By giving this commandment God wishes to protect your property. Having
protected your life and spouse, God commands that no one take from, or
decrease, the property of his neighbor. For, getting possession of another's
property wrongfully is stealing, and it involves every attempt to take
advantage of someone. This sin is so widespread, so easy for sinful men
to rationalize, and so often unpunished that if everyone guilty were hanged
the world would soon be depopulated. Yet most of the people who are
guilty do not think of themselves as thieves at all. Everyone should understand
that stealing is not just a matter of taking money from our neighbor's
house or pockets, but also dishonest trading, misrepresenting merchandise,
and shoddy workmanship. In trade our aim should be to give equal value
for value received.
When an employee does not try to do a good job, takes small items, damages his employer's property, or allows someone else to do so when it could be prevented, he is stealing. The same could be said of anyone who abuses, treats in a careless manner, or ruins property that has been entrusted to his care. I am not talking about damage which happens against one's will or because it was overlooked, but of damage which is caused by laziness, malice, or spite. Many who would be angry if called a thief take enough over a few years time to be convicted of a felony were it all taken at once.
This applies to mechanics, repairmen, and workmen who overcharge, use poor materials, or do a slipshod job. It also applies to professional people such as lawyers who make liability claims where none should exist, doctors who overcharge the insurance company, or businessmen who seek legislation that would give them an advantage over their competitors. Such people are worse than thieves, for we can use locks to protect ourselves against thieves. If a thief is caught he is punished, but these people cannot even be accused of theft. On top of that, they are neighbors and friends from whom we should be able to expect honest and faithful service.
Employers fire workers who are in a higher wage bracket so they can hire someone else at less pay. Unions use extortion to get the raises they want. The used car salesman lies to make a sale. The butcher puts his thumb on the scale. The grocer hides bad fruit at the bottom of the package, or takes a bad apple out of a bag and then sells the bag as if it were complete. Companies take advantage of high unemployment to offer a wage that is barely livable. People are overcharged, or deception is used to trap them in financial agreements they cannot afford. In short theft is all too common, and the world is a great den of thieves.
Therefore, most thieves are not safe crackers, bank robbers, or burglars, instead they are workers, businessmen, and professionals. These arm chair robbers are often looked up to and respected by the community. Even though they sometimes use the law to rob people legally, they are thieves none the less.
As bad as such theft is, it seems petty in comparison to the gross dishonesty of the power wielding arch-thieves who use government to fleece the entire population. We also have the false prophets who use threats of God's wrath to extort money from people. These deceivers use false promises of God's blessing to gain the wealth and property of millions. And the arch-heretic who sits in the Holy Chair at Rome is head and supreme protector of such thieves. These men not only plunder individuals, but entire nations.
In short, theft is the way of the world. Those who are able to steal
legally go unpunished; they are safe, secure, and unmolested by anyone.
Such people even demand to be honored. Meanwhile the petty sneak-thieves,
when caught, not only bear shame and punishment, but are required to treat
the greater thieves as godly and honorable. However, let all thieves know
that when they stand before God, He will give them the punishment they
Because this commandment deals with so many aspects of life it must be explained carefully. You should not let people go on in their sin without warning them of God's wrath. Christians should be taught this commandment so that they might avoid sin. If some knaves and scoundrels refuse to hear the Word of God, then let it be preached to them by judges, jailers, and executioners. Let everyone know that they should never harm their neighbor, cause him loss, or cheat him in any way. Those who are guilty of vandalism, those who betray their trust, and those who abuse or destroy the property of others do so at the risk of God's displeasure. We should never cause our neighbor injury, deprive him of gain, or commit any act of dishonesty or malice against him, but should instead faithfully seek to preserve his property and secure and promote his advantage, especially when one accepts money, wages, and one's livelihood for such service.
The unrepentant soul who despises and ignores this commandment may escape the hangman, but he shall not escape the wrath and punishment of God. Those who live their life in arrogance and defiance of this commandment will, in the long run, lose everything. Those of you who have decided that you will do what you please, who steal from your employer and then accept your wages as if you had done nothing wrong, know that without God's blessing you can expect only plagues and misfortune. And if you do seem to get away with it for awhile do not think you are safe, for God will pour out a greater measure of His wrath in the end. (1 Samuel 2:25)
What do you think you will gain by theft? What good will the things you have stolen do you if you lose your job or wind up in prison? Can't you see how foolish it is to scorn God's counsel?
