Chapter 8

The Stewardship of Resources


"You shall not steal" (Exodus 20.15).

The temptation to get something for nothing is strong in all of us. To the uninitiated the miracles of Christ fall into this category; little do they know how much it cost him to provide for the welfare of his compatriots. God's grace to us is free, but he gives of himself eternally to us.

Stealing is the way of gaining an unearned commodity by directly appropriating for our own use something that does not belong to us. It is usually a possession of another person or some communal property, but it can also be another person's ideas which we then pass off as our own in the act of plagiarism. The end of stealing is always the same; someone else is diminished unlawfully while the thief gains at his victim's expense. The prohibition is expanded in Leviticus 19.11, "You shall not steal; you shall not cheat or deceive a fellow countryman". As the moral consciousness of the Israelites matures, so the concept of a fellow countryman widens to embrace all neighbours, whom Jesus identifies in the parable of the good Samaritan as anyone we may encounter on the path of life.

The spiritual havoc encompassed by an act of dishonesty has already been spelled out in respect of murder: we are all parts of the one body of humanity, and an act that injures even one individual has its wider repercussions on the whole community. The victim, deprived of an article that belonged to him, is not merely inconvenienced to a greater or lesser extent depending on the value of what was appropriated. The act of theft leaves a gaping wound in the inner life of the one who has been cheated, his security has been violated, and he is subtly diminished in his self-regard. This is especially well seen in the victim of a confidence trickster, who has manoeuvred his way with heartless abandon into another person's inner sanctuary of trust, only to defile it when he absconds with the money or the precious article he coveted. It is this he valued and not the person of his victim who becomes like a discarded article of clothing. Indeed, the wretchedness of a theft does not depend only on the financial loss sustained; its deeper implications emit reverberations that disturb the inner life of the victim, producing a sense of violation. Likewise, the horror of a burglary is often out of all proportion to the goods stolen; a most unpleasant psychic presence contaminates the atmosphere of the premises that cannot be attributed merely to the physical disturbance effected by the intruder ransacking his victim's possessions. It may require some time to elapse before peace descends on the violated property no less than in the heart of the owner.

All this is as it should be; it does not necessarily point to an attachment to property so much as to the interconnectedness of the whole created order. It is not reprehensible to attach value to our possessions; on the contrary, it is a sin of omission to neglect any aspect of the world around us. Our very clothing is in effect an extension of the physical body it covers, just as our homes and the vehicles we use serve to house that same body and enhance its mobility for the many demands that are placed upon it. Likewise, money has its own integrity, and its correct use is one of the basic lessons we are called on to learn in this life. Neither money nor possessions can be taken with us to the life we inherit after death, therefore we are ill-advised to cling to them selfishly. Indeed, the accumulation of riches even in this world soon assumes the subtle form of a gilded prison which focuses an increasing amount of our attention on to matters of insurance and self-protection against the assaults of thieves and the inclemency of the elements. "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where it grows rusty and moth-eaten, and thieves break in to steal it. Store up treasure in heaven, where there is no moth and no rust to spoil it, no thieves to break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6.19-20).

On the other hand, money and property are facts of material life, no less than human relationships, and their necessity will not be dispelled by our refusing to handle them. It is what we do with the things of this world that counts; rejecting them is an aspect of denying life, which may superficially appear to be spiritually enlightened, but in fact separates us from a proper relationship with the earth. Life cannot be divided into compartments, some of which are sacred and some profane. The incarnation of Christ and his death saw the curtain of the temple torn in two from top to bottom; from henceforth the sacred mixed freely with the profane, as Jesus had done during his time on earth with the many different types of people he encountered, in order to raise up the profane to true sanctity. In the same way we have to come to terms with life as a whole; effecting a proper relationship with things and events no less than with people is as much for our own spiritual growth as for the glorification of the material universe.

What we handle with reverence we bring closer to God; this is a function of the universal priesthood bestowed on humanity and performed most solemnly and splendidly in the consecration of the elements of the Eucharist. However, what is brought about in that great moment of the sacrament of Christ's self-giving to us for our redemption from the power of sin and our resurrection to a new life of spiritual awareness, has to be repeated in all our lives by personal holiness and a deep caring for the world's creatures. The violence of theft is the very antithesis of reverence - it contaminates all it touches in the act of separating the property from the care of its owner. The object stolen becomes a mere article to satisfy the covetousness of the thief. When we live according to brute nature unredeemed by grace, we inevitably make selfish use of the things of this world; needless to say, in so doing we have only a shortsighted understanding of what is most advantageous for us. This is an I-It relationship of selfish convenience, and if it is pursued remorselessly among the things of the world, it overflows into human relationships also. By contrast, when the Word of God lives in us and directs us beyond selfish concern to a sharing with the whole world, love flows freely from us to the people around us and also to the objects whose existence we customarily take for granted, but without thanks, let alone reverence.

