“You are not to steal.”

[223] After your own person and your spouse, the next thing God wants to be protected is temporal property, and he has commanded us all not to rob or pilfer our neighbor’s possessions. [224] For to steal is nothing else than to acquire someone else’s property by unjust means. These few words include taking advantage of our neighbors in any sort of dealings that result in loss to them. Stealing is a widespread, common vice, but people pay so little attention to it that the matter is entirely out of hand. As a result, if we were to hang every thief on the gallows, especially those who do not admit it, the world would soon be empty and there would be a shortage of both hangmen and gallows. For, as I just said, stealing is not just robbing someone’s safe or pocketbook but also taking advantage of someone in the market, in all stores, butcher shops, wine and beer cellars, workshops, and, in short, wherever business is transacted and money is exchanged for goods or services.

[225] We shall make this a bit clearer to the common people, so that they may see how upright we are. Suppose, for example, that a manservant or a maidservant is unfaithful in his or her domestic duties and does damage or permits damage to be done when it could have been avoided. Or suppose that through laziness, carelessness, or malice a servant wastes things or is negligent with them in order to vex and annoy the master or mistress. When this is done deliberately—for I am not speaking about what happens accidentally or unintentionally—you can cheat your employer out of thirty or forty or more gulden a year. If someone else had filched or stolen that much, he would have been hung on the gallows, but here you become defiant and insolent, and no one dare call you a thief!

[226] I say the same thing about artisans, workers, and day laborers who act high-handedly and never know enough ways to overcharge people and yet are careless and unreliable in their work. These are all far worse than sneak thieves, against whom we can guard with lock and bolt. If we catch the sneak thieves, we can deal with them so that they will not do it anymore. But no one can guard against these others. No one even dares to give them a harsh look or accuse them of theft. People would ten times rather lose money from their purse. For these are my neighbors, my good friends, my own servants—from whom I expect good—who are the first to defraud me.

[227] Furthermore, at the market and in everyday business the same fraud prevails in full power and force. One person openly cheats another with defective merchandise, false weights and measures, and counterfeit coins, and takes advantage of the other by deception and sharp practices and crafty dealings. Or again, one swindles another in a trade and deliberately fleeces, skins, and torments him. Who can even describe or imagine it all? [228] In short, thievery is the most common craft and the largest guild on earth. If we look at the whole world in all its situations, it is nothing but a big, wide stable full of great thieves. [229] This is why these people are also called armchair bandits and highway robbers. Far from being picklocks and sneak thieves who pilfer the cash box, they sit in their chairs and are known as great lords and honorable, upstanding citizens, while they rob and steal under the cloak of legality.

[230] Yes, we might well keep quiet here about individual petty thieves since we ought to be attacking the great, powerful archthieves with whom lords and princes consort and who daily plunder not just a city or two, but all of Germany. Indeed, what would become of the head and chief protector of all thieves, the Holy See at Rome, and all its retinue, which has plundered and stolen the treasures of the whole world and holds them to this day?
[231] In short, this is the way of the world. Those who can steal and rob openly are safe and free, unpunished by anyone, even desiring to be honored. Meanwhile, the petty sneak thieves who have committed one offense must bear disgrace and punishment to make the others look respectable and honorable. But they should know that God considers them the greatest thieves, and that he will punish them as they deserve.

[232] This commandment is very far-reaching, as we have shown. Therefore, it is necessary to emphasize and explain it to the common people in order that they may be restrained in their wantonness and that the wrath of God always be kept before their eyes and impressed upon them. For we must preach this not to Christians but chiefly to knaves and scoundrels, though it would certainly be more fitting if the judge, the jailer, or the hangman did the preaching. [233] Let all people know, then, that it is their duty, on pain of God’s displeasure, not to harm their neighbors, to take advantage of them, or to defraud them by any faithless or underhanded business transaction. Much more than that, they are also obligated faithfully to protect their neighbors’ property and to promote and further their interests, especially when they get money, wages, and provisions for doing so.

[234] Those who willfully disregard this commandment may indeed get by and avoid the hangman, but they will not escape God’s wrath and punishment. Though they may pursue their defiant and arrogant course for a long time, they will still remain tramps and beggars and will suffer all kinds of troubles and misfortunes. [235] Now, you ought to take care of your master’s or mistress’s property, which enables you to stuff your craw and belly. But you take your pay like a thief and expect to be honored like a nobleman. Many of you are even insolent toward masters and mistresses and unwilling to do them the favor and service of protecting them from loss. [236] Look at what you gain. When you acquire property yourself and sit in your own house—which God will help you acquire to your undoing—there will come a day of reckoning and retribution: thirty times over will you have to repay every penny of loss or harm you have caused.

