Thou shall not steal and the hidden ‘Den of Thieves’

Many of us grew up with the commandment “Thou shall not steal” ingrained in our minds, whether at home, at school, or even at work.

Jun 02, 2017

By Anil Netto
Many of us grew up with the commandment “Thou shall not steal” ingrained in our minds, whether at home, at school, or even at work. Pupils were even punished for taking what was not theirs.

As we grew up we became aware of various laws made to punish crimes — shoplifting and other petty theft, house break-ins and burglaries, snatch thefts, armed robbery. Some of the penalties could be severe depending on the nature of the crime.

So, over the years, we have been conditioned to think of the commandment against stealing in this light.

Similarly with corruption. There is obvious corruption — which many would be able to recognise — and there is another kind of more insidious corruption — which is harder to detect.

The former takes the form of ‘under-table’ money, backhanders or kickbacks. This often involves smaller amounts of money that can be stuffed in bags and suitcases and is easy to recognise.

But there is a more insidious secret corruption which spreads it tentacles in society. This is harder to detect. It usually involves larger sums of money, hundred of millions or even billions of ringgit. These are not stashed away in suitcases, but deposited into secret offshore accounts and then laundered into other assets. It is harder to bring these criminals to justice.

And what about the loss of the public assets or the Commons — forests, hills, rivers, open green spaces and even the sea — that find their way into private hands, sometimes, at dirt-cheap prices.

There is another form of theft that Scripture takes a particularly dim view — and that is the theft or shortchanging of a worker’s wages. Today, many workers, especially migrant workers, are vulnerable to all sorts of deductions from their wages or they may even be underpaid.

Scripture has strong words for those who make huge profits while their workers are oppressed.

In James Chapter 5, it is written:

2 Your wealth is rotting, your clothes are all moth-eaten. 3 All your gold and your silver are corroding away, and the same corrosion will be a witness against you and eat into your body. It is like a fire which you have stored up for the final days. 4 Can you hear crying out against you the wages which you kept back from the labourers mowing your fields? The cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord Sabaoth. 5 On earth you have had a life of comfort and luxury; in the time of slaughter you went on eating to your heart’s content.

How would you describe a situation where a workers is paid less than what is required to live in dignity? What happens if the worker then resorts to drastic or unethical means to feed his or her family ie begging, borrowing (and falling into debt), and even stealing or engaging in other illegal activity?

Of course, we cannot excuse stealing, which violates a key commandment. But what about the employer who does not pay the worker a decent wage or withholds wages?

What if workers who are underpaid then cannot afford access to proper healthcare, nutritious food, a decent home and education for their children? Who bears the guilt for that?

In the Gospels, Jesus understood the socio-economic conditions of his time. He seemed to avoid the wealthy Jewish cities such as Sepphoris, the first capital city of Galilee developed by Herod’s son Antipas, who was one of the local client kings or puppet leaders of Rome.

Only a few miles from Nazareth, Sepphoris went on to be known as the jewel of the Galilee. At the time of Antipas, Sepphoris was probably a high-end area of its time. Imagine, the houses had frescoed rooms with private ritual baths — at a time when water supply for many ordinary folk came from a well.

This was in sharp contrast to the humble dwellings in the countryside — small mortar-and-stone structures with timber roofs or hill-side caves. Farmers in the field had a tough time, and if the harvest was poor, they could easily be driven into debt, just a step away from destitution.

Jesus would have witnessed firsthand the situation in the countryside and seen the suffering of the meek and the poor.

When he entered the hallowed Temple grounds in his final week, he would have also seen how the elite of the time, lived it up in comfort and luxury, earning fabulous profits by milking pilgrims many of them of humble means – and, most abominably doing this in the name of religion.

All the while, these local religious leaders collaborated with the oppressive Roman imperial rulers, who allowed them to preside in comfort and status while collecting various taxes and levies from the ordinary people and pilgrims.

Jesus quickly sized up the situation when he entered the Temple. It was not just a matter of business activity defiling the Temple. It was the systematic exploitation of the people, worst of all in the name of religion, that upset him and prompted his harshest words, whereupon he chased the moneychangers and traders from the temple: “Does not scripture say: My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples? But you have turned it into a bandits’ den,” he bellowed.

So, thievery or stealing can be much more than a straightforward act of theft or corruptiontion, for which we have ample laws to prevent.

It is when powerful thieves come together to oppress or burden a community that the greatest damage is wreaked. And Jesus reserved his greatest outrage for such a den of thieves who collaborate to systematic exploit and burden the ordinary people.

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