We have reached the final Sunday of the Summer Worship Series on the Ten Commandments. As we have done each week so far, our goal in studying the Ten Commandments is to identify the significance of the commandments as they were first offered to the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness, in hopes of identifying faithful application for our lives today. There is little question that our lives and our society are vastly different than the lives and society of the Israelites fleeing Egypt in hopes of the promised land. While many would try to claim that you can read the English Bible meaningfully without once transcending the worldview particular to our own time, social location, culture and language, in reality, to assume the commandments can be applied as the English interpretation is written without making the time-leap from the ancient near east to the modern day is a most unfaithful way to apply God’s word. As we have identified regarding the commandments, especially those like “do not commit adultery,” and “do not bear false witness,” our traditional teachings are perhaps too limited in scope, or sometimes even just flat wrong. Bearing false witness is not simply about truth telling, it’s about the protection of the community from the harm of false statements and half-truths made in legal proceedings. Adultery today does not fit the norm for defining adultery in ancient Israel, and that is a good thing.
At the core of each commandment, and of the ten as a whole, is an intentional focus by God on setting right our relationship with God and our relationships within community with one another. It is not surprising that when asked by the Pharisees which commandment was the greatest, Jesus’ response was, “The first is this, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,’ and the second is like it, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
If you start at the beginning of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2, you find the primary emphasis of the commandments named up front: “I am the Lord your God.” As we finish the commandments, as we read number ten, we find that the final words offered in Exodus 20:17 name the secondary emphasis, “your neighbor.”
So we turn to our final command, “You shall not covet,” to seek an honest proclamation of the command for faithful living today based on a historical foundation as offered to the Israelites that maintains and supports both our necessitated relationship with God and our well-maintained relationships among community.
The emphasis of the command to not covet is less focused on the items coveted, and more on the act of coveting. The four items and areas of coveting that are prohibited in the command regard real estate, identified in the command as “your neighbor’s house,” people under your authority, identified as “your wife (keep in mind this is a patriarchal society in which women we seen as property) and your male or female slaves,” your work animals, identified as “your ox or donkey,” and finally your general property, identified as “anything that belongs to your neighbor.” I say the emphasis of the command is on the prohibition of coveting more so than the items coveted, because the prohibition doesn’t leave any item unnamed. It specifically names land, people and animals, but it throws in the catch all at the end to include everything else.
As the focus is on the verb itself, to best understand the command, we should consider what it meant to covet. The Hebrew verb translated as to covet entails a passion and desire best defined as lust. “[This is a helpful connection] because that is how our enviousness usually feels, as a lustful desire for something else that is another’s.”[i] The command is not just about actions of taking from another, it is about the internal feelings and inclinations of wanting that which belongs to another.
However, throughout the Old Testament, when this verb meaning to covet or to lust is used, it is most often followed by the act of taking something. “Coveting is not just an ardent desire. Coveting is desire strong enough that it leads to acts that take away what belongs to a neighbor.”[ii] We are not just speaking of ordinary envy, “[this command is addressing] an almost obsessive desire for the life and property of others.”[iii]
When understood in the context of the ancient near east, one must understand the society was based on agriculture, if not primarily subsistence farming. The prohibitions against land envy, people envy, and animal envy as directly named prohibitions in the command are set in the framework of a culture that depended primarily on land, people, and animals. To lust after someone else’s land, people, or animals to the extent that you were willing to take them, meant you were willing to allow your personal desires to lead to the confiscation of the most basic necessities needed by others to provide for themselves, their families and the community.
Marvin Chaney in his essay on the Tenth Commandment gives this foundational synopsis:
“In light of [biblical evidence regarding the detriment coveting caused to society], I propose that the tenth commandment, when understood in biblical history by elements of the agrarian population vulnerable to such actions by the powerful, forbade forms and practices of land consolidation so aggressive and coercive that they deprived a family of fellow Israelites of their ancestral plot of arable land and the subsistence and social inclusion that it supported.”[iv]
At its core foundation in the days of Moses, the command to prohibit coveting was a call on those who had the means to take from another to cease such detrimental practices within community that left some without the means to provide and care for themselves.
As our society on the whole is descriptively not agrarian in nature, and as our work force is no longer dominated by animals, slaves, or perhaps even personally owned land, it is once again hard to say that the command as applicable for the ancient Israelites is directly transferable for faithful living today. To claim a faithful application of the Tenth Commandment, which I believe is necessary for faithful living today, we must identify where such covetous desire is most prevalent in our society, and identify how it is detrimental both for us as individuals in our relationship with God, and detrimental to society as a whole, which creates poor relationships among us in community.
Perhaps the best application of the commandment today speaks to our willingness to go out of our way and to extend ourselves beyond our means to acquire that for which we have such lustful desires. There is certainly in the midst of this command, even as it applies to us today, a reiteration of the commands to not commit adultery, to not kill, to not bear false witness, and to not steal. Each of those sinful acts is driven by a lust desire of the heart; coveting is perhaps the best way to define the desire that leads to the other acts prohibited in the Ten Commandments.
