Thou Shalt Not Covet
TEXT: Exodus 20:17; Matthew 6:25-33
Yes, it's true. We are finally to the last of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not covet." What exactly is that anyway? Every now and again we say, "I covet your prayers," but for the most part, the word "covet" is not in common usage in America. What does it mean?
Coveting is something that goes on in the heart, which makes this one of the more dangerous commandments. The thing that is most important to God is the attitude of our hearts, so that anything that affects us at a heart level is serious stuff indeed. We need to keep watch. To "covet" is to want something that someone else has--not just something like it, like when we say, "I love that dress, where did you get it?" but wanting that exact thing, like saying, "I love that dress--take it off and give it to me."
I used to see this commandment broken all the time by Grace, my dog. When I first got Grace, I also had a second dog, a Golden Retriever named Hildy. Very often I would be sitting at my desk at home, working, with each of the dogs nearby happily chewing on a rawhide chew stick. But, after a bit, I would start to hear Hildy whine. I look to see what the matter is, and nothing seems to be wrong. Both dogs are still in their places, both still have their chew sticks, nobody seems to be hurt, and there's food in their dishes. So I go back to my work.
In just a few seconds time, however, Grace leaves her place, goes over to Hildy, and steals her chew stick. I came to learn that Hildy's whine meant, "Mommy, Grace is coveting my chew stick!" And even dogs know that coveting is the immediate stepping stone to theft. It didn't matter that Grace already had her own chew stick, or even that she had five chew sticks. She wanted the one that Hildy had, simply so that she could own them all and prove that she was alpha dog.
And that is what coveting is about. Ultimately, coveting is about control. There should be nothing, we think, that should be forbidden to us. If I want it, my needs and desires should take priority over the needs and desires of others. The eighth commandment about stealing doesn't get broken unless we break the tenth commandment first. We covet first--then we steal.
Interestingly enough, we don't break the tenth commandment unless we have already broken the first commandment--You shall have no other gods before me. We don't get to the point of thinking we should be able to have whatever we want if we keep things in perspective and remember that God is God and we are not. Coveting is only possible when we start to put ourselves in God's place, thinking we have a right to anything we want. Whichever of these ten commandments you look at, all of them will eventually lead you back to the first one. No other gods. Yahweh first, foremost, and only.
If we keep that one, the rest of the commandments aren't even necessary. If we place our trust in the God who created the sparrows and the lilies of the field, we're not going to be driven to steal. If we love the God revelaed in Jesus Christ, we are going to automatically love our neighbor, honor our parents, respect each other, and revere God's name. There is nothing so clear in both the Old and New Testaments than that love of God is evidenced in justice, mercy, and love of neighbor.
Put God first comes as the first commandment. At the end of Matthew, chapter 6, the chapter where Jesus expands the meaning of the Ten Commandments, Jesus says, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you." That's the point of the first commandment...God first and the rest all falls into place. God first and you will keep all the other commandments by default.
The first commandment is the basis for keeping all the others, and the last commandment is the basis for breaking all the others. If we don't start with God first, we fall to the bottom of the list and begin to covet. We think we should have what others have. We begin to think that we know as much as God knows...that our needs should take priority over any of God's plans...we reach out and eat the apple that looks so inviting, and we fall.
Coveting is about our desire to be in control...in ultimate control...it is about our desire to be alpha dog...to be God and to have the right to take what another has...to be the owner of all rather than the steward. We might want the right to take possessions, but it might also be more abstract. It might be that what we want is not control over things but over people. Individuals are coveted and then taken in adultery or in slavery. We might enter into marriage thinking that the other person now belongs to us, coveting their freedom to be the person God created them to be, insisting that they become who WE want them to be. We look at others and covet their jobs, their success, their families.
It might be coveting a reputation , a certain honor, or someone=s authority. Dishonoring parents seeks to take the authority they have been given or the dignity they have as children of God. False witness seeks to take away a person=s influence by attacking their reputation. We might covet God's right to vengeance and commit murder. We might be jealous of God's right to reap the harvest, and so we work and work, never taking a Sabbath rest, sure that God cannot possibly get on even for a day without us. We want to control where we place our allegiance, so we decide that things other than God will take priority and thus make our idols. When we covet, we open the door to breaking any and all of the commandments.
