Everything that God has made belongs to Him (Psalm 24:1,2). But He has given this world to the human race (Psalm 115:16), for us to be His stewards and managers. The world has enough resources to sustain the whole human race; but they are not equally shared. Each nation has its own homeland (Jeremiah 27:5) (Acts 17:26), and each individual their own gifts, resources and opportunities. “Everything comes from You.” (I Chronicles 29:14) What He gives us is ours to use, as best we can. If we use it well, we can reasonably expect to prosper (Proverbs 10:4). But we do not have the right to take for ourselves what God has chosen to give to someone else. “You shall not steal.”
The Israelites were made keenly aware of this as they marched towards the land that God had promised to give to them. On the way, they had to go through or past the territory of other nations (Edom, Moab and Ammon); but they were not to attempt to grab any of those lands for themselves (Deuteronomy 2:5,9,19). God gave them the land of Canaan, and only the land of Canaan. Once they had settled there, and shared out the land between them, they had to remember that they were merely His tenants, not outright owners. This had implications for their property laws: land could not be bought and sold as we would do (Leviticus 25:23).
However, because we live in communities, there are times when other people may legitimately have rights over some of our possessions. We buy and sell goods and services; we club together in order to provide community services, facilities and insurance; we make agreements to borrow or lend money. All these things require payment – to other individuals, to businesses and companies, or to the state (Romans 13:6,7).
The Israelites were obliged to give a tenth of their farm produce to God (it was used as payment for the priests and Levites, and for the benefit of the poor). To hold this back amounted to theft (Malachi 3:8-10). Christians are under no such obligation (we give voluntarily) – not because we have the right to do what we like with all of our money and possessions but because our whole lives belong to the One who redeemed us. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.” (I Corinthians 6:19,20) To live for ourselves is to take what rightfully belongs to God.
Something for nothing
Theft takes many forms. “Not only are those thieves who secretly steal the property of others, but those also who seek for gain from the loss of others, accumulate wealth by unlawful practices, and are more devoted to their private advantage than to equity.” (Calvin)
The way of the world is the way of selfishness: to maximise one’s own profit wherever and whenever possible – even if it is at the expense of others. Burglary may be frowned upon; but it is ‘allowable’ to cheat, pilfer from one’s workplace, fiddle one’s tax returns or business expenses, make exaggerated insurance claims, give short change, etc, etc. While we were on holiday recently, we were given an itemised bill as we checked out of one hotel. The receptionist was stunned when I pointed out that we hadn’t been charged for one of our dinners – it seems that the vast majority of guests would have kept quiet and congratulated themselves on getting away with a free meal. Dishonesty of this kind is not, however, a minor sin (Proverbs 20:23).
It is especially sad when this grasping, self-serving attitude finds its way into a church. The apostle Paul was appalled by the behaviour of some members of the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 6:7,8); it seems that many of them had suffered loss of money or possessions at the hands of their Christian brothers, and were trying to get redress through the courts. It is even worse when Christian leaders are possessed by the belief that “godliness is a means to financial gain” (I Timothy 6:5). Such false shepherds are not ashamed to feather their own nests at the expense of their flock, often living a life of luxury on the donations of their devoted followers.
Givers, not takers
The way of Christ is totally different, as Paul demonstrated by his own example (Acts 20:33-35). “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” So it is the responsibility of Christian believers to provide for themselves and their families (and give to those in need, whenever possible) by honest means (Ephesians 4:28). This may well mean that we have to live more modestly than we might otherwise expect. Those who do Christian work should be paid a fair wage for it (I Corinthians 9:14); but Paul had no sympathy for Christian scroungers, who lived like parasites on the generosity of other church members while contributing nothing (II Thessalonians 3:6-10).
Rather than seeking to profit at the expense of others, we who follow Christ are told to go out of our way to allow others to profit at our expense! “If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do nor demand it back.” (Luke 6:29,30) Instead of greed and acquisitiveness, the early church practised selfless generosity; instead of accumulating goods and property (Isaiah 5:8), they took every opportunity to release and distribute their assets (Acts 4:32,34). May we also be those who seek to give, rather than to get. “If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” (Luke 16:11)