[237] The same thing will happen to artisans and day laborers, from whom one is now obliged to suffer such intolerable insolence. They act as if they were lords over other people’s possessions and entitled to whatever they demand. [238] Let them keep on fleecing others as long as they can. God will not forget his commandment and will pay them what they deserve. He will hang them not on a green gallows but on a dry one. They will neither prosper nor gain anything their whole life long. [239] Of course, if there were a proper government in the country, one could soon put a stop to such insolence, as did the ancient Romans, who promptly took such people by the scruff of their neck so that others took warning.

[240] The same fate will befall those who turn the free public market into nothing but a carrion pit and a robber’s den. The poor are defrauded every day, and new burdens and higher prices are imposed. They all misuse the market in their own arbitrary, defiant, arrogant way, as if it were their privilege and right to sell their goods as high as they please without any criticism. [241] We will stand by and let such people fleece, grab, and hoard. [242] But we will trust God, who takes matters into his own hands. After you have scrimped and saved for a long time, God will pronounce a blessing over you: May your grain spoil in the barn, your beer in the cellar, your cattle perish in the stall. Yes, where you have cheated and defrauded anyone out of a gulden, your entire hoard ought to be consumed by rust so that you will never enjoy it.

[243] Indeed, we have the evidence before our eyes every day that no stolen or ill-gotten possession thrives. How many people are there who scrape and scratch day and night and are not even a penny richer? Even though they amass a great amount, they have to suffer so many troubles and misfortunes that they can never enjoy it or pass it on to their children. [244] But because everyone ignores this and acts as if it were none of our business, God must punish us and teach us morals in a different way. He imposes one affliction after another on us, or he quarters a troop of soldiers among us; in one hour they clean out our strongboxes and purses down to the last penny, and then by way of thanks they burn and ravage house and home and assault and kill wife and children.

[245] In short, no matter how much you steal, be certain that twice as much will be stolen from you. Anyone who robs and takes things by violence and dishonesty must put up with someone else who plays the same game. Because everyone robs and steals from everyone else, God has mastered the art of punishing one thief by means of another. Otherwise, where would we find enough gallows and ropes?

[246] Anyone who is willing to learn should know that this is God’s commandment and that he does not want it to be considered a joke. We will put up with those of you who despise, defraud, steal, and rob us. We will endure your arrogance and show forgiveness and mercy, as the Lord’s Prayer teaches us. The upright, meanwhile, will have enough, and you will hurt yourself more than anyone else. But beware of how you deal with the poor—there are many of them now—who must live from hand to mouth.

[247] If you act as if everyone has to live by your favor, if you skin and scrape them right down to the bone, if you arrogantly turn away those who need your aid, they will go away wretched and dejected, and, because they can complain to no one else, they will cry out to heaven. Beware of this, I repeat, as if it were the devil himself. Such sighs and cries are no laughing matter, but will have an effect too great for you and all the world to bear. For they will reach God, who watches over poor, troubled hearts, and he will not leave them unavenged. But if you despise and defy this, see whom you have brought upon yourself. If you succeed and prosper, however, you may call God and me liars before the whole world.

[248] We have now given warning and exhortation enough. Those who do not heed or believe this may go their own way until they learn it by experience. But it needs to be impressed upon the young people so that they may be on their guard and not go along with the old, wayward crowd but instead keep their eyes on God’s commandment, lest God’s wrath and punishment overtake even them. [249] Our responsibility is only to instruct and to reprove with God’s Word. But it is the responsibility of the princes and magistrates to restrain open wantonness. They should be alert and courageous enough to establish and maintain order in all areas of trade and commerce in order that the poor may not be burdened and oppressed and in order that they themselves may not be responsible for other people’s sins.

[250] Enough has been said about what stealing is. It should not be narrowly restricted, but it should pertain to anything that has to do with our neighbor. We will sum it up, as we have done in the previous commandments: First, we are forbidden to do our neighbors any injury or wrong in any way imaginable, whether by damaging, withholding, or interfering with their possessions and property. We are not even to consent to or permit such a thing but are rather to avert and prevent it. [251] In addition, we are commanded to promote and further our neighbors’ interests, and when they suffer any want, we are to help, share, and lend to both friends and foes.

[252] Anyone who seeks and desires good works will find here more than enough things to do that are heartily acceptable and pleasing to God. Moreover, God lavishes upon them a wonderful blessing, and generously rewards us for what we do to benefit and befriend our neighbor, as King Solomon also teaches in Proverbs 19:17 “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full.” [253] Here you have a rich Lord, who is surely sufficient for your needs and will let you lack or want for nothing. Thus with a happy conscience you can enjoy a hundred times more than you could scrape together by perfidy and injustice. Whoever does not desire this blessing will find wrath and misfortune enough.