Such shall be the lot of those mechanics and laborers who fuss, complain,
and demand their own way as if every one were obliged to give them what
they demand. If they go on strike, they think nothing of destroying property
or even killing in order to gain a small increase in pay. Just let them
keep it up, but God will not forget His commandment and will reward them
according as they have served. If we had godly rulers such wantonness might
soon be punished in a way that would make others take warning.
Woe unto you who would turn the free market into a den of theft and a cesspit of extortion. Go ahead, skimp, grasp, and hoard, but you will not prosper. If you overcharge, you will be overcharged. If you seek laws that will give you an advantage over your competitors, they will seek laws that put you at a disadvantage. If you take advantage of people, others will take advantage of you. Many of you are so hardened that you even brag about the things you get away with, and how you get the better of others. However, you will find that no matter how much you accumulate, if you defy God's commandment you will never enjoy it. Without God's blessing all of your ill-gotten gains will be consumed by moth, rust, rot, and decay.
And indeed, we see and experience the maxim that no stolen or dishonestly acquired possession thrives being fulfilled daily before our eyes,. How many there are who rake and scrape day and night, and yet grow not a penny richer! And though they gather much, they suffer so much illness and misfortune that they never can enjoy it. There is also the loss that comes when one tax is imposed after another, or when soldiers loot, burn, rape, and kill. You would do far better if you would endeavor to provide a quality product or service at a popular price.
In short, if you steal much, expect as much and more to be stolen from you. If you acquire a fortune through theft and violence, expect to lose it to those who deal with you in the same way. God is the master of retribution, and He punishes one thief by means of another. If it were not so, we could not build enough prisons.
Let those who are willing to be instructed know that the commandment of God must not be taken lightly or treated as a joke. For although you despise us, defraud, steal, and rob from us, we will manage to endure your evil behavior, and, according to the Lord's Prayer, forgive and show pity. For we know that God will provide for those who trust in Him, and you injure yourself more than us.
However, take warning from God's Word. If a man who is barely making ends meet comes to you, someone who is living from paycheck to paycheck, show him kindness and deal with him mercifully. For, if you are hateful to him, cheat him, and show him no mercy when you ought to help him out, so that he goes away miserable with no one to help him but God; when he cries unto God beseeching heaven for help and deliverance, God will avenge his wrong. The prayers of such a man are no joke, but carry great weight with the King of heaven. He who takes care of the poor and lowly, will not allow that man to go unavenged. If you despise this counsel, and disregard it you will not prosper. God has promised to help such people and He cannot lie.
I have exhorted, warned, and protested enough. He who will not heed what I say will learn by experience that it is true. However, I want to impress it upon the young so they do not follow the bad example of others, but keep their eye fixed on God's commandment lest His wrath and punishment come upon them too. I can only instruct and reprove with God's Word, but the government exists to put teeth in God's commandments. We need rulers who have the courage and honesty to pursue and punish all of the theft that goes on, lest the poor be oppressed, overburdened, and led into sin.
One of my reasons for explaining theft is to make it clear that it involves far more than just burglary or armed robbery. This commandment encompasses all of our dealings with other people. To put it briefly, we are forbidden to do our neighbor any injury or wrong. We should never try to get his property by trickery or games of chance, nor should we withhold wages or payments. Our dealings with others should always be honest and above board. We should promptly return what we have borrowed, pay our bills, and owe no man anything. Our aim should be to help those in need, not to exploit them and take advantage of them.
Those who seek good works will find that this commandment provides an abundance of them, all of which are acceptable to God. We also have God's promise of blessing for the kindness and mercy that we extend to our neighbor. As it is written, "He that hath pity upon the poor lends unto the Lord; and that which he hath given will He pay him again." (Proverbs 19:17) Know that our God is rich, and He will not allow you to come short in anything or to be in need. Thus when you do the will of God out of a kind heart, and not in some vain attempt to make yourself righteous, you can with a joyful conscience enjoy a hundred times more than you could scrape together with trickery and deception. Those who do not desire this blessing of God will find wrath and misfortune enough.
[The above is based upon, and closely follows, Martin Luther's explanation
of the Seventh Commandment]