A spiritually alive person is aware of the holiness of matter, because God created it; whatever God created is fundamentally good, but his rational creatures, to whom he has given executive power in this world, will tend to corrupt it if they separate themselves from the divine grace. This they do by an attitude of insolent pride which shows itself in a negligent attitude towards prayer, our unfailing means of direct communication with the divine. This applies especially to the practice of inner fellowship with God in silence, which is called contemplation. The spiritual person rejoices in the material world as he conserves the resources of nature with child-like wonder and adult resolution. By contrast, an I-It relationship is selfish, predatory and eventually destructive. This defines exactly the final result of stealing something: the article is easily damaged and its value undermined in a way not altogether dissimilar to the person who is seduced and lowered from the pedestal of chastity to the common floor of lustful expediency.

That theft is unacceptable is confirmed by the world's great religious codes. Nevertheless, there are circumstances when it would be hard to resist the temptation to steal. Until we are provided with the necessities of life it is not reprehensible for us to grasp at our own survival and that of our family. The basic needs for any animal are food and shelter, without which life is impossible. To these elementary requirements the drive for procreation must be added so that the life of the species may be safeguarded. In an especially highly developed group like the human family, once these basic needs have been satisfied, there are more personal requirements to be met. Each of us is an individual in his own right, a fact of human life that should be acknowledged. Therefore the basic animal needs have to be humanized by warm interpersonal relationships and an acceptance of each individual as valuable, indeed unique, in his own environment. Our value as persons is reflected by the love that is our due from those in close family relationship to us and from the esteem we evoke in our social environment. This in turn depends on the value of the work we do and our general contribution to the life of our local community. This compendium of human needs is not by any means complete; it simply defines a sound foundation for personal and communal life. On this foundation a spiritual edifice can be built, since the truly human place is with God as collaborator in the building of the world. Our souls know no lasting peace until they rest in God's eternal creativity.

It is tempting and disconcertingly easy, in a flourish of idealistic enthusiasm, to meditate ecstatically on the final end of mankind restored in the divine image while neglecting the material and emotional foundation on which this great spiritual plan is to unfold. Certainly our present era cannot be accused of falling into this particular error. Schemes for social justice abound, at least in the more developed countries of our world, and in them a great deal of the harshest poverty and material degradation has been considerably mitigated. For this we should be heartily thankful, while working without rest towards a similar amelioration in the larger, less developed part of the world where dehumanizing poverty still afflicts vast populations. Without basic social justice civilized living is all but impossible, and as civilization crumbles, so the commandments of God's law are transgressed more frequently until there is absolute social disintegration with anarchy. Nevertheless, man cannot live on bread alone; he lives by every word that God utters (Deuteronomy 8.3). This teaching was repeated by Jesus to the devil when he was challenged to turn stones into bread. Jesus was later to perform miracles of supply far in excess of this, but this was for the sake of others, not his own self-aggrandizement. Furthermore, in every miracle he was not only the agent but also the victim. He gave unstintingly of himself that others might be healed, that they too might glimpse the Kingdom of God. The work of Christ is the direct antithesis of theft. "For you know how generous our Lord Jesus Christ has been: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8.9). As in all life, a balance has to be struck between the material and the spiritual for the enrichment of both.

Can it be wrong for a distracted parent faced with grinding poverty to steal for the sake of his starving family? The approach to this terrible situation, which must be practical if it is to be spiritually sound, is that we are all parts of the one body of humanity, and that it is unacceptable for any individual to lie derelict on a scrap-heap of poverty while others flourish, perhaps in idleness, on a comfortable income that may be largely unearned. But theft is an unacceptable way of countering this injustice, even if dire necessity may make it apparently immediately permissible. The act of stealing serves to disrupt even further the uneasy flow of social relationships, bringing in its train chaos and fear as part of a destructive impulse against the law of the land. Two wrongful actions, in this case social injustice and personal theft, do not cancel each other out and make for righteousness. If the thief were to succeed in his anti-social activity, his way would be open to becoming increasingly dishonest until he precipitated serious communal disorder. In so doing, he would drift away from the common good, however imperfect this might be, until he became a creature apart, an outlaw. Such a state of hostile separation from one's fellow creatures is a good introduction to hell, which finds its fullness in the total isolation of the individual from his fellows and from the knowledge of God.

