“Luther felt that the disposition to dishonesty and the practice of it was extremely prevalent in his day. He says: ‘God has commanded that no one damage or curtail the possessions of his neighbor. To steal signifies nothing else than to obtain another’s property by unjust means. It briefly embraces every method, in all lines of business, by which advantage is taken of our neighbor. Stealing is a widespread, universal vice. But it is so little regarded and seriously dealt with that it exceeds all bounds. Should all be executed who are thieves, and yet resent being called so, there would soon be desolation, and there would not be executioners and gallows enough… In short, thieving is a universal art, the largest guild on earth.’
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21. The Law Of Mine And Thine
“Thou shalt not steal.” — Exodus 20:15.
“For this is the will of God, … hat no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter; because that the Lord is the avenger of all such.” — 1 Thess. 4:3, 6.
Most people speak with fluency, and often with a great degree of warmth, of the desirability of honesty. We are eager to maintain our standing as honest people. Nearly everyone is ready strenuously to repudiate any insinuation that he is not strictly honest. If there is anything which is calculated to strengthen one in his love of honesty and in the determination to be uncompromisingly honest, it is to be found in such thoughts as we drew from the Word of God in the preceding address. If a man will not be prompted to love and practice honesty by the thought that, as a steward, he is handling God’s gifts; by the thought that what his neighbor handles is not only the result of his labor, but that God has had a hand in bestowing it; by the thought that all of us will have to give a strict account of all the property we have handled, and for the way in which we have handled it, — if thoughts like these do not lead to honesty, then we know of no motives that will move men to it.
The honest man feels that all men ought to be naturally honest. But dishonesty is a very common thing in the world. Daily experience proves that many either do not know or do not feel bound by any such considerations as we have recounted. And the evidence is not wanting that many who assuredly know the teaching of God’s Word on this subject live in violation of it. Yes, in spite of our boasted culture, and the advance of the spirit of altruism, there is still room in this old world and in every walk of life for the old commandment — “Thou shalt not steal.”
In the light of what we have learned as to the nature of our right to property, let us consider today the subject of Honesty, or the Law of Mine and Thine.
Theft is one of the meanest and most despicable of crimes. Murder and some other sins are often committed under the influence of sudden passion that, for the time being, unbalances the judgment. Theft, on the contrary, is usually the result of cool calculation. Men plan for it in secret and then carry it out with cunning. Not infrequently the thief goes to his work of despoiling others, prepared and willing to take the life of any one who may discover him and resist his dastardly work. If a theft is committed as the result of an unexpected temptation, it is still largely the result of a chronic state of heart. The thief is one of the basest and most selfish of persons. He thinks only of himself. He has no conscience. There is no place in his mind for thoughts touching his neighbor’s welfare. The law of equity is an unknown quantity to him. So far as other people are concerned, he recognizes no right of ownership which may not be violated by the one who has the power or the cunning. The thief has no regard for the feelings or the welfare of other people. That he may use that for which he has given no equivalent, he is willing that those who have labored and sacrificed should be deprived of their hard-earned increment. Many people have willingly died rather than live by theft. The thief cares not if others die as a result of his deeds, just so he may live with as little exertion as possible.
The common thief, the ordinary pilferer, the sneaking purse-snatcher, the burglar, who, under cover of darkness, breaks into houses, the highway man who waylays people in lonely places, or any one who in any kindred manner seeks to enrich himself at the expense of others — these, one and all, are looked upon with loathing by every decent citizen. When such fellows are caught and imprisoned, almost everyone rejoices and says, It serves them right. This coarse and common sort of thievery is condemned, not only by Christians, but by all people who make any pretensions to decency. The laws of at least the better class of heathen condemn it. But even so we must be on our guard against the inclination. With respect to this sin also we need to watch and pray that we be not led into temptation. Christ was speaking of my heart and yours, as well as of that of others, when He said: “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts… thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (St. Matthew 15:19). It takes supreme care to preserve God’s gift of an unselfish heart, an honest purpose, and the determination to give to all men a square deal.
