Coveting & Contentment
Today we finish our series on Ten Commitments – ten ways of life that are intended as normal outcomes of deciding to live in communion with God and in community with others. It occurs to me that these Principles have all been about boundaries drawn around different aspects of life that love God and neighbour intensely. Inside such boundaries, we have, each week, suggested positive behaviours that promote covenant values.
Eight of these boundaries deal with those things we do to show our attentiveness to God and neighbour, one of them deals with what we say to express ourselves in supportive, nurturing, and helpful ways especially to our neighbours. Now today, we go even farther away from sheer actions. The tenth one, in its simplest form is: “You will not covet…anything that is your neighbour’s.” This seems to take covenant life out of the public realms of doing and speaking into the recesses of motivations that are known only to God and ourselves. Has it seemed to you, as we’ve gone along, that these commitments are, each and all, hard to live out, perhaps especially this one that is “invisible,” so to speak? I think they are, too, and I’ll say a word about that at the end. But let’s start with the ancient words.
The Hebrew word chamad basically means an overwhelming passion to possess something for ourselves that belongs to our neighbour. Now, I remind us all that in ancient Israel’s world, the theory was that all goods had already been distributed. There was no such thing as just making more wealth or more prestige, or even more justice, there was a fixed amount in the world, and, if I wanted more “something,” I had to take it from someone else’s share. With that philosophical assumption in mind, it isn’t surprising that “coveting” is, most often, thought to be a bad thing. It may enrich me, but it will impoverish my neighbour. Such is over the line for covenant partners.
I think partly because of its uniqueness in this list, many interpreters have been prepared to conclude that coveting was not wholly an “inner matter of the heart,” but have insisted that the Hebrew word used here included, in the ancient world, not only the motivation, but also the action that brought the motivation into the real world. When we look at the 20+ times that the word occurs, sometimes coveting does include the action, but not nearly always. Coveting may also be a state of mind and spirit that may later expresses itself in action, but the action is separate from the attitude. Unlike the other nine, this commitment also repeats the verb that is disallowed: “You will not covet your neighbour’s house, you will not covet your neighbour’s wife…etc.” In the version of the commandment in Deuteronomy, the second verb is replaced by a word for “desire” (hithawweh) to clarify that the inner quality of “desire,” by itself, also transgresses the boundary of “no coveting.”
There are seven objects of this coveting (seven was the number of completeness in Near Eastern thinking): “…your neighbour’s house, wife, male slave, female slave, ox, donkey,” and lastly “anything else.” This last one simply means that any obsessive passion to possess what will enrich ourselves at the expense of others crosses the boundary. We see here, again, that these are principles and outcomes not laws. Who can make a law against what we think and feel?
On the other hand, it is perfectly proper that these words about such motivation should conclude these ten Principles. There is a sense in which this obsession can easily lead to transgression of all nine other covenant boundaries and so nullify covenant life in community. The Old Testament is full of stories of people who started with that desire to have what was another’s, who ended up in real trouble in their relations both with God and their neighbours. The children of Israel coveted “normal” gods like the Egyptians had, built a golden calf, and violated the prime directive. The story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21 and of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11-12 are also examples. This tenth principle or commitment sums up the kind of attitude that can’t tolerate being in covenant. So much for the text of the tenth commitment itself in the ancient world. Let’s begin to explore some positive techniques for covenant life within the boundaries set up by it.
