By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The story of the rich young ruler seems to bother Americans more than other biblical stories, most likely, because we are a wealthy nation. The story is found in all three of the synoptic Gospels. The story begins when the man asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by listing off the commandments having to do with loving our neighbors. The man responds saying: “All these [commandments] I have kept from my youth”—is there anything further I must do? Jesus replied: “Sell all that you have and give to the poor, . . . and come, follow me.” At this point, the man went away sad unwilling to respond to Jesus’ invitation (paraphrase) .
What does this have to do with not stealing?
Avoiding evil is not the same thing as being good. It is presumably less tempting to steal if you are wealthy than if you are poor. If you are wealthy and motivated by greed, you can delegate little acts of theft to subordinates or convince legislators to change the law to make little acts of theft legal. The rich young ruler no doubt truthfully answered Jesus’ question about the commandments.
However, what if the rich young ruler were a subprime lender and came to Jesus, what do you think he might say? Is it stealing to sell a mortgage to a poor person who probably cannot repay the loan? What if the probability of repayment is reduced by one percent? What about five percent? Before the 2007 financial crisis regulations were amended to make subprime lending easier. Was it enough to have complied with such regulations? What if you worked for the government?
Taking positive steps to be good is not easy.
The apostle Paul makes this distinction when he lists works of the flesh (vices) and lists of fruits of the spirit (virtues). He writes:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:19–23)
Paul’s list does not include stealing, but we all know which list that one belongs to!
It is interesting that in the Sermon on Mount Jesus does not talk specifically about theft the way he does about murder and adultery. In some sense, he did not need to. If greed leads to cheating one’s neighbor, then obviously we should avoid being greedy in order to prevent cheating. Better yet, why not practice generosity?
 Also: Lev 19:11; Deut 5:19; Matt 19:18; Rom 13:9.
 Matt 19; Mark 10; Luke 18.