God does not endorse the abolition of private property or ownership. If there were no private ownership, there could be no stealing, but “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15, ESV) stands as an endorsement of private ownership. God speaks of things belonging to Him. All that we have is, in one sense, on loan from Him for He owns it all. But by extension, it becomes “ours” and we are responsible for caring for it.
There are many ways to steal. Laban “stole” Jacob’s wages by not “paying” him what he said he would (Genesis 29:15-20). Jacob had already stolen Isaac’s blessing from Esau (Genesis 27:1-46). Potiphar’s wife “stole” Joseph’s reputation by lying about his actions (Genesis 39:7-20). Saul stole Samuel’s priestly prerogative by offering a sacrifice in Samuel’s absence (1 Samuel 13:8-14). Ahab stole Naboth’s vineyard by arranging his death and then seizing his property (1 Kings 21). The Pharisees robbed their parents by declaring their possessions “Corban” (devoted to God) so they would not have to provide support for their parents (Mark 7:11-13).
We rob and steal in many of these same ways. We don’t declare taxable income on our tax forms, use company items for personal purposes, copy copyrighted material, spend money for personal pleasures when we owe creditors. 1 Corinthians 6:10 declares that thieves shall not inherit the kingdom of God. The thief has denied God’s way of acquiring necessities – honest work. Either he will not trust God to provide his needs or he is selfishly lazy and finds it easier to take what others have worked for. Such a person does not know the love, grace and ownership of God.
What is the positive aspect to this negative command, “You shall not steal”? Ephesians 4:28 gives it to us and gives us what our motive should be as we seek to counteract the temptations to theft:
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. (ESV)
Generosity made possible by honest labor is the motive opposite to stealing. The thief does not stop being a thief when he stops stealing. He stops being a thief when he starts giving to others from the fruit of his honest work. As we find ourselves tempted to take what belongs to another we should seek to respond in just the opposite way. We should become overly scrupulous about what is not our own, seeking to avoid all appearance of evil. If we have stolen we must make restitution and become generous givers instead of takers.