All Articles

Stealing by Law

“Some courses of action are wrong even to consider,
Merely to pause over them is evil”

– Cicero

There is something askew about the notion of stealing, of taking what really does not belong to us so that we somehow may benefit at the loss of another. “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20.15) is clear enough, but there are many ways a man can steal. A man can pilfer when no one else is around to see what he has taken. A man can rob by force, taking what he wants by threat as with a gun or knife. Both are common enough, I suppose, but when a man steals by law, the consequences are much more far reaching and corrupting. Perhaps such is why lawyers are often held in contempt:

“Woe unto you, lawyers!”

Luke 11.52a

A lawyer can steal more with a pen than a man with a gun, and the lawyer can at times do so with impunity, and with the protection of law. When law becomes a bludgeon to beat people rather than to protect people from wrong, the evil is especially serious.

Indeed, there is nothing more corrupt or corrupting than a judge who has gone wrong. When the innocent are left unprotected, or the unscrupulous attorney left unrestrained, the judge has failed, bringing a sense of contempt on the judiciary, and encouraging civil collapse.

Mere stealing of a material object cannot do that. A man steals and thereby breaks the law, but when the law itself is broken, the unseen soul is stolen. And just as at the end of life there is no remedy, there is no remedy for a judge who could have intervened but did not. Whatever the reason – whether bribery, neglect, indifference – the effect is the same: right becomes wrong, and the wrong becomes worse with the unscrupulous attorney profiting from it all. He creates legal fees and furthers legal complexities so that he can collect additional legal fees without having to call the scene extortion, and the fees, robbery. He steals. He does this with the blessings of the law and the verdict of a judge.

Perhaps, we can understand this better if we step back for a moment and look at life from a distant perspective. Near the end of his own life, Cicero saw the inevitable collapse of law and the civil structure of Rome. A political storm was gathering on the horizon. Disillusioned, Cicero retired to a country villa outside of Rome: “For now that the Senate has been abolished and the courts annihilated, what work . . . is there for me to do, either in the Senate or in the Forum?” (De Officiis, iii.1.3). Caesar having been stopped by assassination; other destructive forces were at work. There was no longer a need for debate or for speeches by someone like Cicero. Rome had never seen such terrible and unsettling times. Cicero may have had some premonition, but he could not have known that within one year, his own life would be ended by government execution. His writings, though, not only provide insight into the times in which he was a part, but into the times of which all of us are a part.

Cicero believed in the rule of law, and in the goodness of man, and in the duty of men toward one another. Public life should be a part of life, and a man should never take advantage of the position he holds:

Consequently, to take something away from someone else – to profit by another’s loss – is more unnatural than death, or destitution, or pain, or any other physical or external blow. To begin with, this strikes at the roots of human society and fellowship. For if we each of us propose to rob or injure one another for our personal gain, then we are clearly going to demolish what is more emphatically nature’s creation than anything else in the whole world: namely, the link that unites every human being with every other. . . (De Officiis, iii.5.21)

The man who uses his position to steal from others may be protected by law, but his action will eventually impact the very fiber that binds men together. If position and law are to be used as weapons so that a judge or an attorney can enrich themselves by legally taking what belongs to another, the whole foundation of generosity, and goodness, and justice is lost, or to put it in Cicero’s words —

If people claim (as they sometimes do) that they have no intention of robbing their parents or brothers for their own gain, but that robbing their other compatriots is a different matter, they are not talking sense. For that is the same as denying their common interest with their fellow countrymen, and all the legal or social obligations that follow therefrom: a denial which shatters the whole fabric of national life. . . (De Officiis, iii.6.28)

We, of course, find the man reprehensible who steals from his parents even when the pretense is supposedly honorable. Christ spoke against those who deliberately neglected their parents by preferring to allocate monies to God rather than to a needy mother. If they called the contribution Corban, the religious-civil law of the times granted them immunity, expunging them from any charge of parental neglect:

“But ye say, if a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban . . . he shall be free”

Mark 7.11

This conduct may have been legal, but that did not keep the conduct from being opprobrious: “Full well ye reject the commandment of God.” (Mark 7.9) Cicero may have been a pagan, but his ethics were higher than these who claimed to adhere strictly to the law of God. The granting of legal permission to set aside a moral obligation made the act especially repulsive. In effect, men could say that they followed God by dishonoring their aged parents. Men could say that they had done no wrong by doing wrong.

