Stealing the Lives and Labor of Others: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 42


  1. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?

God forbids not only such theft1 and robbery2 as are punished by the government, but God views as theft also all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we seek to get our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or by deceit,3 such as unjust weights,4 lengths, measures,5 goods, coins, usury,6 or by any means forbidden of God; also all covetousness7 and the misuse and waste of His gifts.8

[1] 1 Cor. 6:10. [2] 1 Cor. 5:10. [3] Lk. 3:14; 1 Thess. 4:6. [4] Prov. 11:1; 16:11. [5] Ezek. 45:9–10. Deut. 25:13–15. [6] Ps. 15:5; Lk. 6:35. [7] 1 Cor. 6:10. [8] Prov. 5:10; *1 Tim. 6:10; *Jn. 6:12.

  1. But what does God require of you in this commandment?

That I further my neighbor’s good where I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me,1 and labor faithfully, so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.2

[1] Matt. 7:12. [2] Eph. 4:28; *Phil. 2:4; *Gen. 3:19; *1 Tim. 6:6–7.

Stealing the Lives and Labor of Others

All violations of the Ten Commandments in their most aggravated form carry the death penalty.  This includes the Eighth.  The highest form of theft is stealing a man, enslaving him for one’s own benefit or to sell to others.  Biblically sanctioned slavery was a completely different thing than what most people conceive of as slavery, really more like a long-term economic contract entered into by choice or through one’s actions than a situation where one man has another as his property to do with as he pleases.

All forms of stealing are essentially differing degrees of enslaving.  If I smash a man’s car window to steal his phone off the seat, costing him $1000 from the loss of the window and the phone, then essentially I have forced the man to work for the time required for him to earn $1000, for my benefit instead of his.  It is important that we talk about things in ways that do not obscure the real nature of what is going on; whether or not he can “afford” the $1000 is completely beside the point.  What is relevant is that it is deeply immoral for me to force a man against his will to work for my benefit.  In doing so, I make my life and its comforts more important than his.  Property is necessary to life, so this issue is not a minor one.

There are lots of forms of theft.  Some of them are obvious, and are generally punished by civil government, like physically breaking into a man’s house and taking his things.  But many forms of theft, as the Catechism says, are more subtle.   Some of these tricks might even be legal.  It is difficult for a government to pass laws that encompass all the ways one man might steal from another, and sadly governments have often used their own power to transfer wealth from those who oppose the government to those who support it.  But the deceptive schemes we use to fool one another and ourselves about the nature of what we are doing will not fool God, and He is the One we really need to be concerned with.  In a nutshell, any way that I compel another to part unwillingly with his goods, for my benefit, whether I use physical force, political power, or deceit, to do so, is theft.  The right ways to gain wealth are through hard work, through mutually beneficial free exchange or through freely offered gifts.

Common modes of theft today include deceptive advertising, misrepresenting products, and failing to fulfill contracts.  If a worker on a job malingers and doesn’t give a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, it is another form of theft.  Governmental manipulation of currency and using taxpayer dollars for their own benefit is a very common form of theft that plagues us in this country.  When the funds of the nation or of a state as a whole are steered to the benefit of particular industries or constituencies, the reality is that some people are being forced to work for the benefit of others.  Just because the harm is distributed to many people so that they mostly don’t notice or care enough to do something about it does not change the moral nature of what is happening.  Dressing this up in the language of compassion or economic development doesn’t make it something different.

In a deeper sense, the Catechism reminds us at the end of question 110 (“the misuse and waste of His gifts”) that what we have did not originate with us.  All that we have is given to us by God.  He gave it to us in order to serve Him with it, like the master giving his servants different amounts of wealth to labor on his behalf while he was gone.  So, if I waste and misuse His gifts to me, then I am stealing from God who gave those gifts to me and from those whom I could and should have helped with those gifts.  If I waste my money, I am stealing from the deserving poor who should have been relieved by my wealth.  If I waste my time, I am stealing from my family and community who could have been enriched by my labors.  If I fail to use and develop my spiritual gifts, I am stealing from my church community who is in need of the gifts that God gave me.

We are not built to work and labor 24 hours a day.  We all need rest and relaxation.  The Fourth Commandment teaches us that, among other things.  But when we rest and enjoy the things God gave us, we should always do so in part with the purpose of better equipping ourselves for service to others, recognizing this as the reason God put us on this earth.

Paul says, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. (Eph. 4:28 NKJ)”  This instruction does a beautiful job of laying out the principle.  A thief is a parasite, the ultimate consumer, taking from the community and giving nothing back.  A man of God is the opposite, a man who produces useful goods and services for others, so that out of the overflow of what he creates he will not only supply his own life with good things, but the lives of others around him, especially those most in need.  This is why God put us on the earth, and it is always in service to others that we will find our greatest joy, for that is the purpose for which God created us.

Understanding the true scope of the commandments destroys our pride and complacency when we realize how we constantly violate all of the commandments.  But we must guard against despair by remembering that Christ has died for our sins, freed us from the curse of the law, and empowered us by His Spirit to begin to repent and walk in obedience.  There is no condemnation for those that are united to Christ by faith, and it is this hope and confidence that fuels our efforts to embrace more fully the righteous, life-giving law of God in our lives.