The Safety of Property

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This morning, as we work our way through the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20, we come to number eight. It simply says:

You shall not steal.

In four words, there you have the perfect sermon.
Biblical in content. To the point. Clear in meaning. Applied to life. And above all, short.

I thought of the story of how Winston Churchill, when addressing his old school in 1941, simply said:

Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never, never give in.

And then sat down. And I wondered whether I shouldn’t just stand here and say: ‘Never steal. Never steal. Never, never, never, never, never steal,’ and then sit down. But then I discovered that the Churchill story is not actually true, and though he did say that, it was in the course of a longer speech to the boys. So you’re not going to get a ten word sermon after all. But in any case I would have been short-changing you, and short-changing is really a form of theft, isn’t it?

Instead, then, I want to ask five questions that will help us to give some focused and sustained attention to this straightforward but powerful and searching commandment. You can see the questions on the outline on the service sheet. They are: What is stealing? Why do people steal? Why should we not steal? What should we do if we have stolen? And finally, how can we help prevent stealing?


Here’s a legal definition:

A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.

This includes the failure to return property – it is quite possible to steal by omission as well as by commission. Stealing, then, is taking what is not ours, generally for our own benefit. We don’t need to dwell on definition – we all know what stealing is, especially when other people do it and we are the victims of it.

‘No stealing’ is one of those moral laws universally recognised and affirmed in diverse societies and cultures across the world and through the ages. That is testimony to the destructive effect of theft on the welfare of any society. It is also testimony to the way that God’s good law is written on our hearts as God’s creatures, made in his image – quite apart from its appearance in the Ten Commandments. What is stealing? It’s taking what isn’t ours.


Put simply: we steal because we’re evil. The root problem is that, as a result of our collective rebellion against our creator, we have sinful natures. Or as Jesus says rather more starkly, there is evil within us. Mark 7.20-23:

Jesus said: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.'

Just as it’s there in the Ten Commandments, so again and again in the Bible theft is listed as one of those acts of rebellion that cuts us off from God and destines us for destruction unless God in his grace intervenes to save us from ourselves.

So we steal because we’re evil. And that feeds through into two habits of thought that motivate us to take what isn’t ours.
We steal because we don’t trust God. We don’t believe that he can be relied upon to give us what we need for our own good. So if what we think we need is not coming our way by legal means, we take it into our hands to make sure that it comes our way by illegal means.

And we steal because we’re greedy. We don’t like the way God has allocated the resources. We’re more concerned about ourselves than others. We want more than God has given us and we don’t want to pay for it. So we take it.

We steal because we’re evil, and because we’re evil, we don’t trust God and we’re greedy for more.


We shouldn’t steal because it’s self-destructive.

In Proverbs 1 there is a warning to a young man not to fall in with a bad crowd and get caught up in violent robbery. They may entice with promises:

“We will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot with us and we will share a common purse…”

But to listen to such talk is folly. Why? Proverbs 1.18-19

These men lie in wait for their own blood; they waylay only themselves! Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the lives of those who get it.

When we steal, we think we’re gaining, but actually we’re losing. Theft is self-destructive. The thief might temporarily increase his bank balance. But in the long run, he loses his soul.

In the New Testament that thought is taken one stage further. So:

We shouldn’t steal because thieves will have no place in heaven.

Paul is quite clear that persistent, unrepented theft is one of those patterns of wicked behaviour that bars the gates of heaven against us, up there with idolatry and immorality. So he warns the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6.9-10):

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

There is hope – whatever sins and crimes we’ve committed and however bad we’ve been. There is a way out, through faith in Christ and through the forgiveness that he paid for at the cross. But without that forgiveness, if we steal, we are eternally lost. There is no place for us in heaven.

We shouldn’t steal because theft is a curse on the community.

Most of us have experienced this in one way or another over the years. Speaking personally, I hate theft when I or my family are on the receiving end of it. Thinking back over the years, we’ve had several bikes stolen; a few cars stolen, not to mention car radios and luggage from our car; another car written off by an uninsured driver – an indirect form of theft. In just the last few months my son has had his bike stolen and been subject to credit card fraud. And some years ago we arrived home to find that most of the things we most valued had been burgled from our home. Many of you, no doubt, have a similar catalogue.