The focus then is on our desire. As beings created in the image of God, we were created, not only with the capability to desire, but with the inescapability of having desire. The gift of having unquenchable desire is not our problem. “Our problem as humans is not that we are full of desire, aflame with unfulfillment [- always wanting more]. Our problem is that we long for that which is unfulfilling.”[v]
St. Augustine once said, “We imitate whom we adore.”[vi] Our desires in life are often, if not always, defined by that which we see around us. “Desire is contagious. We desire according to the desires of another because all desire is imitative. I want this or that because someone else wants [or already has] this or that. That we learn desire from one another means that we desperately desire one another’s approval, even though our desires put us in envious conflict with one another.”[vii]
To name this out loud is not to claim it as new news. Marketing agencies have known this for years. There’s a reason stores set up large glass windows facing the street with their top selling items on display. Such desire is fed to us in a multiplicity of images. We are made to think we need what others have, and to encourage our desire for such items, they are set on display “in the stories of the famous and the rich, their yachts, their mansions, their jets, their vacations, their affairs and divorces.”[viii] We are presented with the desire for both material wealth and possessions, and even the lifestyles of the rich and famous – people we are taught it is worth imitating.
If you haven’t figured this out, I’m a huge fan of Apple and its products. But even as I say that, I know my desire for Apple is fed by their exorbitant marketing budget. Apple has been one of the best companies at convincing you that you need something you had never thought of needing before. Steve Jobs, the late CEO, has been quoted multiple times about the creative process that helps Apple design their products. He said once, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” He also said, perhaps one of my favorite quotes by Jobs, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Once we see something we want, once that bug of desire and lust has been firmly planted in our heart, like a seed in the ground it grows. Coveting, lusting, desire – they don’t easily wash away. “Those who covet can never be content with what they have been given, or what they have earned. It is never enough.”[ix] Everything we buy – everything we acquire – it opens us up to identifying the next best thing.
Someone was telling me this past week about Japan, and their practice in acquiring new items. In some places in Japan you can walk down the street and equip a new apartment or condo with items left along side the streets. You could have a well equipped and nice looking home from the “junk” of others. There is such a demand for having the latest and greatest, that when new items are acquired, the old items are thrown to the curb – literally. Couches, tvs, computers, beds – if there is a new version, the old serves no purpose.
This mentality, the idea that there is something better and greater always out there, leaves our hearts in turmoil. We are convinced, person by person, community by community, that we are never good enough. I’ve watched videos of self-help seminars and life coaches standing before full auditoriums. The leaders ask the question, “How many of you here would like to be outstanding?” Unanimously, every voice cries out, “I do.” It doesn’t matter how many times you ask the question, or how many seminars you attend, the answer is always the same. We have this longing to be better – to be wealthier – to be more powerful – to be more loved. It’s what makes the prosperity gospel so appealing, regardless how anti-biblical it may be.
The world and its mindless entertainment seeks to convince us that at the center of our lives should be a focus and primacy of self. We follow along and seek to be absolved of our responsibility for our neighbor’s and community. But these are false teachings. “[The marketing and capitalism in America] is about indoctrination, inculcation into an ideology alien to our theology. And it’s winning.”[x]
So how do we break ourselves from this cyclical disease of lusting and acquiring, yearning and taking, loving and abusing?
To live right in relationship with God and with one another is not about removing the capacity to desire from our lives. The commandments, each individually and together as a whole, they are not about removing the passion given by God from our lives. The passion and desire for a good life is God-divined; it is part of who we are as children created in the image of God. The goal is to refocus our desire on that which is God-oriented. “Without desire we would cease to be human; without God as desire’s ultimate end, we become inhumane.”[xi]
God says in the Ten Commandments to first set a priority on the Creator. Love God, have no other gods, worship God faithfully and fully. And then focus on your neighbor. Treat your neighbor well, care for them, trust them, love them. Christ sums this up by saying, “Whoever seeks to find life must give up their life.” What wins is compassion and affection. It is in love for God and our neighbor that we find worth and happiness. It requires us to be ok with being ordinary. It may even require us to give up our life.[xii]
Let me finish up by saying this, God loves you for being you. God doesn’t love you because of how much money you’ve made, how big your house may be, or because of the number of countries you’ve visited. God doesn’t love you any more or any less because you broken some of these Ten Commandments in the past. The Ten Commandments are not offered to us to guilt us into living better.
The Ten Commandments are offered that we may know what’s most important in this life according to God, the one who gave Moses the commands to present to the Israelites and maintained for us. First, love God – to love God, you must be satisfied with who God has created you to be, and give thanks to God for your gifts, your life, and the capacity you have to love God in return. And second, love your neighbor. Know that God has created you to be in community. You have gifts and passions, talents and ideas … you have a place in the midst of community that no one else can fill. You are no more important and no less important than the persons sitting to your left and right. Protect one another; care for one another; look out for another; be honest with one another; share in love and life with one another; rejoice in the highs and grieve in the lows with one another; celebrate together; mourn together; be in faithful and right community with one another. And let us give thanks to God for the love God has given each of us as our Lord and Creator, and let us give thanks to God for the presence we have in the midst of this God-blessed community. Amen.