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The dishonesty of unjustly taking a neighbour’s property.
The principal ways of doing this seem to be these four, by negligence, by fraud, by violence, or by stealing strictly so called.
1. The first way of unjustly depriving our neighbour of that which is his, is by negligence, by carelessly neglecting that which is expected by neighbours, one of another, and is necessary to prevent our neighbour’s suffering in his estate by us, or by anything that is ours: and 222in order that neighbours may live one by another, without suffering in their lawful interests, rights, and possessions, one by another.
For instance, when proper care is not taken by men to prevent their neighbour’s suffering in the produce of his fields or enclosures, from their cattle, or other brute creatures; which may be either through negligence with regard to their creatures themselves, in keeping those that are unruly, and giving them their liberty, though they know that they are not fit to have their liberty, and are commonly wont to break into their neighbour’s enclosures greatly to his damage; or through a neglect of that which is justly expected of them, to defend others’ fields from suffering by the neighbourhood of their own. In such cases men are guilty of unjustly taking from their neighbour what is his property.
It is said in the law of Moses, Exod. xxii. 5. “If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall put in his beast, and shall feed in another man’s field; of the best of his own field, and of the best of his vineyard, shall he make restitution.” Now a man may be unjustly the cause of his neighbour’s field or vineyard being eaten, either by putting in his beast, and so doing what he should not do; or by neglecting to do what he should do, to prevent his beast from getting into his field. What is said in the 144th Psalm, and two last verses, supposes that a people who carry themselves as becomes a people whose God is the Lord, will take thorough care that beasts do not break into their neighbour’s enclosures: “That our oxen may be strong to labour; that there be no breaking in, nor going out; that there be no complaining in our streets. Happy is that people that is in such a case; yea, happy is that people whose God is the Lord. 220220 Psalms 144:14 ”
2. Taking away that which is our neighbour’s by fraud, or by deceiving him, is another mode of usurping our neighbour’s property. This is the case when men in their dealings take advantage of their neighbour’s ignorance, or oversight, or mistake, to get something from him; or when they make their gains, by concealing the defects of what they sell, putting off bad for good, though this be not done by speaking falsely, but only by keeping silence: or when they take a higher price than what they sell is really worth, and more than they could get for it if the concealed defects were known: or when they sell that for good, which indeed is not merchantable, which is condemned in Amos viii. 6. “Yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat.”
If a man puts off something to another with defects that are concealed, knowing that the other receives it as good, and pays such a price for it, under a notion of its having no remarkable defect but what he sees, and takes the price which the buyer under that notion offers; the seller knows that he takes a price of the buyer for that which the buyer had not of him; for the buyer is deceived, and pays for those things which he finds wanting in what he buys. It is just the same thing, as if a man should take a payment that another offers him, through a mistake, for that which he never had of him, thinking that he had it of him, when lie had it not.
So a man fraudulently takes away that which is his neighbour’s, when he gets his money from him by falsely commending what he hath to sell, above what he knows to be the true quality of it; and attributes those good qualities to it which he knows it has not: or if he does not that, yet sets forth the good qualities in a degree beyond what he knows to be the true degree; or speaks of the defects and ill qualities of what he has to sell, as if they were much less than he knows they are: or on the contrary, when the buyer will cry down what he is about to buy, contrary to his real opinion of the value of it.—These things, however common they be in men’s dealings one with another, are nothing short of iniquity, and fraud, and a great breach of this commandment, upon which we are discoursing. Prov. xx. 14. “It is nought, it is nought, saith the buyer;” but when he is gone his way then he boasteth.”—Many other ways there are whereby men deceive one another in their trading, and whereby they fraudulently and unjustly take away that which is their neighbour’s.
3. Another mode of unjustly invading and taking away our neighbour’s property, is by violence. This violence may be done in different degrees.—Men may take away their neighbour’s goods either by mere open violence, either making use of superior strength, forcibly taking away anything that is his; or by express or implicit threatenings forcing him to yield up what he has into their hands; as is done in open robbery and piracy. Or, by making use of some advantages which they have over their neighbour, in their dealings with him, constrain him to yield to their gaining unreasonably of him; as when they take advantage of their neighbour’s poverty to extort unreasonably from him for those things that he is under a necessity of procuring for himself or family. This is an oppression against which God hath shown a great displeasure in his word. Levit. xxv. 14. “And if thou sell ought unto thy neighbour, or buyest ought of thy neighbour, ye shall not oppress one another.” Prov. xxii. 22, 23. “Rob not the poor, because he is poor, neither oppress the afflicted in the gate; for the Lord will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them.” And, Amos iv. 1, 2. “Hear this word, ye kin of Bashan, that are in the mount of Samaria, which oppress the poor, which crush the needy, the Lord hath sworn in his holiness, that he will take you away with hooks, and your posterity with fish-hooks.”
When the necessity of poor indigent people is the very thing whence others take occasion to raise the price of provisions, even above the market; this is such an oppression. There are many poor people whose families are in such necessity of bread, that they in their extremity will give almost any price for it, rather than go without it. Those who have to sell, though hereby they have an advantage in their hands, yet surely should not take the advantage to raise the price of provisions. We should doubtless think that we had just cause to complain, if we were in such necessity as they are, and were reduced to their straits, and were treated in this manner; and let us remember, that it is owing only to the distinguishing goodness of God to us, that we are not in their circumstances; and whatever our present circumstances are, yet we know not but that the time may still come when their case may be ours.