According to the Car Theft Index published by the Home Office, the car most likely to be stolen in the UK is the Vauxhall Belmont. In 2005, of the 5729 Belmonts on the road, 436 were stolen. For your information, other cars on the hot-list include the Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Astra.

The 2005/06 British Crime Survey reported that 439,000 bicycles were stolen in that year.
Estimates are that about half a million mobile phones a year get stolen in this country.
Shoplifting in the UK has risen by 70 per cent over the last six years. In 2005 the cost of what is euphemistically known as retail ‘shrinkage’ in the UK was 1.3% of total turnover.

Theft causes distress and hassle. It causes time wasting in its aftermath and in all the precautions that we have to take against it. It generates fear and insecurity. Collectively, quite apart from the cost of replacing what is stolen, vast amounts of money have to be spent on security measures – locks, alarms, immobilisers, insurance, and so on. And that’s not to mention the whole security guard industry and the state apparatus that’s there to protect us against such crime, ineffective as it often seems.

And then there are the more indirect forms of theft. A police report says that fraud costs the equivalent of about £330 a year for every person in the UK - almost £1 a day. The commissioner of the City of London Police has said:

it is likely that fraud represents a £20 billion annual loss to the UK. … Whereas once the average Briton dreaded being burgled or having their car broken into, they are now worried about identity fraud, mass-marketing scams and other forms of financial crime that have a serious impact on our lives. Long gone is the notion that fraud is a victimless crime.

And that doesn’t include tax fraud. One recent estimate of tax fraud and tax evasion in all its forms was that Britain's losses are currently running in the range £60-80bn per year. Many, many people are involved in that kind of indirect theft.

Theft is a massive curse on our community. The prophets saw the same thing in the life of Israel. They exposed its link to godlessness. For example, here’s Hosea 4.1-3:

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away…

And Jesus said (John 10.10):

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

God wants us to experience his blessing. All forms of sin, and not least theft, rob us of that blessing. We shouldn’t steal because theft is a curse on our community.

We shouldn’t steal because we want to please Christ by our obedience.

It’s shocking to remember that Jesus was himself a direct victim of theft. John tells how one day the feet of Jesus were anointed with expensive perfume by his friend Mary.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages." He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

There is a sense in which, just as every sin is a sin against God, so every theft is stealing from Jesus. And Jesus said:

“If you love me, you will obey what I command… My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.”

(John 14.15 and 15.12.) The apostle Paul prays (in Colossians 1.10) that we …

…. may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way…

Thieves often seem to salve their consciences and make excuses for their crimes by pretending to themselves and others that somehow theft is an impersonal thing. Nobody gets hurt. It’s just things. It’s just money. But inevitably it is personal. And we need to remember that theft is a personal affront to Jesus himself. He loves us. He gave up all his riches to come to us. He laid down his life for us. If we want to please him – not to earn his love, but because we’re grateful for it – then we will never steal.

We shouldn’t steal because it dishonours Christ.

Proverbs 30.9:

give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.

Even poverty cannot be an excuse for stealing, and even when the poor steal, they dishonour God. If we call ourselves followers of Jesus, and people see us acting dishonestly and stealing, even in a relatively minor way - say illegally copying some music – then they will notice our inconsistency and despise us for it, even if it’s something they do themselves. And Jesus will be dishonoured. As Paul says in Romans 2.21,23:

You who preach against stealing, do you steal? … You who brag about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law?

We shouldn’t steal. Why? Because it’s self-destructive; thieves have no place in heaven; it’s a curse on the community; we want to please Jesus; and stealing dishonours him.


It’s really very simple. Think of it as the three ‘r’s.

First, we should repent.

