Questions From Readers
How do Jehovah’s Witnesses view the purchasing of stolen goods?
Christians avoid knowingly having any part in buying stolen merchandise or materials.
Stealing is certainly wrong. God’s Law for Israel stated unequivocally: “You must not steal.” (Exodus 20:15; Leviticus 19:11) If a thief was caught, he had to make compensation twofold, fourfold, or fivefold, depending on the circumstances.
From ancient times, thieves have tried to pass on stolen goods so as to make a quick profit and not be caught with proof of their guilt. To this end they often sell stolen goods at a low price that many buyers find hard to refuse. Such a practice may have been involved in what we read at Exodus 22:1: “In case a man should steal a bull or a sheep and he does slaughter it or sell it, he is to compensate with five of the herd for the bull and four of the flock for the sheep.”
Sensing implications in such laws, Rabbi Abraham Chill writes: “It is forbidden to buy or accept stolen property, even if the property is not recognized as such. One must therefore not buy a goat from a shepherd, because the shepherd is probably making the sale without the knowledge of his employer and intends to keep the money.”—The Mitzvot—The Commandments and Their Rationale.
Actually, God’s law does not forbid ‘buying a goat from a shepherd’ just on the suspicion that he might keep his employer’s money, in effect selling a stolen goat. But on the other side of the issue, Jehovah’s servants should not consciously be party to a sale (goat or any other object) when it seems clear that the seller does not own it or that it may be stolen. God’s law shows that He recognizes private property, but a thief deprives an owner of his property. Someone who buys what is known to be stolen may not be a thief as such, but his purchase decreases the likelihood that the owner will ever get his property back.—Proverbs 16:19; compare 1 Thessalonians 4:6.
All of us understand that buyers seek to buy merchandise at the best price. Women the world over look for good sales, try to delay making purchases until the season when prices are low, or buy at bulk markets or shops with little overhead and thus at better prices. (Proverbs 31:14) Yet, such interest in getting a bargain should have moral limits. Loyal ones in the days of Nehemiah refused to make purchases on the Sabbath, even if they might have got good deals on those days. (Nehemiah 10:31; compare Amos 8:4-6.) It is similar with Christians. Their rejection of stealing helps them to control any temptation to buy low-priced goods that were evidently stolen.
It may be common knowledge that certain sellers deal in stolen goods. Or a furtively mentioned price might be so exceptional that any normal person would conclude that the merchandise likely was illegally obtained. Even the law of the land may acknowledge the need for such reasonableness. A volume on jurisprudence comments:
“It is not necessary to the requisite guilty knowledge that the accused know from whom or by whom the property was stolen, or when or where it was stolen, or the circumstances under which it was stolen, but it is sufficient that he knows that it was stolen. . . . Some courts take the view that the existence of guilty knowledge may be predicated on the fact that the defendant received the property under such circumstances as would satisfy a man of ordinary intelligence and caution that it was stolen.”
This adds sound reason for a Christian to avoid buying stolen goods. His buying such goods could make him a lawbreaker. In fact, in some countries a person buying stolen items under any circumstances will be considered guilty of breaking the law. Many people have no scruples about breaking the law if they think they can get away with it. That is not true of Christians, who want to “be in subjection to the superior authorities.” Being law-abiding protects them from prosecution as criminals, and it contributes to having a good conscience before Jehovah.—Romans 13:1, 4, 5.
God’s friend Abraham set a fine example as to conscience. In his day, four eastern rulers defeated the kings where Lot lived, carrying off many valuables in a form of military theft. Abraham, pursued, overcame the enemies, and brought back the stolen goods. The king of Sodom told Abraham: “Take the goods for yourself” as a reward. Instead, Abraham turned over the goods to their rightful owner, saying: “No, I shall take nothing from anything that is yours, in order that you may not say, ‘It was I who made Abram rich.’”—Genesis 14:1-24.
Christians are not interested in any financial advantage that might be possible by means of stolen goods. Jeremiah wrote: “As the partridge that has gathered together what it has not laid is the one making riches, but not with justice.” (Jeremiah 17:11) So, beyond showing wisdom by not breaking Caesar’s laws about stolen property, Christians desire to uphold God’s justice by refusing to be connected in any way with the injustice of stealing. David well wrote: “Better is the little of the righteous one than the abundance of the many wicked ones.”—Psalm 37:16.