THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT.
Thou shalt not steal.
After your own person and your consort, your temporal property is most valuable to you. God desires to have this protected also; and he has commanded that no one should encroach on, or diminish the possessions of his neighbor. For, to steal signifies nothing else than to obtain the property of another through unjust means; in which view are briefly comprehended frauds against your neighbor, of every species, in all kinds of traffic. Now this is a common vice and very extensive, but so little noticed and regarded that it exceeds all limits, insomuch that if all should be executed who are thieves and yet do not wish to bear this name, the world would soon be desolate, and wanting both in executioners and in gallows. For we must, as already said, regard as stealing, not only an extraction from the coffer and the purse secretly, but also taking advantage in the market place, in all mercantile establishments, taverns, houses of refreshment, work-shops, and in short, wherever we execute the ordinary transactions of commerce, receive or give money for merchandise or labor.
As– for the purpose of illustrating the matter in a somewhat simple and plain manner, for the benefit of the common people, in order that we may see how pious we are– when a man-servant or a maid-servant is not faithful in the performance of duty, and causes injury or permits it to be perpetrated which could easily have been prevented; or when, in some other respect, there is an indifference or carelessness, on account of negligence, indolence, and malice, causing the master or mistress trouble and provocation, or any thing of this kind which can happen through a wicked disposition; for I do not speak of the injuries which are done unintentionally or through oversight. In this manner I say, you can annually defraud your master or mistress out of a guilder, yes, thirty or forty, or even more, for which, if some one else had secretly taken or withdrawn them, he must have been suspended by the rope; but here you can venture to act in a presumptuous manner, and no one dares to call you a thief.
In a similar manner I also speak in reference to the mechanic, to workmen, and hirelings, who all exercise their presumption, not knowing how they shall defraud their employers enough, and in addition they are indolent and unfaithful in their labor. All these surpass by far, secret thieves, against whom we can guard by means of locks and bolts, or if they are apprehended, we can so confine them that they will not repeat the same offence. But against the former no one is able to guard, nor dares to look upon them with disrespect, or to charge them with theft. Consequently, we would much rather sustain loss immediately from our purse. For here are my neighbors, my good friends, and my own domestics, to whom I look for favors; and these first of all deceive me.
This also in the market and in common places of traffic, this kind of dishonesty is exceedingly frequent, where one deceives and cheats another openly with false measures, unjust weights, and adulterated coin, and defrauds by crafty cunning and strange imposture, or by deceptive artifices. And again, when one overcharges and oppresses another wilfully, thus overreaching and perplexing him. And who can relate or think of all? In short, this is the most common art, and it produces the most numerous class of criminals on earth. And now if some one should seriously contemplate the world through all professions, he would see nothing but an extensive banditti of notorious thieves. Wherefore, these men are in reality usurpers, highway robbers, and prowling thieves– not robbers of chests or secret thieves, who seize the property of another by force; but those who preside in office and are called illustrious noblemen, and honorable and pious citizens, exercising injustice and robbery under pretext of honesty.
Yes, here we might be silent in reference to inferior, individual thieves, if we were to assail the great, the powerful, and notorious chief robbers, with whom lords and princes enter into confederacy; those who daily pillage not a town or two, but all Germany. Yes, where would remain the head and supreme protectress of all thieves– the holy See of Rome, with all her adherents, who has dishonestly usurped the treasures of the whole world, and holds them in possession to this day? In short, the usual course of procedure in the world is this, – whoever can openly steal and rob, passes freely and securely, unpunished by any one, and wishes to be honored besides; while the little clandestine thieves, who have once committed theft, must bear the shame and punishment, so that those others may appear pious and honorable; yet they should know that they are the greater thieves in the sight of God, who will inflict upon them such punishment as they deserve.
Inasmuch, then, as this commandment is so comprehensive, as we have now shown, it is necessary to exhibit and illustrate it to the multitude, so that they may not act so inconsiderately and securely, but that the wrath of God may be presented and exhibited to their view. For, these things we must preach not to Christians, but mostly to knaves and rogues, to whom the judge, the prison-keeper, or the executioner should more justly preach. Therefore, each one should know that he is under obligation, at the hazard of incurring the divine displeasure, not only not to injure his neighbor, or to take the advantage of him, either in commerce, or in any contract, or to conduct himself in any degree perfidiously towards him, but also to protect his property faithfully, and to promote his interest, especially if he receives competent remuneration and sustenance for it.
Now, whoever maliciously contemns these things, may persist in his course, and escape the executioner, but he shall not evade the wrath and punishment of God; and although he may exercise his pride and arrogance for a considerable length of time, yet he shall be a fugitive and a beggar, and suffer, besides, all manner of distress and misfortune. And still you persist in this unjust course, when at the same time it is your duty to protect the property of your master or mistress, for which service you receive your daily support,– receiving your wages unjustly, and desiring, besides, to be honored as a nobleman. Of this character there are many, who exhibit impertinent pride towards their masters and mistresses, unwilling to serve them through love and obedience, in defending them against injuries. But observe what you gain by this conduct: when you shall have received your wages, and are sitting at your ease, God will send all misfortunes upon you, and you shall discover and experience again, that where you have obtained one farthing by fraud, you will have to repay thirty fold.
