The Bible’s Viewpoint
Does Poverty Justify Stealing?
“Poverty is a great enemy of human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.”—Samuel Johnson, 18th-century author.
ROMAN statesman Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus said: “Poverty is the mother of crime.” These views seem to suggest that certain crimes are a natural result of poverty. Many today apparently agree, especially when the crime is stealing.
The belief that oppression and poverty justify stealing is quite popular. Consider the famous 14th-century English ballads about Robin Hood, which describe a legendary outlaw who robbed from the rich and distributed the gains to the poor. For centuries he has been regarded as a hero.
Admittedly, many today are undergoing extreme economic difficulties. The World Bank reported recently that there are 1.3 billion people living on less than one dollar a day. In one survey 70 percent of Filipinos said they considered themselves to be poor. In Brazil the richest 20 percent of the people earn 32 times as much as the poorest 20 percent. Such conditions can frustrate some people to the point that they use any means, even stealing, just to satisfy their daily needs for survival.
The Bible clearly condemns stealing. The eighth of the Ten Commandments states: “You must not steal.” (Exodus 20:15) Yet, many who believe in the Bible are inclined to justify stealing when the thief is driven by deplorable economic conditions.
This brings up serious questions: Does poverty really justify stealing? What is a person to do if he lives in extreme economic distress? What if he has sick or hungry children to care for? Would Jehovah God allow stealing in such cases, especially if the items taken belong to those who may not even miss them?
What Does God Say?
Since Jesus reflected his Father’s personality, his example can help us to understand God’s viewpoint. (John 12:49) While on earth, Jesus was very compassionate in his dealings with the needy. The Bible says that “on seeing the crowds he felt pity for them.” (Matthew 9:36) Nevertheless, he never, under any circumstances, condoned stealing. Likewise, although God has concern for the poor, he does not consider poverty to be a justification for stealing. At Isaiah 61:8, the Bible tells us that God ‘hates robbery along with unrighteousness.’ And the apostle Paul clearly states that thieves will not inherit God’s Kingdom. So we are not left in doubt as to God’s viewpoint.—1 Corinthians 6:10.
However, Proverbs 6:30 says that “people do not despise a thief just because he commits thievery to fill his soul when he is hungry.” Does this statement excuse stealing? Not at all. The context shows that God still holds the thief punishable for his error. The following verse says: “But, when found, he will make it good with seven times as much; all the valuables of his house he will give.”—Proverbs 6:31.
While the thief who steals because of hunger may not be as reprehensible as one who steals out of greed or with an intent to cause harm to his victim, those desiring God’s approval should not be guilty of any kind of thievery. Even in conditions of extreme poverty, stealing dishonors God. Proverbs 30:8, 9 puts it this way: “Let me devour the food prescribed for me, . . . that I may not come to poverty and I actually steal and assail the name of my God.” Yes, a thief reproaches God’s name. Since stealing is a loveless act, it is a sin regardless of whether committed against rich or poor. For those who love God and neighbor, stealing is never justified.—Matthew 22:39; Romans 13:9, 10.
The argument that a person who is disadvantaged has the right to steal is not logical. Saying this would be much like saying that an athlete of inferior build has the right to take banned drugs in order to win. Even if he does win, he has used dishonest means. Others will rightly feel that he has taken away their victory by illicit methods. So, too, with the thief. He takes what belongs to others in a dishonest way. His disadvantaged position does not justify the means.
Any thief wanting God’s approval must repent of his course of conduct. The Bible admonishes: “Let the stealer steal no more, but rather let him do hard work, doing with his hands what is good work.” (Ephesians 4:28) Former thieves who are genuinely repentant can rest assured that Jehovah will forgive them.—Ezekiel 33:14-16.
What Can the Poor Do?
The Bible promises: “Jehovah will not cause the soul of the righteous one to go hungry, but the craving of the wicked ones he will push away.” (Proverbs 10:3) God will not help those who willfully break his law to satisfy their desires. But he has compassion for those who sincerely try to obey him, and he will bless their efforts to obtain what is needed.—Psalm 37:25.
Millions have already found that when they follow godly principles, their lot in life improves. For example, applying Bible counsel to be industrious and to avoid vices, such as gambling, drunkenness, smoking, and drug abuse, has enabled them to have more of what they really need. (Galatians 5:19-21) This requires that they exercise faith, and those who have done so have learned that “Jehovah is good” and that he really does help those trusting in him.—Psalm 34:8.
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Robin Hood: General Research Division/The New York Public Library/Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations