No Coveting

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This morning we come to the tenth of the Ten Commandments – no coveting. But before we look at the text of the tenth commandment, first notice Jesus’ words of warning in v15 of Luke 12:

Then Jesus said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.

The English Standard Version translates the verse like this:

And Jesus said to them, "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.

How counter cultural is that truth. Now turn back with me to Exodus 20:17, to the last of the Ten Commandments:

You shall not covet your neighbour's house. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Perhaps today in our urban society we might substitute a new kitchen with all the appliances for the servants and a car for the ox or donkey. Though perhaps the green agenda will mean going back to the ox or donkey soon!

You may have heard the saying: ‘the other man’s grass is always greener.’ And we can think it to be true – can’t we? About this time last year I was given a new digital camera for my birthday. It was on special offer and I thought it would be a good present for my wife to give me! And it’s great – simple to use and it takes good quality pictures. The trouble is I keep seeing cameras that seem more attractive. Cameras with more pixels, bigger optical zooms, wider angle lenses, slimmer and lighter bodies etc etc. And you begin to think why didn’t I get that one? The one you already have works perfectly well and does everything you need it to – it’s all you want and need but you begin to desire the other advertised ones. And you think if only I had that one I’d be satisfied.

It’s the same with computers – you buy one and no sooner have you bought one than you notice the advert for and begin to desire the newer higher spec model with VISTA, or the latest space saving 22” flat widescreen monitor because it looks better than your 17” CRT even though XP and the CRT do everything you need them to. It can be the same with cars, houses and mobile phones. In fact the latest mobile was revealed in the press on Friday – the Nokia N95 which includes sat nav, a five megapixel digital camera, an MP3 player, a DVD quality camcorder and Wi-Fi. The Nokia spokesman said:

A couple of years ago we had specialist phones – one for video, one for music, one for actually phoning people and so on. But what we’ve learned is that people want everything.

It’s so true to our human nature – isn’t it - that we can always be looking at something or even someone else and thinking if only I had that everything would be different and satisfaction would be complete. There’s always something around the corner that will supposedly make us happier. Someone once said that ‘God made us a little lower than the angels but most of us are concerned to climb a little higher than the Joneses!’

And we live in a society that is gripped by covetousness. It’s perhaps the commandment we most need to hear. When this commandment was first given people lived more simply. Look at v17 of Exodus 20 again:

You shall not covet your neighbour's house. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

That’s really all they had. But still this commandment was given. God knew their hearts. How much more is it needed in our society when the thinking of the age is that greed is good, money is god; and if someone else has got what we want we’ll do anything to get it. No coveting is a fundamentally important commandment for us today. Yet it’s perhaps the least known and obeyed. You see covetousness is internal – a desire, a drive, a lust. Indeed it includes every kind of illicit desire and is itself a form of idolatry.

It’s the only commandment that doesn’t involve an action but refers to the heart and to our attitudes. God gets right to the heart of the problem and says it’s in your heart and attitudes that the real problem actually lies. We often think that morality is only about what we do. But the real problem is in our hearts and our attitudes. This commandment reveals how God’s view of the world and our view are so fundamentally different. We tend to look on the outside but God looks at the heart. Sin in some of its worst forms cannot always be seen by us but God knows all the desires of our hearts. You can pass laws to forbid what’s stated in all the other commandments but you can’t frame a law to cover the tenth. How would you enforce it? And anyway our society doesn’t think there’s much wrong with covetousness. Sometimes those who are very covetous in our society are held up as being successful and as examples to follow. They feature on the front of celebrity magazines and they and their lifestyles are idolised. And how often do you hear someone admitting to the sin of covetousness? One well known Jesuit said that in all the confessions he’d ever heard he’d never heard one confession on the sin of covetousness and yet it’s the one that leads to all the others. That’s why it’s a word we need to hear and I want to look at this commandment by asking three questions: What is coveting? Why is it so dangerous? and How do we fight it? So first

1. What is coveting?

The word ‘covet’ in the original is a neutral word which simply means ‘desire eagerly’. And we sometimes talk about a prize or a trophy that is much coveted. What is forbidden here in v17 is not right desire but rather desiring eagerly what does not rightfully belong to us – somebody else’s wife or husband or possessions – car, house or job. It’s wanting something and setting our hearts on acquiring what belongs to someone else so that our whole being gets caught up in trying to acquire the desire.

You shall not covet your neighbour's house. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Some of you may have noticed that when children are opening presents on Christmas Day they very happily play with a new toy for all of five minutes! Then they begin to look at their brothers and sisters toys and want what they’ve got. And they try and get them and it all ends in tears. And we laugh and say that’s just children - that’s how they are. But we are just the same. Yes we might be more subtle about it and take more time about it. But we can begin to desire what someone else has got. And we can even begin to devise means of acquiring what someone else has. And that’s where we go wrong. You see it’s not wrong to have the desire to be married. But it’s totally wrong to want to be married to someone who’s already married to someone else. Yet in our society today that’s not seen as totally wrong and there can often be sympathy for the person who is chasing someone else’s spouse. Today life is all about what you can get and getting what you want. An individual’s “rights” are considered to be more important than what is right.