There is something quite sinister about using law to steal. A lawyer once came to Christ apparently in an effort to embarrass the Lord publicly. A dialogue ensued in which the lawyer conceded that a man must love God with all of his mind and heart and soul, and that a man should love his neighbor as himself. Yet, when Christ replied that the lawyer had answered correctly: “This do, and thou shalt live” – something struck a chord within the attorney. The Scripture says that he wanted to justify himself,

“And, who is my neighbour?”

Luke 10.29b

He did not, of course, ask the question because he wanted an answer. He may have hoped for a semantical diatribe about the meaning of the word “neighbor” and its possible legal parameters. What he got, however, was a simple story about a man who had been robbed and left for dead, about a man who had been ignored by those who held official government positions. We call that story the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but we sometimes overlook the setting that triggered the story. The Lord told this story because a man with a guilty conscience prompted the telling of the story.

Was there something in the lawyer’s past in which he had legally robbed someone? Was there some sense of legal neglect toward a client, toward someone he could have helped but did not?

The Scripture does not further reveal the inner thoughts of the lawyer while Christ told the story. Yet, we do know that Christ sometimes framed his answer because He knew what was in a man’s heart as well as what was in a man’s past. He could read people’s minds and sometimes did just that. To Nathaniel, He said, “Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee” (John 1.48). Had Nathaniel been praying? We do not know what it was, but whatever had transpired under that fig tree, Nathaniel knew that Christ knew even though Nathaniel had apparently been alone. On the occasion when Judas left to complete his betrayal, the Lord told him, “That thou doest, do quickly” (John 13.27). No one else understood the meaning behind the words. Although spoken aloud and in the presence of others, the words were more like a private conversation between the Christ and Judas.

In the case of the attorney and his question about the meaning of the word “neighbor,” something like this seems to have happened. Certainly, the lawyer is deeply disturbed by the Lord’s answer to his question. Further, when the Lord finishes telling the parable, He again asks the lawyer about the meaning of the word “neighbor.” Others present heard the parable as well, but something unspoken seems to be lurking in the rhetorical background. The words of Christ are too penetrating to be just a general answer to a general question.

Cicero is right. The man who steals under the auspices of law and position takes more than property and money. The man in the Lord’s parable fell among thieves; the Lord could have just as easily said, he fell among lawyers. And maybe that is what the lawyer heard as the Lord told the parable. Whether that was the case or not, we cannot know, but we can be certain that the answer Christ gave was not the answer the attorney had expected.

Even so, there is a responsibility or duty that each of us has toward other people, especially those who are hurting. The Samaritan went to great lengths to tend to the man who had been robbed and left for dead. He could have passed by as did the others. He could have reasoned that the problem was not his problem. He could have done that, but he did not. Instead, he acted out of a sense of duty and decency. Behind Cicero’s words about stealing is the implicit notion of civic duty. A man in a high position may use law to enrich himself, but a man of honor will not do anything to enrich himself at the expense of others.

Perhaps, it is here that corruption in government becomes so attractive to a man who holds office. Unlike an unethical court scene, a man who writes and administers law does not directly see the people he may rob. He may reason within himself that corruption is a part of government, and that what he does is not really any different from what others do. In some convoluted way, he may further justify his advantage in the directing and handling of funds. After all, he did not misuse the law; rather, his position in government allowed him to invest in a corporate stock, or to purchase a piece of property that because of government intervention would later become very valuable. In his mind, he never took advantage of anyone. He merely took advantage of a promising situation. Others eagerly pay him consulting fees, and as he grows more wealthy, he also grows more arrogant and more corrupt. He steals.

We all have seen this, and Cicero saw the same behavior in his time. The love of money is the root of all evil, even when that evil is protected by law. No man should allow a loss of faith in government to become a loss of faith in God. The two are very different. Government, after all, issued the edict to crucify Christ, thereby legally justifying the execution.