should help our neighbors improve and protect what belongs to them. This includes reporting to the authorities a fire or a crime in progress, making sure that our choices do not cost our neighbors money, and teaching children to respect the property of others.

As the commandment not to kill includes care for our own lives and bodies, so the commandment not to steal includes care for God’s property under our management. What we waste or destroy is not our own business; it affects our neighbors and harms our relationship with God. In his Judgment God will ask sinners how they managed the property he gave them for a time. On that Day we will all be expected to give an account of how we handled the wealth and possessions that were in our hands.

Yet Jesus has provided a way for us to escape judgment and punishment for our sins. In his parables he portrays himself as a thief, breaking into the devil’s house, tying up the devil, and robbing him of his possessions. When we steal and sin in other ways, we mark ourselves property of the devil. By his sinless life and sacrificial death, Jesus has taken us away from Satan’s power. Because of the price he paid to claim us, no Judgment remains upon us. This is not license to sin; this is power to resist temptation and to live as God’s people. Because we fear and love God, we will not steal from our neighbors, but we will help them to keep and improve what God has given them. J.

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