Apparently the Inland Revenue once received an anonymous letter: ‘I am having trouble sleeping because of my conscience. Please find enclosed £100. If this doesn’t cure my insomnia I will send you the rest.’ That is not repentance.
God says to us in Ezekiel 33.14-16

And if I say to the wicked man, 'You will surely die,' but he then turns away from his sin and does what is just and right – if he gives back what he took in pledge for a loan, returns what he has stolen, follows the decrees that give life, and does no evil, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be remembered against him.

So we need to face up to what we’ve done, come clean with God, admit it, and ask for forgiveness. If we do, God forgives us. That’s a promise.

Secondly, we should, as far as possible, make restitution.

We heard read earlier from Luke 19 the account of Jesus’ extraordinary encounter with Zacchaeus, a notorious and dishonest tax-collector who had enriched himself fraudulently at the expense of others. Zacchaeus became a follower of Jesus. He repented of what he had done. And he …

… stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.

The evangelist J John, often speaks on this subject of making restitution for theft. And he explains that he knows how hard it can be. He tells how, when he became a Christian, he realised that he should do something about some books that he had stolen from a bookshop in London. He put the books into bags and, with a great deal of fear, took them back. It was difficult and embarrassing. The first assistant he talked to nearly fainted and he quickly found himself taken to the manager’s office where he explained that, as a result of becoming a Christian, he now felt he had to return the stolen books. The dumbfounded manager explained that he could either call the police or bill him for the books. However, the manager concluded, as he had never encountered anything like this, all he could do was thank him and send him on his way. J John says:

“My relief as I left his office can be imagined.”

Where we can, we should make amends for any thefts that we have committed in the past.

Thirdly, we should reform our behaviour.

We should start living honestly. Or to put it another way, we should start living lovingly. Romans 13.8-10:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandments there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.

Stop stealing. Start loving. We should give priority not to what we want, but to what others need.

That’s the three ‘r’s of what we should do if we have stolen. Repent; make restitution; reform.


We can help by naming theft for what it is. Let’s not use euphemisms to hide what is really going on. Sin, in whatever form, always tries to hide itself. It prefers the darkness. It finds it much harder to survive in the light. Let’s shine the spotlight on it – whether we’re being tempted to steal ourselves, or we’re aware of others being tempted.

Take the example of breaking copyright. Someone has said:

To deprive authors of royalties by infringing copyright… in effect amounts to theft… Churches and Christian organisations which profess to uphold the Ten Commandments need to be particularly sensitive to infringing copyright.

And what is true for churches is also true for Christian individuals. That applies to written materials, of course – but it also applies to copying computer software, downloading music, and the copying of CDs and DVDs. When that is done illegally and without the permission of the owner of the copyright, in effect it amounts to theft. We mustn’t pretend otherwise.

The same applies to taking things from our places of work. Paul says in Titus 2.9-10:

Teach slaves… not to steal from [their masters].

And if that is important for slaves, how much more does that apply to those of us in employment. Taking stuff from work without permission, or unjustified claiming of expenses, needs to be called what it is: theft.

And the same applies also to theft by omission. An innocent mistake can become theft if it is not rectified when recognised. We realise that that book on the shelf is one we borrowed ages ago with permission, but have kept too long. If at that point we decide to keep it, that becomes theft. Recently I had a pub meal and absent-mindedly left without paying. A while later it dawned on me what I had done. I drove back and paid, much to the surprise of the grateful staff. If I had not, that would have been deliberate theft by omission.

We can help by making sure that we don’t put unnecessary temptation in the path of others.

It is right to take proper precautions. Don’t leave wallets or handbags lying around, for instance. Make sure doors are locked when they should be. Ensure proper security systems and procedures are in place if that is your responsibility.
We can help by supporting the police and government in their God-given role of trying to prevent theft and of punishing it when it happens. We should be careful to report theft, and to cooperate with investigations. And we should be ready to give testimony if we’re called upon to do so.

And we can help by being an example of honest and cheerful generosity.

The opposite of theft is generosity – freely giving what we have lawfully acquired, for the sake of others. So Paul really sums up the message of the 8th Commandment for believers in Ephesians 4.28:

He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.

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