Luther felt that the disposition to dishonesty and the practice of it was extremely prevalent in his day. He says: “God has commanded that no one damage or curtail the possessions of his neighbor. To steal signifies nothing else than to obtain another’s property by unjust means. It briefly embraces every method, in all lines of business, by which advantage is taken of our neighbor. Stealing is a widespread, universal vice. But it is so little regarded and seriously dealt with that it exceeds all bounds. Should all be executed who are thieves, and yet resent being called so, there would soon be desolation, and there would not be executioners and gallows enough… In short, thieving is a universal art, the largest guild on earth.”
The old crude forms of theft are no longer in vogue in civilized countries. The pirates have been driven from the seas, though, as at the present time, professedly friendly nations may become pirates, and we allow them to take from our ships what they please, probably paying for it in the course of time, if they ever have the means and sufficient pressure is brought to bear upon them. The outlaw bands which existed in Biblical times, as we learn from the story of the Good Samaritan, and which flourished in our own land less than a half century ago, have been pretty well suppressed by the strong hand of the law, at least in countries like ours. The mailed fist is no longer the law which governs in the things which are mine and thine. Indeed, in no sphere of life have there been so many laws enacted respecting property. Property, rather than life or morals, is the chief consideration. But theft is by no means a thing of the past. New forms of taking advantage have been devised. New evasions of existing laws are constantly being brought to light. Our jails, reformatories and penitentiaries are constantly filled with those who have sinned against property. And there are unquestionably more outside these places who ought to be in them than there are in them. Taking everything into consideration, there is no occasion for taking offense in our day at the pointed, unsparing words of Luther. They may be applied with but little curtailment of their scope or force. And they furnish us food for serious thought and self-examination.
The Finer Forms of Theft
I have said that the large majority of people who have any sense of decency at all frown upon common thievery. But there is a multiplicity of methods by means of which men take advantage of their fellowmen. A strict morality, construed on the basis of God’s Word, includes all these in the term theft. In many respects, in these days, theft has been reduced to a fine art. By many the questionable methods by which business competitors are put out of business and the purchasers of wares duped, are regarded as exhibitions of laudable business acumen. And, quite generally, the misrepresentation of the commodities one has to sell, and an unseemly decrying of the character and value of that which one wishes to buy, are considered as legitimate tricks of trade. To all such people, whether they operate in the penny market or measure their deals by the thousands of dollars, this Word of God applies:
“This is the will of God… that no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter; because that the Lord is the avenger of all such” (1 Thess. 4:3, 6).
Men often apply to such conduct terms which extenuate, if they do not condone, the act, but in plain old Anglo-Saxon speech it is theft. This truth needs to be pressed home with all possible force in these days. The worth of people today is largely estimated, not by what they are in character, not by the good they have done, not by the influence they exert on the community; but by the size of their bank account or the number of farms they own. This helps along very decidedly man’s natural disposition to greed and unscrupulousness.
This matter of taking advantage in business transactions is not by any means new. Men did not have to be very far advanced to see such opportunities. In those olden days men did not only steal, but they knew how to give light weight and short measure. In the distant days of Moses the law-giver, tradesmen were exhorted to honesty in these words:
“Thou shalt not have in thy bag divers weights, a great and a small. Thou shalt not have in thine house divers measures, a great and a small. But thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have” (Deut. 25:13-15).
This form of taking advantage is so common in our day that the government, state and municipal, must keep constant watch over the matter of weights and measures. It was a subject of newspaper report only recently that in a certain city nearly all the market measures had been confiscated and destroyed, because they were below the regulation size.
Constantly we are learning, sometimes by sad experience, that materials of every character which were represented to be of a certain grade, and paid for on that basis, are of an inferior quality. Adulteration of goods is another form of misrepresentation, which comes under the same condemnation. In all such cases of misrepresentation as to the quantity or quality of material, the guilty fail to distinguish clearly between mine and thine. And in so far as they have failed to give to their neighbor what they should have given him, or have taken from him what they had no right to take, they are violators of the Seventh Commandment; they are thieves, for they have stolen.
In the sphere of labor and wages there is much violation of the Seventh Commandment. There is an exchange of commodities between the laborer and the employer of his service. The one sells his labor for a stipulated wage or barters it for a certain measure of the necessities of life. The fixed laws of trade apply to such cases of exchange as well as to any other. The one who takes advantage of conditions to grind the faces of the unfortunate, to keep wages down to a starvation point, and then refuses to pay or unnecessarily delays in paying what has been honestly earned, stands before God’s tribunal branded as a wretched thief.
