One of my favorite children’s books is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. The familiar story recounts the many ways that a tree provides for a boy she loves. He provides the boy with a place to play in his youth, apples to sell in young adulthood, and wood to build a home and a boat. When the boy has taken everything the tree has to give, leaving nothing but a stump, the tree still finds joy in providing the boy with a place to sit in his old age. Each time the tree gives something else to the boy, the book says, “And the tree was happy.” The boy who took everything from the tree discovered that he never had enough – he always wanted something more. The tree who lovingly gave to the boy found repeated happiness.
This is precisely the point of the Seventh Commandment. The commandment against stealing covers more than giving yourself the “five finger discount” on that candy bar in the checkout lane. It covers much more than breaking into another person’s home to take their stuff. It is concerned with our attitude toward possessions in general.
In the Large Catechsim, Luther applies this commandment to both employers and employees. He writes that “thievery is the most common craft and the largest guild on earth” [LC, TC.228]. He speaks of business owners who rob their customers through dishonest measurements and false advertising; he speaks of business owners who rob their employees through unfair wages and working conditions; he speaks of employees who rob their employers through laziness or half-hearted effort on the job; he speaks of governments who rob their citizens under a cloak of legality; he speaks of citizens who rob their government through hiding income or other deceitful reporting.
In short, he speaks about how selfish and self-centered behavior destroys relationships. Our Lord created us to live in community – people gathered together as families, families gathered as communities, communities gathered as nations. Within these communities, it is our duty “not to harm our neighbors, to take advantage of them, or to defraud them by any faithless or underhanded business transaction. Much more than that, [we] are also obligated faithfully to protect [our] neighbors’ property and to promote and further their interests, especially when they get money, wages, and provisions for doing so” [LC, TC 233].
This commandment addresses the war between greed and giving, a war which is raging inside the heart of each baptized child of God. As our Synodical President has noted in A Little Book on Joy, our Lord would have us experience the joy of giving. The Apostle Paul says that godly generosity produces hilarity in our hearts [2 Cor. 9:7]. The love of money renders God’s children cheap and joyless, often under the false pretense of responsibility [Harrison, “The Joy of Giving”]. The Seventh Commandment’s prohibition against stealing is by extension a prohibition against the love of money, for like the little boy in The Giving Tree, the love of money will always leave us joyless and unsatisfied. How many relationships have been torn apart by greed? How many marriages have broken down over money? How many hours of work have been ruined by economic hand-wringing? How much joy has avarice sucked out of our lives?
The Seventh Commandment calls us to a godly perspective of the material things of this world. They are gifts from God given to people to be used in service of others. We are not to destroy our relationship with God or with the people around us by dishonest or manipulative gain. Those relationships are too important for that; they are a gift from God to be cared for and not so casually cast aside. The things of this world are not ours by right; they are gifts from God. How we use the things of this creation is not left up to us; we are stewards of God’s creation. We are called to be servants to others, not slaves to things, for it is in loving service to others that we experience the joy God has in store for our earthly relationships.
When we ignore this built-in dynamic to creation, the result is joyless relationships in which we are constantly wondering who is ripping me off. That is not the life our Lord has in mind for us. There is no joy like watching your child, spouse, or parent open the perfect gift you gave them for Christmas. Such is the joy of giving. Such is the joy the Seventh Commandment has in mind when it tells us not to steal other people’s things, but to find joy in helping them to improve and protect what God has given them.