We meet with workmen and laborers of similar character, whose intolerable arrogance we must now hear and bear, as if they were noblemen, occupying the possessions of other persons, and every one must give them as much as they desire. Well, only let them pillage as long as they can, God will not be unmindful of his commandment; he will also reward them as they have deserved; and he will not suffer them to flourish, but to degenerate, and they shall never meet with success or prosperity. Indeed, if there were a proper government established in the country, this licentiousness could soon be checked and resisted, as in former times it was among the Romans, where persons of this character were immediately apprehended, in consequence of which others were necessarily deterred.
And a similar fate shall all others meet, who constitute nothing but a place of oppression and robbery out of the open and public market, in which the poor are defrauded daily, and new oppressions and extravagances practised– each one availing himself of the market according to his own arbitrary will, arrogantly and insolently boasting, as if he had legal authority to dispose of his possessions at prices as extravagant as he desires, and as if no one had a right to make complaint against him. With these we shall bear indeed, and let them exercise their oppressions, frauds, and covetousness; but we have confidence in God, that he will, however, when they have extorted and oppressed for a considerable length of time, pronounce a curse on them; so that their grain shall spoil in the garner, their vintage shall fail, and their cattle shall be destroyed in the stall. Yes, if you cheat or defraud any one out of a guilder, your whole treasure shall depreciate and be consumed, so that you shall never be able to enjoy it with peace.
We perceive, indeed, from daily experience, that nothing which is acquired either by fraud or theft, prospers. How many are there who make every effort, both day and night, to accumulate wealth, and still do not become a farthing richer? And even if they accumulate an abundance, they must still endure so many calamities and misfortunes, that they cannot enjoy it with peace, or transmit it to their children. But inasmuch as no one is solicitous about these things, proceeding as if they do not concern him, God must visit us otherwise, and teach us morals, by levying upon us one exaction upon another, or by sending us a swarm of soldiers for guests, who instantly pillage our coffers and purses– not ceasing while we possess a farthing; and besides this, burn and destroy our houses and residence, violate and murder our wives and children.
And in short, even if you steal much, rest assured that twice as much will be stolen from you; and whoever robs or obtains any thing by violent and unjust means, must suffer from another who will treat him in a similar manner. For God well knows how to employ one thief to punish another, since one robs and defrauds another; where could we otherwise procure ropes and gallows sufficient to punish the thieves?
Whoever, then, will permit himself to be advised, should know that it is the commandment of God, and that it is not to be regarded as a jest. For even if you contemn us, defraud, steal, and rob, we shall, however, endeavor to bear it, and to endure and suffer your arrogance, and to commiserate and forgive it, according to the Lord's Prayer; for we know that the pious shall have sufficient, and that you do yourself greater injury than any one else. But here, when the beloved poor call upon you for assistance, who are now so numerous, and who are compelled to support themselves by their daily penny, beware that you do not act as if every body were dependent on your mercies; practising extortion and oppression upon them, and sending those away arrogantly and inhumanly, to whom you should be kind; they depart miserable and sorrowful, having no one to whom they can complain; their cries and entreaties shall ascend to heaven: here I admonish you again, be on your guard, as if it were against Satan. For these sighs and entreaties will not be jests, but they will have an energy, an influence which is more weighty than you and all the world can bear. For it will touch Him who accepts poor, distressed hearts, and who will not leave this unrevenged. And if you contemn these, and act arrogantly, observe whose displeasure you have heaped upon yourself; and if you are prosperous and successful, then you may denounce God and myself as liars before all the world.
We have now sufficiently admonished, warned, and advised. Any one who will neither regard nor believe these things, we shall permit to proceed until he is taught by experience. It is necessary, however, to impress these things on the minds of the young, so that they may be on their guard not to imitate the hardened and untractable multitude, but have in their view the commandment of God, in order that his wrath and punishment may not come upon them also. It pertains unto us to admonish and reprove through the Word of God; but it belongs to princes and magistrates to restrain such manifest injustice; who should have their eyes and their minds engaged in instituting and preserving regulations for all kinds of traffic and commerce, so that the poor be not burdened and oppressed, and they themselves be not loaded with the sins of others.
Let it suffice, then, as a definition of stealing, that the term be not confined to limits so contracted, but applied to all our dealings with our fellow man. And for the purpose of comprehending in a few words, as we have done in the preceding commandments, the meaning of this one, it is necessary to show that it forbids us, in the first place, to do our neighbor any injury and injustice, (no matter how many ways can be contrived to diminish his goods and chattels, or to retard or obstruct his interests,) or to allow or tolerate these things; but it enjoins on us to guard and protect him against injuries; and secondly, it commands us to improve and enhance his possessions, and where necessity requires it, to impart and extend our assistance, both to friends and foes.
Whoever, then, seeks and desires to do good works, finds abundant occasions to perform such as are acceptable and pleasing in the sight of God; and, moreover, he will be remunerated and overwhelmed with the richest blessings; so that whatever we do for the benefit and protection of our neighbor, shall be abundantly compensated, as king Solomon also teaches, Prov. 19, 17: "He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord; and that which he hath given will he pay him again." Here you have a bountiful Lord, who has indeed sufficient for you, and will not permit you to be in want, or to suffer; and thus you can enjoy, with cheerful conscience, infinitely more than you can accumulate by perfidy and injustice. Now, whoever does not desire these blessings, will find wrath and misfortune enough.