The tendency to steal is a manifestation of an inner desolation: what the person lacks in himself he attempts to appropriate from others. This lack may be the result of a callous, uncaring society in which the person lives or it may be an intrinsic defect in the person himself. The two often reinforce each other. It is common for children deprived of love in their family associations, or who feel that they are the victims of injustice, to steal from those around them. If we return to Leviticus 19.11, we are forbidden to steal or to cheat or deceive a neighbour. In this instance, the child, deprived of affection, has in no uncertain way been cheated of a vital relationship with its family, and its response is a protest against this injustice. It is in effect a distress signal that must be heard at once for the sake of the family no less than the child; each member makes its own unique contribution to the community when it is properly integrated into it, whereas its own disintegration weakens those around it. In the same way, an impoverished adult who takes to crime may have been cheated of family solidarity, effective education, and a chance to engage in constructive work by an unfair social system. However, in this instance, the situation is nearly always complicated by the offender's defective character. Poverty, at least in the world's more developed countries, is due as often to the improvident use of resources as to a lack of opportunity. Large amounts of money are wasted on trivial entertainments and squandered on vice in so many societies lacking any vital spiritual directives, whereas some defective people vegetate in idleness. The personal weakness that leads to poverty, apathy and crime has a strongly moral component which is often aggravated by social unrest. Until the person comes to himself and acknowledges the source of the problem in undistorted awareness, he will continue to steal until he finds himself placed outside the community as an habitual criminal. It is evident that the tendency to steal is close to the divided consciousness we all inherit; few of us have escaped the implications of theft both as offenders and victims. The increasing level of world unemployment is bound to increase the amount of stealing even if the amount of money paid out to those without work is sufficient to obviate poverty. Idle hands herald moral deterioration that leads to various anti-social activities.

Stealing, in fact, begins insidiously with a subversive attitude of mind in which we give short measure of ourselves for what life has given us. The rewards of a human existence are a vigorous body, an active, intelligent mind, a warm, expressive emotional life and a deeper self, or soul, that can know God directly by intuition strengthened by the assiduous practice of prayer. Even if some of these human qualities are dim, we have much to acknowledge in thanksgiving. The privilege of a healthy body is all too often overlooked until we fall victim to a serious malady, just as a balanced emotional life is taken for granted until the advent of a mental illness or a severe outer misfortune. The payment that is expected of us for the wonder of our incarnation is ourselves alone. But whereas the financial demands of the world impoverish us, the payment that is part of spiritual development involves no invoices for services rendered, nor is there any sacrifice of resources. On the contrary, we gain as we give of ourselves, growing in the stature of a world benefactor. As we give of ourselves, so we are filled with the Holy Spirit who renews our personality and brings us closer to a direct knowledge of God.

We live according to the law of God, which is the divine moral order, when we give unstintingly of ourselves in service whenever we are asked. Often the service has a pecuniary reward attached to it, and we move beyond shabby, unobtrusive theft to a wholesome, giving relationship with those who are employing us when we fulfil our part of the contract with punctilious honesty. But sometimes there is no contract. Here we are working on God's behalf, and it is our privilege to give something of ourself for no material reward whatsoever. As we give fully of ourself to another person, so we fill him with something of God that has come to us. This is the Holy Spirit who flows out from us in free fellowship whenever we are fully open to the thrust of life whose creator is God himself. The more closed we are to life, the more do we tend to secrete our own gifts until they remain attached as inert, atrophied appendages to our puny personality. On the other hand, the more open we are, the more we are replenished by the Holy Spirit and the less is the temptation to steal from life's passing show. It is in this illumined spirit that we can begin to grasp the high teaching of Jesus about detachment and charity. "If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two. Give when you are asked to give, and do not turn your back on a man who wants to borrow" (Matthew 5.40-2).

