Our exploration into the commandments continues with the Seventh Commandment- Thou shalt not steal. On the surface this may seem like a relatively straightforward one, and in essence it is- do not take anything that does not belong to you. Yet many “redefine” the word stealing and justify it by entitlement. In our country, the bad word ‘stealing’ has been replaced with ‘negotiating.’ This commandment covers many other aspects of concern. Underlying this commandment, like most of them, is acknowledging the dignity for another person. Everyone is made in God’s image and as such deserves the same dignity and respect we offer and expect for ourselves. There are also inherent general caveats which come with this commandment with respect to society and the common good. Underlying this commandment is the understanding that God created the world for all of humankind and entrusted the stewardship of this earth to everyone. This does not mean that we will live in harmony by sharing of everything, we already proved that we cannot do that. What it does mean however, is that despite a right to private property and security, we have an obligation to help and support and provide for the basic needs of others. In other words, the things we have and claim as our own are first to be used in helping the needs of others. Those that have been blessed with much, “much will be demanded of us.”
At the heart of this commandment is our attachment to material things. It has often been said that we don’t have possessions, they possess us. Having lived a life from the perspective of one of eight children, going through the educational commitment to become a physician, having and wanting a lot, then losing what meant most to me, I have a somewhat unique perspective about this commandment. When we have the notion that other people exist only for an opportunity for exploitation, we justify stealing. What is often not understood or appreciated is the emotional theft that occurs when someone steals. Our justice system attempts compensation for the physical loss, but we seldom address the emotional violation which has occurred. This is where “owning-up” to the theft is critical. It is not enough to just confess that we have stolen, we much make the injured party aware and perhaps others as well. This is a none too pleasant part of retribution, but something which could have been avoided in the first place by not stealing.
This commandment also includes not stealing a person’s good name, their naiveté, their innocence, their intellectual property, or their dignity. These are thefts which persons cannot recover and as such make stealing more heinous. There is a social dimension to this commandment, one we often lose sight of in our individualistic society. We often justify an action acceptable, “if nobody gets hurt.” We think we can steal if no one was going to use it, we can rationalize much of our greed and envy, diminishing the seriousness of the act, in everyone’s eyes, except God’s.
I remember when I was a teenager. I worked as a maintenance person for a White Castle hamburger restaurant. I was sweeping the floor, and in line was a woman who had her purse open. Out on the floor lay a twenty dollar bill. Hanging out of her purse was several more bills waiting to fall out. Just to let everyone know I was not a saint from birth, here is what I did. I discreetly placed my foot over the twenty so none would see it, and informed the lady that her purse was open and that money was falling out. I thought I would at least perform some good deed in addition to my stealing. I was twenty dollars richer, but to recall the problem of sin, I could not tell you what I did with the twenty dollars. What I do I remember now, fifty years later, is taking it. Through some of my stories, I try to tell children, you don’t forget your sin, especially unconfessed ones. They stay with you. I could confess my stealing, but I could never return the money to a woman. I can “make up for it” by giving twenty dollars to a good cause, and that is what I often recommend in confession. To offer even better retribution, I could give back forty. Just to let you know that I have reformed, this last week I was getting my yogurt and fruit parfait for breakfast. I often go to Sendick's after the 6:30 AM Mass and get this treat and a coffee for breakfast. I noticed that the label said Cheese and Cracker Tray. The price was significantly less than what I usually pay. I noticed all the parfaits had been mislabeled. The Old Dennis would have just taken it to some young unsuspecting check-out clerk, hoped they wouldn’t notice, and considered myself luckily. But Fr. Dennis went to the cashier and informed them that these had been mislabeled. It cost me a few dollars more, but I sure feel better than I would have if I had chosen the other route.
That’s one good thing about the commandments, not only are we following God’s law, but they are meant to help us become better persons. I feel good when I follow God’s commandments. You should too, and perhaps that is the best reason to not sin, even little sin…you may get forgiveness later, but you never forget.