Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 16. Command Ten: Be Contented
Ex 20:16 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
Reflection: There is a danger, I believe, in thinking that some of these latter commandments are so obvious that we modern Christians wouldn’t do any of them and so they are not relevant for us, but the truth is that whether it is the temptations put before us by the modern world, or the things those around us are drawn into, as I have revisited them, I have seen more clearly than ever before that actually they are more relevant and more vital than ever before.
The Command: “Don’t covet”. Coveting is not a word we hear used today and yet, as I have just said, I suspect it is more relevant to us than ever before because of the nature of the world in which we now find ourselves.
Very simply, we might say that coveting is wanting something that someone else has and a dictionary definition says, “to want ardently (esp., something that another person has); long for with envy,” but that envy element means that we could say covetousness is, “desiring something with evil motivation.” The counter-balance to this last of the Ten Commandments, let’s say from the outset could be, I believe, “Be contented with all you have.”
Context & Understanding: Now it is interesting that when Moses repeats the Ten Commandments on the plains before the people enter the Promised Land, forty years after the original commandments were given, he very slightly changes the wording to make it more understandable: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” (Deut 5:21) Do you see that second sentence- “You shall not set your desire on….” It isn’t just wanting something but it is setting or establishing or fixing your desire on something and once you do that you start getting frustrated that you can’t have it, and simple desire turns into something more, envy and coveting schemes, planning how you may get the thing.
Example: The classic example of this in Scripture is of King Ahab wanting an adjacent vineyard belonging to a man named Naboth: “Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria . Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.” (1 Kings 21:1,2) Now up until that point there is nothing wrong with Ahab’s request and we might suggest Naboth was rather foolish, especially when the king had offered him a bigger and better vineyard and adequate payment. Even more foolish was Naboth ignoring the dubious character of this king. If he had thought what might follow prudence might have suggested he give it a second thought, but he didn’t (which was his prerogative) and so we read, “So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.” (1 Kings 21:4) Ahab reacts badly and when his wife comes across him she plots for Naboth to be killed. Bad attitudes all round.
The Family of Wrongs: So this is coveting: desiring what others have – with bad attitude. Yes, it is probably linked with envy and jealousy and maybe worse and it inevitably leads to unrighteous behaviour. The apostle James, in his very practical letter, wrote, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (Jas 4:1-3) The struggles of life, one person against another (or even one nation against another), come from this thing, this desire to have what they have. You want their possession, can’t get it and so resort to violence of some kind. We hope that indeed that description does not apply to Christians today. It is wrong.
Abundant provision: Now we probably say, “Oh, I would never try and take from someone else what is theirs.” No, that is probably true today because the only things that are unique are plots of land or buildings and valuable works of art. Virtually everything else is freely available (at a cost) because we live in a day of such abundant provision in this consumer society so that, if we have the money, we can get the item.
The Problems that Arise: Nevertheless the “keeping-up-with-the-neighbors” mentality is still alive and well, and indeed modern advertising and selling is based on that – he has a bigger car, I want a bigger car. They are moving into a bigger house, we ought to think about a bigger house. They have new furniture; we ought to think about a makeover. It is at the heart of capitalism and a country is said to be doing well if its citizens are able to consume more and more goods.
Modern Conflict: But in our modern world it is more complex than that, which we can see as we investigate ‘generation competition’. This comes in the form of the younger generation who observe the older, retired generation who lived through a period that was not one of austerity as has been experienced from the 2008 financial collapse on, and who are often quite well off, comfortable, able to take life easy and just sit back and watch the struggling younger generations who often cannot afford to buy their own house (at least that is how it is often put). It is exacerbated by the incredible technology changes that have taken place in the last forty years, in which many of the younger generation are involved in developing, giving them a feeling of superiority over the older generation who grew up in an almost primitive world by comparison (or so it is sometimes expressed). The temptation for a wrong attitude, and attitude fuelled by covetousness is very strong.
Thinking below the surface: Our use of our money probably goes beyond this study but a wise Christian certainly thinks about their spending habits and seeks the Lord over the wise use of their money, both how to make it go around and what to do with the excess. Yet behind or below the outward practice is the way we think deep down. At the end of the day, lack of contentment is a) a sign of a sense of inadequacy as well b) a sign of unbelief. Inadequacy: We think we can only be somebody if we have more and more. Unbelief: If we constantly want more and more it means we are dissatisfied with God’s present provision for us. Why hasn’t He let me have what others around me (or on TV) have? Having a lot isn’t in itself wrong (Solomon proves that) but it is the attitude that we sometimes allow to go with it.
The apostle Paul instructed, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5) There is a list of things there that go to make up idolatry but greed (which is a cousin of covetousness) is there linked with and described as an expression of that idolatry. An idol is something we worship, something we focus on more than God, something we maybe even revere or yearn for, such as the big-screen TV my brother has, the new car my sister has, the latest iPhone my friend has, and so on. Being constantly discontented and constantly wanting more and more is greed and when it is fueled by what others have, that is covetousness, and so easily that desire for more is something that eats away at us and becomes the central focus of life, and that is idolatry. It replaces God as the central focus of our lives.
All of these things come as warnings to the Christian in this especially materialistic age of super abundance in which we live. Don’t be put off or feel bad about material things – God gave them to us – but be careful about your attitudes towards them.
Conclusion: I will conclude this series the way I started this study: There is a danger, I believe, in thinking that some of these latter commandments are so obvious that we modern Christians wouldn’t do any of them and so they are not relevant for us, but the truth is that whether it is the temptations put before us by the modern world, or the things those around us are drawn into, as I have revisited them, I have seen more clearly than ever before that actually they are more relevant and more vital than ever before. That is, I fear especially true of this last one.
And so to pray: “Lord, each of these things that you put before Israel are, I see, just as relevant today. Please open my eyes to see them for what they are, and the grace to reject the wrong things here, that I may live a live at peace with you and with others, keeping you at the center of my life and rejecting the temptations the enemy may put before me. Amen.”