“Woe unto him that useth his neighbor’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work” (Jer. 22:13).
“Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth” (James 5:4).
On the other hand, the laborer may be, and often is, just as much of a thief as the unjust employer. When he stipulates to do a certain amount of work for a stipulated price or work a certain length of time for a given wage, and then loiters on the job; or, when unobserved, does shoddy work, he is a thief also: he steals both the time and reputation of his employer. Luther speaks some pertinent words to this class of people. He says: “It is stealing when a servant is unfaithful in duty, and does, or permits, any injury which could have been avoided; or when he or she is otherwise indifferent and careless through laziness, negligence, or wickedness… I may say the same of mechanics, workmen, and day laborers, who act wantonly, knowing not how to cheat their employers enough. Besides, they are lazy and unfaithful in doing their work. All such are worse than secret thieves. Against the latter we can guard by locks and bolts, and, when they are caught, we can restrain them by punishment. But against the former no employer can be protected.” Let us remember these things, whether we be employers of men or are employed by them. We owe something, the one to the other, — and the failure to pay this debt is theft.
Taking advantage of the necessities of men, simply because one has the power and the opportunity to do so, comes within the scope of the condemnation of this commandment. Monopolistic enterprises, manipulating the market by corners or other unscrupulous methods, and the like, may get one a name as a financial genius, and may even be within the sanction of human law; but it nevertheless brings down upon one’s head the condemnation of God’s law and the detestation of all right-thinking, right-feeling people. God speaks His denunciation of those greedy people who care only for themselves in these words:
“Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they be placed alone in the midst of the earth” (Isa. 5:8).
Even in the great crises of national and inter national life, such as war, pestilence, famine, and the like, experience proves that there are always plenty of men heartless enough to take advantage of the direst needs of their fellowmen to squeeze the last possible cent out of them. And this is not something new under the sun. It is the record of history from the days long before the time of Christ to the present time. This is a direct contravention of our text, which says that no one should defraud his neighbor. And Levitical law, of which we should have a finer conception than was possible to the ancients, says:
“If thou sell aught unto thy neighbor, or buyest aught of thy neighbor, ye shall not oppress one another” (Lev. 25:14).
This passage, and many others of like tenor, places God’s condemnation on much of the so-called big business of our generation.
Games of chance, betting and gambling of whatever nature, is a form of theft. And it makes little difference whether it is carried on in a joint in the slums, in a palace, or, as is sometimes the case, under the auspices of a congregation. It is sometimes urged, in extenuation of the sin, that it is an arrangement entered into by mutual agreement, with open eyes, and that men, therefore, have no right to complain if they lose. The latter contention may be granted, but that does not make the matter right. Gambling stands in about the same relation to stealing that dueling does to murder. Because a man is willing to risk losing his life in an encounter, does not make it right for him to take another man’s life. Nor does the fact that a man is willing to risk his own property in a game of chance, make it right for him to take another man’s property without the payment of an equivalent. There is nothing considerate or brotherly in a gambling transaction. Men gamble simply as a result of their feverish desire for quick and easy gain at any cost, even of their souls.
That the practice of gambling is wrong, is further shown by the fact that the gambling fever is one of the most fruitful causes of direct theft. Much petty thieving is prompted by the mania for gaming. Most of those who loot banks of the thousands which others have earned and saved, do it for the purpose of some kind of speculation. This lust to have without toil, to be able to spend without earning, lies at the root of all gambling. At everyone who would put his hand to that which he has done nothing to produce or for which he is giving no equivalent, should be thundered the Seventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” The gambler is a thief in the sight of God, — he should be esteemed as such in the sight of men.
So far I have enumerated but a few of the more general types of dishonesty. This commandment is directed against all plunderers of their neighbor’s property. Every form of usury, cheating, and extortion is forbidden. It may be perpetrated under the forms of human law; that, however, does not excuse it. The laws of men cannot make void the laws of God. Against all those who refuse to consider the rights pertaining to that which is “thine” in order unlawfully to increase that which is called “mine,” Christ closes the gate of heaven:
“Ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren. Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God? Be not deceived; neither… thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6,8-10).