First, our Epistle Lesson comes from late in the New Testament period, many centuries after the Book of Exodus, and contrasts some positive techniques for staying inside this boundary with some ways to transgress it. I should also say that this text narrows the object of coveting significantly:
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
To describe an antidote to or a positive technique to resist “coveting,” this text uses a rare word in the New Testament, used only two other times, “contentment,” which literally means “being at peace with one’s circumstances.” In Philippians 4, Paul explained it that he knew what it meant to have both much and not so much, and he was at peace within himself (“content”) about either thing. That is because of the other term here, “godliness,” which does not mean being chokingly pious, but understanding that God is generous and gives enough. 1 Timothy said, “we brought nothing into the world and it’s the real deal that we’ll take nothing out.” Contentment is not a function of stuff, but of an inner life with God. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who are driven by coveting, an unbridled passion to take for themselves what only enriches them and impoverishes others. This attitude, narrowed in this text to being “rich,” and, literally, “the love of silver,” but which means “greed,” “coveting,” is the root of, literally again, “all the (other) harmful things” (the author had in mind). This suggests, as I did about the tenth commitment, that the attitude of coveting leads to the ending of covenant life. This would suggest, in turn, that godliness leads to the other-centeredness that allows us to be content with not having to keep up with the rat-race and covet what enriches us at the expense of others.
There is, however, counterfeit contentment with which we dare not confuse what we’re talking about. This phoney contentment or satisfaction comes to find inner peace in taking and acquiring without asking whether it’s enough, or whether it’s diminishing others (thus giving birth to what 1 Timothy 6 called: “every kind of harmful thing”). Jesus told a striking story about that in the first part of our Gospel Lesson. Seems there was a chap who was doing so well he had to tear down his storage facilities to build bigger, newer ones. Very few in Jesus’ day would have known much about bigger barns, because they were worried about getting through each day. One who had any surplus in Jesus’ day would have been rich by definition and Jesus’ hearers would have assumed it was by swindling and diminishing those Jesus would call “neighbours.” This person had become satisfied or content with that state, with what he had done. He did not look at the cost to others. He thought he had a lot of time left to enjoy the stuff he’d acquired. That night, however, let’s say the man had a brain aneurism and died in his sleep. Where would all his stuff get him, since, paraphrasing, 1 Timothy 6, he brought nothing into the world and no matter how much it was it would do no more than see him out? God called this man a fool, literally, something like “no-brains.” God, said, “Hey no-brains, tonight your life is required of you, and your stuff will get you nowhere.” We only have one life. Then it’s gone. I realize the poignancy of this more every day. Jesus’ parable really raises for us, not so much the problem of wealth, but the problem of looking only at private welfare, family welfare, and not being what Jesus called “rich toward God,” which meant looking at our neighbours’ lives. Are we not back to one who had built life on coveting, the end of which is pretty bleak.
Then, right after this, Luke placed Jesus’ warning about what is usually translated as “worry.” In Matthew it’s in the Sermon on the Mount. In this context, the word used for “worry,” doesn’t mean just garden variety worry, or even special concern about things. We can cheapen it by thinking that’s what Jesus meant, but Luke puts this paragraph here because he wanted to relate Jesus’ words to worry in the sense of obsession to enrich self at the cost of neighbour as the driving passion of life. In short it is about coveting. After a while we begin to think it’s OK to use others, to say “they’re lazy,” “I work harder than they do.” We fail to recognize the immense privilege of our lives in this world and think of that privilege as our “right,” or even our “God-given right.” And we forget about God’s grace. This is the wrong kind of contentment or satisfaction, and is a complete counterfeit of what 1 Timothy 6 and Philippians 4 speak of, and that’s the “worry” Luke’s Jesus says not to allow to rule us…and kill us, at least spiritually. We cannot afford to be poor toward God.
At the end I come to the point I only mentioned earlier. This commitment, and all of them, are hard, maybe impossible to do. There’s no easy solution to this. I have refrained throughout this series from calling these commitments “ideals,” because that might imply that they are only goals to be aimed at, and I think that we are capable, short of mental or physical impairment, actually to attempt these things, but we must admit that these commitments may and will, many times, prove beyond us. We need at this point to remember that it was God who began the series of ten by saying, “I am the LORD your God who has brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” God it is who is liberating us still, and will bring us through in the end. The words of Habakkuk, when faced with the realization that not only he but his whole people had failed God and one another, and that a human and political disaster was coming, nonetheless prayed these lines, in the conviction that God is both in charge and just. The right and the good will prevail in the end, and so it is still worth pursuing:
17 Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
God makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
So may it be for us.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.