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Give and Take (and the 8th Commandment)

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From the time we are young, we all know it’s wrong to steal. Any three-year-old in daycare will cry out against injustice when another child grabs a toy from their hands. We seem to possess innate knowledge that people shouldn’t take things that don’t belong to them. So, we might think the 8thCommandment needs little explanation. “Thou shalt not steal” is a pretty clear rule.

But past generations of Christians saw more in this commandment than merely a prohibition against thievery. They sensed that the 8thcommandment also directs us to give generously to others. The Westminster Larger Catechism (1647) lists among the duties required by this commandment: “giving and lending freely, according to our abilities and the necessities of others.” The Heidelberg Catechism(1563) says that the 8thcommandment requires “that I do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.” Centuries before this, John Chrysostom (c. 349-407) said, “Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.”

Why did past believers conclude that, among other things, “Thou shalt not steal” means “Thou shalt give”?

One reason was because of what they read in Scripture. Ephesians 4:28 says, “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” In this verse, stealing and giving are held in direct juxtaposition. To repent of stealing, it is not enough merely to stop taking what isn’t mine. I also need to look for ways to give to others. An example of this kind of repentance is seen in Zacchaeus who, when he repented of stealing, immediately determined to give generously to the poor. (See Luke 19:1-10.) The prophet Malachi taught that a failure to give is a form of robbing God. (See Malachi 3:6-12.)

Besides what they read in the Bible, another reason former Christians thought that the opposite of taking is giving was because of what they understood about life in community. Past generations understood that each of us is a member of a community, linked organically in countless ways to the lives of others. In our modern culture, we tend to view ourselves first and foremost as individuals who define our own identity and plot our own course through life. In the history of humanity, this individualistic worldview is a relatively new way of looking at life. And, so far, it does not seem to be an improvement on the way people thought in the past. In fact, in many ways, it is worse.

I did not get to where I am today on my own. Since the moment I was born other people have taught me, helped me, fed me, encouraged me, nursed me, kissed me, advised me, rescued me, corrected me, and directed me. They have told me jokes, sung me songs, given me rides, cooked me spaghetti, kept me safe, taken me bowling, tucked me in, given me Tylenol, taught me algebra, and shown me how to hit a baseball (or at least they tried). I am the exact opposite of a self-made man. I owe my life to others, to my community.

For me to refuse to give to others, after others have given so much to me, is a clear form of robbery. It’s the equivalent of vanishing to the restroom right when the waiter brings the check to the table I’ve just shared with a group of friends. If I’ve partaken in the meal, I should chip in to help pay.

Giving to our community will look different for each of us. Our abilities to contribute will vary. Giving back will probably mean volunteering some of our time. It will certainly mean donating some of our money. But whatever generosity looks like for me, the 8thcommandment directs me to look for ways to give, and to give joyfully. 

Generous giving is, of course, scary. If I give away my time and resources, will there be enough left for me? Knowing that we have a generous Father, who loves us so much that he even gave his Son, encourages us to give without fear. We will never out-give God. He promises to be generous toward those who give to others (Luke 6:38). And our Father’s generosity is great beyond compare. Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”