2. Why is it so dangerous?

The tenth commandment is where the ‘Decalogue’ (as the Ten Commandments are sometimes called) ends, but it is, in fact, the point at which every breach of the law begins – when by our ‘own evil desire’ we are ‘dragged away and enticed’ (James 1:14). Covetousness is at the heart of all that goes wrong in the Scriptures. People fall when they covet that which does not belong to them. So Genesis 3:6:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

You see where it starts? I wish I had that. I know God said we shouldn’t but let’s have it anyway. Go on Adam. What was the sin that brought King David down? He coveted another man’s wife – Bathsheba. He then committed adultery and murder. He violated the sixth and seventh commandments but his sin began with the lust prohibited by the tenth. King Ahab (more than ably assisted by his wife Jezebel) sinned comprehensively against the sixth, eighth and ninth commandments (1 Kings 21:1-16), but the root of the evil was in his covetousness (v1-4).

Why is it so dangerous? Well first of all coveting cheats us. It lies to us that satisfaction is just around the corner. The Bible talks about the deceitfulness of riches. They deceive us into thinking that if we get them everything will be fine. But it never works out like that. Just ask the National Lottery winners. King Solomon, who was probably more wealthy than anyone else at the time, wrote this:

Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income…and the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. (Ecclesiastes 5:10,12)

Secondly it also corrupts us. Coveting leads to envy, stealing, adultery and murder. The breaking of all those commands begins with covetousness. All because we wanted something that belonged to someone else. Thirdly it also chokes us. It prevents us both growing as Christians and serving Christ in the way that we should. Remember the seed sown among thorns in the parable of the sower? Jesus said (Mark 4:18-19) that “others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” Covetousness chokes us and stops us growing.

Fourthly covetousness then captures us and enslaves us. Someone once asked a millionaire – which million did you most enjoy making – he said the next one. You see covetousness takes us over and it becomes an idol. So Paul says in Colossians 3:5:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed [or more accurately covetousness], which is idolatry.

What we become obsessed with getting goes on the throne of our lives rather than God. The sin of covetousness has even pushed some in to committing adultery which has crippled their Christian lives and service. Covetousness cheats us, corrupts us, chokes us and ultimately captures us.

So coveting, the desire for things, specifically things belonging to your neighbour has the power to destroy community. But it also has the power to destroy the one doing the desiring. For covetousness is about more than envy of what belongs to another. It is about unbridled acquisition, the notion that more is better, and that life can somehow be made better by things. It turns us into consumers who shop till we drop, and we end up being defined by what we have rather than whose we are. This is why no coveting comes at the close of the commandments. Will we be defined by what we have, or by whose we are? Will we abandon the relationship with God and one another in order to enhance what we have? Or will we keep relationships more important than things? Thirdly

3. How do we fight it?

Some people think God is a God who likes to say ‘No’. That he’s all about being restrictive and negative. But behind every negative commandment in the Bible are two positive principles. One is to protect you and the other is to provide for you. As we’ve seen ‘Do not covet’ does both. But we need to positively adopt a different attitude to fight this sin. In fact there are three attitudes that we can adopt to fight covetousness. The first is contentment. In Philippians 4:11-12 Paul writes this:

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.

How many of us can say that? G.K. Chesterton said that there are two ways to get enough. One way is to accumulate more and the other way is to want less. Charles Spurgeon said, “I like going window shopping to see all the things I don’t need to buy.” A former flat mate of mine deliberately did not buy a weekend newspaper so as not to be tempted to covet the luxuries being advertised. If you know you’re tempted in this area don’t go to the sales and don’t go on e bay. And cut up that credit card. Repent and turn to Christ. Perhaps this commandment has convicted you of sin and therefore of your need of the Saviour – Jesus Christ. Then ask him to come in to your life, to change your heart and allow him to help you learn the secret of being content with what God has given you whatever the circumstances.

Secondly gratitude. We are to be grateful people. Paul says to the Colossians (2:6-7):

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

We are to be grateful for what we have and for what Christ has done for us. We are to be a thankful people rather than a covetous people – thankfulness not covetousness is meant to characterize us as Christians. Be content with what you have materially and be thankful for what you have.

Thirdly we are to have a spirit of generosity. You can’t be enslaved to something if you give it. When we begin to covet – offer it up, give it away and remember these words from a tombstone:

What we gave we have. What we spent we had. What we kept we lost.
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