Thursday, March 4, 2010

The People Next Door

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 neighbor. (Exodus 20.17)

Dancing Around

A couple weeks back I walked into the living room, where Walt intently watched a History Channel program about the Ten Commandments. Since I’d seen it a couple times, all I said was, “A lot of good stuff there, some of it questionable, but mostly good,” and turned back for the study. He stopped me. “Don’t you think the whole do-not-covet thing is out of place? The rest of it—God first, respect your parents, don’t steal and kill and all that—makes sense. But ‘don’t covet?’ It seems minor compared to the rest, like it’s taking up space where something more serious should be. 'Do not rape.’ Or, ‘Protect your family.’ Or, ‘Love everybody.’” Jesus took care of the last one, I reminded him. But it struck Walt as wrong somehow that here was a perfectly good chance to write that law in stone instead of waiting thousands of years for Christ to move loving our neighbors to the top of the list, just after loving God. “What is the big deal with coveting?” he asked.

“Well…” I said, fumbling for an answer, “here’s the thing.” I started by explaining at the time the commandments arrived, Israel was basically a Bedouin society. Nothing was nailed down. One imagines a lot got lost or came up missing along the way, including wives and servants and livestock—all of which were considered personal assets. A ban on coveting kept losses and conflicts to a minimum. “That’s my point,” Walt said. “It’s on par with ‘Don’t eat pork or shellfish’ and other rules for keeping Israel healthy and safe. There must be a better reason.” I tried a new angle. After Adam and Eve sinned, I said, God cursed Adam: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat food.” (Genesis 3.19) Covetous thoughts and behaviors ignored that edict. It fueled the urge to take whatever we want without working for it. Isn’t that covered under ‘Do not steal’? Walt asked. “You’re just dancing around,” he said with a sly grin. I granted his point and asked for extra time to think this through. Halfway to the den, it hit me. “Wait a minute,” I said and turned around. “This has nothing to do with safeguarding someone else's property rights. It’s meant to protect us.

Four Things

Four things occur when we become fixated on the possessions and success of others. First, wanting what someone else has undervalues what we’ve been given. It exposes our lack of gratitude and appreciation for God's goodness to us. In Ephesians 5.19, Paul instructs, “Always give thanks to God the Father for everything.” Covetousness ignores this counsel entirely by expressing disdain for what we have—or, for that matter, questioning God’s wisdom in giving others what we don’t have. Second, it gives prominence to an acquisitive nature that exaggerates the importance of material things. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus says in Luke 12.34. Covetousness puts our hearts in the wrong place.

Thirdly, coveting the blessings of others supplants God’s authority in our lives. We take it upon ourselves decide what we want rather than let Him to choose what’s best for us to have. And we devote undue thought and effort to getting what we want instead of trusting His provision. A coveting mindset is basically an unbelieving one. It baldly questions Psalm 84.11: “The LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” And finally, coveting is a “gateway sin.” Once we yield to its temptations, other sins that inevitably harm others and us are sure to follow. Jealousy, envy, hate, stealing, adultery, and murder quickly come to mind. But it also produces lies, suspicions, wastefulness, rash decisions, subterfuge, and innumerable other wrongs that turn our attitudes and actions away from Christ’s commandments to love God and our neighbors. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Jesus asks in Mark 8.36. (“Now I get it,” Walt said. “It’s the commandment that holds everything together.”)


“Jonesing”—street parlance for illicit cravings—and “keeping up with the Joneses” are directly linked. Judging our status by the people next door opens the door to chasing ephemeral pleasures that soon fade and set off a fresh set of desires. “Keeping up” leads to “passing up,” which only frustrates us further by increasing our awareness of how much more there is to get. Thus, covetousness turns into a parasitical sin that feeds itself by feeding on its host. It eats away at our contentment, happiness, and sense of self-worth. The worst of it, however, comes by forfeiting our attention to what God wants from us so we can pursue what we want for ourselves. 

