“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
I’ve always thought this command was somewhat out of place. All the other previous commands having to do with our treatment of others were very action-oriented. Murder, adultery, theft, lying – these are all things we can actively do to a person to cause harm. But who does it harm to covet?
What does it even mean to covet?
If you ask Google to define the word, here’s what you get: yearn to possess or have (something). Some synonyms include “desire,” “be consumed with desire for,” “crave,” “have one’s heart set on.”
So this final of the 10 Commandments is more about an inward attitude than an outward action. In fact, this could be the one thing that leads to all the others. Look at what James says about this.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so 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.
Coveting leads to arguments, fights, quarrels, killing, and almost every other form of evil and violence against another human.
There’s an interesting encounter Jesus had with a man one day. He’s commonly known as the “Rich Young Ruler.” He came up to Jesus and asked what he had to do to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responded by listing commands 5-10. But I want you to read carefully the three different retellings of this story from Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
Mark 10:19 // “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
Matthew 19:18-19 // “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Luke 18:20 // “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
In place of “you shall not covet,” Mark’s account says “you shall not defraud.” Matthew’s account replaces it with “love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke’s account leaves it out all together. You begin to notice that Jesus is calling out this young man on his sin. Maybe he got rich by defrauding people. Maybe he is hoarding his wealth and not loving others by sharing what he has. Maybe covetousness is a sin that’s so hidden from himself that Jesus draws attention to it by excluding it from the list.
But I want to focus for a moment on Matthew’s account. Instead of “you shall not covet,” Jesus says to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s nothing new or surprising. We will dive into this command at the very end of this series. But what does this have to do with coveting?
I see two takeaways from this. 1) It’s hard to love someone you’re envious of. You cannot mourn with those who mourn if you’re secretly happy that they are suffering. You cannot rejoice with those who rejoice if you’re jealous of their success. Covetousness is one of the strongest barriers to loving relationships, and it will often lead us to mistreat and even oppress or take advantage of (i.e. defraud) them.
2) If you’re constantly jealous of what other people have, that might be a sign you don’t truly love yourself. We often focus on the “love your neighbor” part of the command while neglecting the “as yourself” qualifier. When you desire what other people have, that’s implying a feeling of self-pity and even self-loathing. It reveals an inability to love yourself as you truly are. You feel incomplete within yourself because you tell yourself you need _____X____ in order to be happy.
The Rich Young Ruler truly lacked the ability to let go of his covetousness, the very thing that was holding him back from loving his neighbor as himself. He wanted to know what good thing he had to add to his life. Jesus told him what harmful attachments and attitudes he needed to discard.
Do you know one of the most misunderstood and misused verses in the entire Bible is? Philippians 4:13. Here, Paul says
I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.
But Paul isn’t talking about winning a football game or landing that big promotion. It’s incredibly important to back up a couple verses and see what he’s really talking about. It puts it in a whole new light.
I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
The opposite of covetousness is contentment. For Paul, it doesn’t matter if he’s living in a mansion or a studio apartment or a men’s shelter. He’s at home in prison and in the penthouse. He grew up wealthy and privileged and then found himself being stoned and left for dead. Whether he has plenty or is living in need of basic resources, he can be content because of Christ who strengthens him.
Can you even imagine a world where no one was ever jealous of anyone else? Where people were content with what they have and not always looking for the latest and greatest? Where no one felt the need to keep up with the Joneses? Where commercials and advertisers weren’t trying to sell you stuff 24/7? Where everyone – and I mean everyone – had enough, no more, no less?
It may not happen in our society any time soon, but that’s what the kingdom of heaven is all about. When God says, “you shall not covet,” he intends for us to be content with his blessings and to use them to bless others. I think Paul summarizes it best in his first letter to Timothy.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.
(1 Timothy 6:6-11)
Why do you think we have such a hard time being content with what we have?
What are the most recent additions to your “wish list”? Why do you want those things? Are they needs or wants? Will they help you glorify God or bless others? Or are they simply more “stuff” that will hold you back?
What effect do you think social media has had on our covetous attitudes? How is coveting related to things like FOMO (fear of missing out)?