The Word of God makes no distinction in theft as to great or small. Now in the light of what this Word teaches on the subject let us hastily review our past life. Are we in this respect as entirely free from guilt as we, in thoughtless moments, may have considered ourselves? Have we never taken any advantage of a neighbor in a deal? Have we never misrepresented what we had to sell nor unduly decried what we wanted to buy? Have we always given good measure and full weight? Have we always tried to pay our honest debts? Have we always been frankly truthful when the assessor came around? Do we always pay our fare on the street cars, even when there is a chance to evade it Riding, recently, on an interurban train I spoke to a little girl who, sitting on the next seat, made friendly overtures. In the course of the conversation I asked her how old she was. The question very much confused her. And the mother explained, rather as a matter of fact, that the child had been instructed to tell the conductor, if he asked her age, that she was five years old. She was evidently eight or nine. Was this honesty? Was it inculcating love for the truth?
There is still another form of dishonesty, of which we might not be led to think by this summarization of the Seventh Commandment. Men not only often cheat their fellowmen, but they often try to cheat God:
“Will a man rob God?” asks the Lord through the mouth of the last of the prophets. And in answer to the question: “Wherein have we robbed Thee?” He says: “In tithes and offerings” (Mal. 3:8).
We owe God much; indeed, everything. We owe Him our means, our time, our worship. To the Israelites the Lord said:
“When thou hast eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which He hath given thee. Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping His commandments, and His judgments, and His statutes, which I command thee this day” (Deut. 8:10:11).
How many are doing this constantly It is robbing God.
This commandment demands honesty. The Lord is not satisfied with the absence of dishonesty, least of all where the restraining force is no more than the fear of consequences. As in other relations, so here also God wants the heart; not merely the absence of vice, but the presence of virtue: a heart fervently devoted to honesty is what God requires. He wants a heart so in love with moral beauty and nobility of spirit, so imbued with fear and love of Himself, so filled with respect for the majesty inherent in the image of God he bears, that it spontaneously recoils from the thought of stooping to meanness. In this sense it is true that “an honest man is the noblest work of God.”
Human conditions, despite our boasted culture and moral progress, are not favorable to the cultivation of such ideal honesty. The natural human heart is inclined to be selfish and greedy. Every where around us we behold dishonesty flourishing. Graft and bribery are common on the part of those in high position. The greatest extravagance is practiced by the majority of those engaged in doing work for the government, national, state, or munic ipal. This is because the people pay the bills. It is all a form of theft. We cannot expect much of the ordinary man when legislators set the example of plundering those whose interests they were elected to serve. It would be asking much to expect the common man to think very highly of human laws when many of them seem to have been drawn for the purpose of furnishing loopholes for the extrication of expert tricksters, and when they protect those whose gigantic so-called business operations are but schemes for swindling the unsuspecting. No, the prevailing conditions are not favorable to the growth of a general spirit of honesty.
Another condition, which is itself both an expression of dishonesty and a means for its promotion, is the injustice prevalent in the punishment of offenders against the Seventh Commandment. The Constitution of our land contains the axiom that all men are equal, at least in the eyes of the law. This proposition has come to be more of a beautiful theory than a reality. At least this is the conclusion to which we should have to come if we looked only at the work of many of those who fill the very offices instituted for the purpose of ex pounding and enforcing this lofty principle of equality and justice. I refer to our judiciary and the whole process of law enforcement. The poor man who steals a bushel of potatoes or a few pounds of meat, usually gets short shrift at the hands of the officers of the law. He is generally railroaded to prison, and the full penalty of the law exacted. We do not mean to condone such a man’s sin. Whoever the man, whatever the circumstance, — he who steals is a thief; for a man of high honor will die rather than steal. Under normal conditions he does not need to do either. There is usually some thing for the honest, efficient man to do whereby he may support himself. If not, there are always those who are both able and willing to help him. In contrast to the petty thief and the drastic punishment meted out to him stand the inaugurators of the schemes of frenzied finance. They gather in their thousands, or millions. The young and inexperienced who have inherited a few hundred dollars, the aged who have saved a small sum from their earnings against the time of need, the widow with the proceeds of a small insurance policy — these are their dupes. Or there is the respected and trusted officer of a bank who loots its strong box because he has speculated or desires to do so, with other people’s savings, in order to grow rich quickly at the risk of other people. What happens to these fellows? If they suffer arrest they soon get out on bond and go about their business or seek their pleasure, while the petty offender lies in jail. The big fellow spends a tithe of his spoils in hiring the best obtainable legal talent. These hirelings, who prostitute their talents to the end that justice may be defeated, take advantage of every technicality. They wear out courts and juries. They prolong the case till the edge of the resentment against the criminal is dulled, and then he either goes free, or gets a nominal sentence, a large part of which is in the form of a money fine. This is the character of a large part of our American justice. It is not justice, but injustice. It is not in keeping with our Constitution. There is an aristocracy of wealth in this country as truly as there is one of lineage and position in other countries. And it is not productive of a high ideal of honesty on the part of the general public. It is calculated to beget the desire to get out of the class of little thieves, which does not pay, and into the class of big thieves, which does pay.