But we can turn covetousness on its head for the benefit of others and us. The moment we’re tempted to jones for things we don’t have is when we remember there are millions upon millions who have far less than we. In that instant, we can transform covetousness into compassion. We can stop envying the people next door and become the neighbors next door, reaching out to those in need and sharing what we’ve been given. When we do that, we succeed where covetousness fails. In Matthew 6.33, Jesus assures us everything we need to live prosperous, secure lives will be supplied: “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” If we genuinely believe this, covetousness makes no sense. What more can we want when we've been promised everything we need?

Judging our status by the people next door creates covetousness. Becoming the neighbors next door creates compassion.

(Tomorrow: Deceit in the Desert)

Postscript: Everything We Need

Grant recommended this outstanding collaboration between Steve Bell and the rapper, Fresh I.E. The powerful imagery and lyrics drive home how much the world needs neighbors next door, not people next door.


Joshua said...

Amen, Tim. By losing ourselves in the service of God, the service of others, we find ourselves. And in the process we lose the "need" we have to keep up. Thank you for your thoughts.

Tim said...

Welcome to Straight-Friendly, Josh! I know you've been reading for a while, but it's a delight to hear from you.

As I worked on this, I became increasingly mindful of how the culture of covetousness is on the rise, perhaps like never before. The "you-want-this" tone of advertising, the surge of reality TV shows that feature silly rich people, etc., is disheartening. I believe we can also lay a great deal of the blame for our current financial situation to covetousness on every level. And we're actually discovering what happens when we covet too much. We have some leaders who are so confused about what they want most--power, popularity, favor from special interests, or votes for reelection--nothing they do makes any sense.

Covetousness cheapens a people. In the post I compared it to a parasite, but it's also a pandemic. And I'm understanding more and more what Jesus means by "forfeiting our souls." On first reading, it sounds like a transaction, when it's really a descent into bankruptcy. And the only way we can be fully protected is exactly as you say, losing ourselves in the service of God and others.

Thanks so much for your comments, Josh. It's marvelous to hear from you!


claire said...

My dear Tim,

As a wife, I do mind being placed on the level of a donkey. I am glad Walt did not like that commandment either. This belonging thingy is quite irritating.

I am always impressed with the way you explain and develop a theme, but this time I am not convinced. Possibly because my mind and heart got stuck on the commandment and were not quite able to follow your thread :-)))


Tim said...

Claire, I can't help chuckling, as I knew the ancient (idiotic) premise of wives and servants as property would be a sticking point for you and several others--and rightly so. From that perspective, this is the one commandment we most definitely should not like.

Yet as a matter of principle, the interdiction against coveting has significant merits, particularly (as i mentioned above to Josh) since our society seems to be at an all-time high for covetousness. (When else in history have people made substantial livings enticing the public to covet?)

Given today's environment, in one case the commandment might read, "Do not covet your neighbor's McMansion, his/her Mercedes, stock portfolio, club memberships, and fine art collection." In another case, it might read "your neighbor's roof, bicycle, wages, and the postcard taped on his/her wall."

The "what" in the commandment can be replaced with anything that spawns obsession--because regardless of social standing and ethos, none of us is immune to covetousness. The "why" is the thing, don't you think?

Blessings always,

genevieve said...

While I was reading the post I tohought of Haman and Mordecai. Here it is that Haman had everything. He craved attention and when Mordecai didn't bow down to him, he sought to exterminate the Jewish people.

Covetousness is the hallmark of the "name it and claim it" prophets. So many people have ruined their lives because of covetousness.

Tim said...

Haman and Mordecai are excellent examples, Genevieve, of how some of us become so fixated on wealth we miss the true riches around us. Had Haman spent more time studying Mordecai's humility and caring for the people's needs, he wouldn't be remembered for his greed!

"Name it and claim it" prophets who've misled millions to seek satisfaction in materialism--well, one day they'll have to explain themselves to the God they misrepresented as a cashier.

Both of your examples, I think, demonstrate how easily we can fall into the trap of wanting more than we're supposed to have. They both prove what happens when we don't seek God's kingdom first.

Thank you so much for this, Genevieve. It's always great to hear from you.