The Ten Commandments are not ten different rules. They are nine examples of how we should put into practice the first rule. The book of James recognizes this when it claims in James 2:10, "Whoever keeps the whole law and yet offends in one point, he is guilty of all." There is no point in boasting that you have been able to keep nine of the ten. If you break one, you have broken it all, because it is all an extension of one simple command--Love God only. Worship God only. God first, God last, God in between, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. The God who is. The great "I am."
The verse that best sums that up is from Deuteronomy, chapter 6. It is the verse that Jesus says is the greatest commandment. It is the verse that the great rabbis throughout history have said sums up all the law and the prophets. It is the verse recited at every Jewish Sabbath service and ought to be recited at all of ours. It is the reason I have said...with only a moderate fear of charges of heresy...that I think everything that needed to be said was said by the end of Deuteronomy:
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."
It's the same as the first of the ten commandments...Sell out, heart and soul, to God. God first. That concept is so important that God wants to be absolutely sure we don't forget. Tell your children, says God. Talk about it everywhere you go...at home or out of town...everywhere. Remind yourself every morning when you wake up and every night when you go to bed. But God knows what we are like and how easy it is for us to forget, so God doesn't stop even with that.
In fact, says God, tie those words onto the back of your hand so you will always see them and strap them to your forehead so everybody else will see them too. Put them on the door of your house so both you and others are reminded every time you go in or out of your house. More than that...stick them on the gates of your fields so you see it there, too. There is nothing else in all of Scripture that God wants to be sure is in front of us every minute of every day. We would do well to pay attention.
So how do we keep perspective? How do we remember that God is God and we are not? The answer is simpler than you might think. I believe we remember through the practice of gratitude--being thankful, and seeing all of life as a blessing. If you are coveting, you can't be thankful. To be thankful we have to be able to recognize that we have been given a gift. A gift is not something we can demand or something we have earned. It is something that someone else properly owns that has been freely given to us because the giver wanted to give it. If we deserved the gift, it would not be a gift, but a wage.
The attitude of coveting implies that there is some inborn right we have to make the thing ours. That means that even if it looks acts and smells like a gift, we are not thankful. We simply feel that we got what we should have had all along. This plays out at birthday parties and on Christmas mornings all over the place. If you think that anybody has some sort of moral obligation to give you a present, you will not be able to be truly thankful, even if it is the grandest gift ever. Thankfulness comes out of a realization that we have been given a gift that did not have to be given.
Advice columns are full of this sort of thing. Someone is bent because so and so didn=t send a wedding gift or a birthday gift, and now two people who used to like each other are not speaking. By definition of the word, nobody owes us a gift. That's what a gift means. It's not an obligation. It is freely given and freely received. 1 Chronicles 29:14 says, "For all things come from you, and of your own we have given you." All that we have and are is a gift from God, and yet what God gets in return is more often resentment than gratitude. Covetousness claims, "I have a right to all things." Thanksgiving makes the opposite statement: "All I have is a gift from God."
Remember that the reason God gave Israel the Ten Commandments was so that they could effectively witness to their faith to the rest of the world. Living in this way would show the rest of the nations what sort of God it was that Israel served. It told that they served one God alone and that their God was owner and ruler of all. But it also told in no uncertain terms that this was not a God who abused such power. We respect and honor others to show that God respects us. We reverence life because God created it. We are given one out of every seven days when not even slaves and animals are required to work because quality of life is important to God, and life is more than work. We are faithful to one another to show that God is faithful to us and we speak the truth to show that God is truth.
Is that the God you serve? Is that the God you would like to serve? Does your life show others the nature of God? Those are the questions to which the Ten Commandments are the answer. If that's what you want for your life, begin by putting God first. And if you haven't ever done that before, begin by looking around and recognizing everything and everyone around you as a gift from God. And be thankful. Amen.
© 2004, Anne Robertson