The condition just described is not by any means a modern development. It prevailed in ancient Greece and Rome. Luther tells of its existence in his day in the following words: “There are also men whom you may call gentlemen robbers, land-grabbers, and road-agents, quite above the safe-robber, or pilferer of petty cash. These occupy seats of honor, are styled great lords and honorable, pious citizens, and, under the cloak of honesty, they rob and steal. “Yea, we might well let the lesser individual thieves alone if we could arrest the great powerful arch thieves, with whom princes and rulers associate. They daily pillage not only a city or two, but all Germany… Such is the way of the world that he who can publicly rob and steal runs at large in security and freedom, claiming honor from men, while the petty, sly thieves, guilty of only a small offense, must suffer, to contribute to the appearance of godliness and honor in the other class. Yet, these latter should know that before God they are the greater thieves, and that He will punish them as they merit.” Change the word Germany to Amer ica, and it would be hard to get a better description of present conditions.
Christian people, of course, will not be ruled, or seriously affected, by such considerations as have just been condemned. They will be honest because it is God’s will, insures His approval, and the approval of the inner monitor, — conscience. The Christian would rather suffer from guileless simplicity than profit by mean cleverness.
There are some things which we Christian people ought to do to cultivate a keener and more general sense of honesty. We should begin with our children, and by painstaking care inculcate in them a detestation of everything mean, everything savoring of unjust advantage in dealing with our fellowmen. We can help them in the clear distinction between mine and thine by giving them complete possession of certain things that pertain to their well-being and comfort, and then safeguard them in this possession against the encroachment of others, even brothers and sisters. Likewise we should insist that they respect the same rights in others. In all things and everywhere we must cultivate a love for honesty; and do this by practice as well as by precept.
We can avoid many of the temptations to dis honesty by avoiding extravagance, by living well within our means, and cultivating the virtues of simplicity and godly contentment, remembering that the life is more than meat, and the body than raiment.
God alone, however, can give the truly honest heart. Where His Spirit rules men, teaching them to love Him supremely and their fellowmen as themselves, there alone shall we have a truly honest people — a people honest, not simply because honesty is the best policy, but because they love honesty as the holy and beneficent requirement of the God they love and serve.
When men have become such children of God, recognizing, in all things, their stewardship; when the center of gravity in life has been shifted from greedy selfishness to love of God and man, from time to eternity, from earth to heaven; when the law of righteous dealing, of mine and thine, has become a law of the inner life — then men will not only refrain from robbing the neighbor of what is rightfully his, but they will be at pains to help him in the preservation of his own, and they will do this even when it requires a sacrifice on their own part to do it.
From the lack of faith in Christ and His teaching that lies at the root of all worldliness and greed; from the accompanying selfishness and lovelessness and lack of honor that despoils the neighbor to enrich the spoiler, may the good Lord deliver us!
Toward that state of heart in which men are truly rich, even with but little gold and silver, having treasures laid up where moth and rust do not corrupt and thieves cannot break through and steal; a state of heart with which the unhealthy desire to become hastily and unduly rich in the things that perish is absolutely incompatible; a state of heart prompting men to live and labor and and have possessions altogether for the one great end of furthering the true interests of life, for them selves and others; a state of heart which will mean the realization of a high ideal of God’s Kingdom here on earth, — toward such a state of life may the enlightening and sanctifying Spirit of God lead us all more hastily.
By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.
- Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
- Title: “The Ten Commandments”
- Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
- Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
- Copyright: CC BY 4.0