YOU SHALL NOT STEAL
The seventh commandment, 'Thou shalt not steal', is about property. Nothing seems more obvious. Stealing means unlawfully taking what rightly belongs to another. But the seventh commandment is not simply about property. Like all the commandments it is, in the first place, about people.
The ten commandments summarise the laws which God gave to his people as part of his covenant with them. He is anxious to guide them towards justice in their dealings with each other so that they will be like him: holy as God is holy, which means righteous as God is righteous, just as God is just. The seventh commandment is about people. It is about how people ought to relate to each other in the matter of material possessions. Stealing comes to mean taking what another needs, and it is unlawful and unjust.
The seventh commandment has to be understood in the light of many other laws about property in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus. The point then becomes perfectly clear: the laws of Israel about material possessions show a primary concern for people and their needs. What is more, there is a distinct bias in favour of the weaker and poorer sections of the community: widows, orphans, travellers, slaves, and even animals.
For example, fields, vineyards and olive orchards were only to be worked for six years and allowed to lie fallow in the seventh. No doubt this makes good agricultural sense but the reason given for it in Exodus 23:11 is ‘so that the poor of your people may eat, and what they leave the wild animals may eat’.
Chapter 25 of the Book of Leviticus speaks of the ‘sabbatical year’ that comes every seven years and also of the jubilee that comes every fiftieth year. It was to be a year when all debts were cancelled and all slaves set free. All property and possessions lost since the last jubilee year were to be restored to their first owners. The main focus of this law is clear: the people are to divide their goods fairly among themselves and this fair division of things is to be restored periodically. Every now and again the social order needs to be restored to what it was when Israel was young and close to God.
It is a fine ideal and although there is no record of it ever actually being put into practice in the history of Israel, it continues to inspire Christian reflection on questions of justice and property.
The seventh commandment belongs in this context of sabbatical and jubilee years and this helps us to see how the other laws about property are to be understood. Jesus makes the laws about property even more radical: ‘do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear … give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you’ (Matthew 6:25; 5:42). The new ideal is of a community where all things are held in common and resources are distributed to all as any has need (Acts 2:44-45).
The Christian tradition never forgot that the seventh commandment is a commandment about people. In situations of great need, the goods of the earth become common property. To take what one really needs for life and survival is not, morally speaking, stealing. If I have two loaves of bread and my neighbour has none and we are both starving he is entitled to one of my loaves. It is his right. It is not something I may or may not give him, out of ‘charity'. The right to private property is not an absolute right. It is qualified by the needs of my neighbour, who is every man and woman.
That may sound like some very radical kind of talk. But those comments come from eminent saints and teachers of the Church: John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Pope Paul VI, Basil the Great and Ambrose of Milan. The Bible has many other wise and challenging things to say in regard to property. The commandment against stealing is not the last word, but the first word, in a collection of laws that embodies a vision that is humane and compassionate. We will be judged, in the end, Jesus says, on how we shared our goods with one another: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food … naked and you clothed me’ (Matthew 25:35-36).