The attitude that counters any temptation to steal is one of blessing. When we can flow out to life in a spirit of affirmation and an attitude of benediction, we are giving ourselves without reserve to all that we encounter, whether good or bad, favourable or unfavourable. This is the supreme act of self-giving that is evoked by a knowledge of God, and it makes tolerable even life's most terrible experiences. Thus there have been nameless saints of our own century who, suffering appallingly in prison camps, have refused to counter evil with hatred. Instead, they went about in child-like faith, relating positively to all those around them, and attained spiritual mastery. Most were killed along with their unenlightened brethren, like Christ crucified between two criminals, but their death was a great victory of the spirit of eternal life over material darkness. By their example working beyond the limitation of time and space, we too are encouraged and lifted up to noble purpose when all around us is dark and full of evil forebodings. While the way of theft seeks to evade this ultimate personal exposure by illicit material means, the way of blessing takes every circumstance aboard with it, and brings the collective whole to God, who alone can receive and heal it.

There are mysteries of grace in situations of intense terror and deprivation, especially when they are shared communally. When all our lives are in imminent peril, we tend to move beyond thoughts of possessions, rights and special privileges and enter more fully into the lives of those around us. Instead of contrasting our own lot, either favourably or unfavourably, with that of others, we seek to join our lot with theirs for the common good. Theft flourishes especially in societies where there is a great spectrum of wealth and poverty; where all are on the level of mere subsistence, the one is more able to give up his little to the other. The end of the communal struggle is life itself, and a vision of glory opens in the squalor of the moment, a vision that lifts up the minds of the deprived ones to a shared heaven in eternity. Heaven, whether in this world or the next, is an atmosphere of intimate fellowship with our neighbours, so that we know them as we are known by them. Possessions fall into the background, and such that there are become the property of all. The very thought of having something secret from another person is impossible. However, when the siege conditions of attrition are lifted, each person drifts along his own way, becomes imprisoned in his own private interests and shuts off from his awareness the concern for others that was once an essential part of his life. There is indeed a spark of God in the soul of each of us, but how easily it becomes obfuscated in the opacity of selfishness! The act of stealing concentrates that opaque darkness around the offender, remembering that the essence of theft is giving short measure of ourself in the various tests of life that confront us day by day. But when we know God in our lives, so often, as we have already noted on more than one occasion, when we are in a condition of extreme isolation, the light breaks into the darkness and we start to see clearly once more. "All that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it" (John 1.4-5). As we know that light, so we give ourselves without reserve and cease to take anything that is not given to us in love.

In the life of the world it is right that we should learn to conserve property. Private ownership is part of our training to become responsible, caring people. But as we grow in spiritual understanding, so our life-style becomes less complicated. Simplicity is an important fruit of the spiritual life, clouded by hardship and lightened by God's grace. There comes a time when we can understand quite directly Christ's severe strictures on wealth. "How hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18.24-5). It is not the wealth or possessions that are bad in themselves; what prevents their possessor from entering the Kingdom of God is their importance in his life. They, as idols, usurp the place of God and until they are given away for the common good and shed from the person of the rich man, they block his entry through the small gate and narrow road that leads to life, to quote from a collateral saying of Jesus (Matthew 7.13-14).

Much of this was witnessed in the lives of the early disciples. In the earliest community of all, those whose faith had drawn them together held everything in common; they would sell their property and possessions and make a general distribution as the need of each required (Acts 2.44-5). As the work progressed, so the members continued in this state of total sharing: not a man claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common. They never had a needy person among them, because all who had property in land or houses sold it, brought the proceeds of the sale and laid the money at the feet of the apostles; it was then distributed to any who stood in need (Acts 431-5). Unfortunately this inspired communalism soon waned: whereas Barnabas sold his estate and gave over the money with-out demur, Ananias and Sapphira held back a part of the purchase-money of their property after having presented the remainder as the total price of the land. They lied to the Holy Spirit and were struck dead. However much we may shudder at the terrible fate meted out to the dishonest couple, it makes us realize even more forcibly what an unacceptable way of life is embraced in the act of stealing.

Only our best will do, whether in work for wages or in the unpaid service we afford in our personal relationships. When we withhold ourselves in the work of living, we are taking something precious without giving back full measure. The ideal society is that described in the early Acts of the Apostles where all the disciples held everything in common. But this state of affairs requires a complete change in heart of a community. It cannot be enforced by law; it can come only through love, which is God's supreme gift to us. The early disciples met that love in the incarnate and risen Christ. As he comes closer to us, so we will experience that love again, and then the divine community will appear, this time for ever.


Chapter 9
Back to Index Page