Men may oppress others, though they be not poor, if they will take advantage of any particular necessities of their neighbour, unreasonably to extort from him. The case may be so at particular seasons, that those who are not poor, may stand in particular and extraordinary need of what we have, or what we can do for them; so that it would be greatly to their disadvantage or loss to be without it. Now to take advantage of their urgent circumstances, to get from them an unreasonable price, is a violent dealing with our neighbours.
It is very unreasonable to say, such men are so rich, and get money so much more easily than I, that it is no hurt for me to take advantage when they are in special need, and make them give up, for work that I do for them, a great deal more than I would desire to ask of other men. Let such consider, whether, if they should by any means hereafter get forward in the world, and come to have plentiful estates, they would like that persons should act upon such principles towards them. That men are rich, gives us no more right to take away from them what is theirs in this way, than it does to steal from them because they come easily by their property, and can do without it better than we.
Again, another thing that is a kind of violent taking from our neighbour what is his, is taking the advantage of the law to gain from others, when their cause in honesty and conscience is just and good. The circumstances of mankind, their rights, possessions, and dealings one with another, are so various, that it is impossible that any body of human laws should be contrived to suit all possible cases and circumstances. Hence the best laws may be abused and perverted to purposes contrary to the general design of laws, which is to maintain the rights and secure the properties of mankind. Human laws have a regard due to them, but always in subordination to the higher laws of God and nature. Therefore when it so happens, that we have an advantage by the law, to gain what the laws of moral honesty allow not, it is an oppression and violence to take the advantage. That human laws allow 223it, will not excuse us before God, the Judge of the world, who will judge us another day by his own laws and not by the laws of the commonwealth.
4. The fourth way of unjustly taking from our neighbour that which is his, is stealing so called. All unjust ways of taking away, or invading, or usurping what is our neighbour’s, are called stealing in the most extensive use of the word, and all is included in the expression in this command. Yet the word stealing, as it is more commonly used, is not of so great extent, and intends not all unjust invasion of our neighbour’s property, but only a particular kind of unjust taking. So that in common speech when we speak of fraudulent dealings, of extortion, unfaithfulness in our trust, and of stealing, we understand different sins by these expressions, though they are an usurpation of what is our neighbour’s.
Stealing, strictly so called, may be thus defined, a designed taking of our neighbour’s goods from him, without his consent or knowledge. It is not merely a withholding of what is our neighbour’s, but a taking away: and therein it differs from unfaithfulness in our undertakings and betrustments, and also from negligence in the payment of debts. It is a designed or wilful depriving of our neighbour of what is his, and so differs from wronging our neighbour in his estate through carelessness or negligence. It is a taking of our neighbour’s goods without his knowledge; it is a private, clandestine taking away, and so differs from robbery by open violence.
So also it differs from extortion: for in that the person knows what is taken from him. The aim of him that takes is no other than that he should know it; for he makes use of other means than his ignorance, to obtain what is his neighbour’s, viz. violence to constrain him to give it up. So also it differs from fraudulent dealing or trading. For though in fraudulent dealing the lawful possessor doth not understand the ways and means, by which he parts with his goods, and by which his neighbour becomes possessed of them; yet he knows the fact; the deceiver designedly conceals the manner only. But in stealing, strictly so called, he that takes, intends not that it shall be known that he takes. It also differs from extortion and fraudulent dealing, in that it is wholly without the consent of the owner. For in extortion, though there be no free consent; yet the consent of the owner is in some sort gained, though by oppressive means. So in fraudulent dealing consent is in some sort obtained, though it be by deceit. But in stealing no kind of consent is obtained.
A person may steal from another, yet not take his goods without the knowledge of the owner; because he may know of it accidentally, he may see what is done, unawares to the thief. Therefore I have denied stealing, a designed taking without the consent or knowledge of the owner. If it be accidentally known, yet it is not known in the design and intention of the thief. The thief is so far at least private in it, that he gives no notice to the owner at the time. It must be also without the consent of the owner. A person may take without the knowledge of the owner, and yet not take without his consent. The owner may not know of his taking at the time, or of his taking any particular things: yet there may be his implicit consent. There may have been a general consent, if not expressed, yet implied. The circumstances of the affair may be such, that his consent may well be presumed upon, either from an established custom, allowed by all, or from the nature of the case; the thing being of such a nature, that it may well be presumed that none would refuse their consent; as in the case of a person’s accidentally passing through his neighbour’s vineyard in Israel, and eating his fill of grapes: or from the circumstances of the persons, as is the case, in many instances, of the freedom which near neighbours and intimate friends often take, and of that boldness which they use with respect to each other’s goods.
In all such cases, though the owner does not particularly know what is done, yet he that takes, does it not with any contrived designed concealment. And though there is no express, particular consent, yet there is a consent either implied, or justly presumed upon; and he that takes, doth not designedly do it without consent.
It may happen in some cases, that one may take the goods of another both without his knowledge and consent, either explicit or implicit, but through mistake; yet he may not be guilty of stealing. Therefore the design of him who takes must come into consideration. When he designedly takes away that which is his neighbour’s, without his consent or knowledge, then he steals. So that if it should happen, that he has both his consent and knowledge, without his design, he steals. And if it so happen that he takes without either his neighbour’s consent or knowledge, and yet without his own design, he steals not. I desire therefore that this, which I take to be the true definition of theft or stealing, may be borne in mind, viz. a designed taking of our neighbour’s goods, without his consent or knowledge; because it is needful to clear up many things which I have yet to say on this subject.
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