I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing... I showed you by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20.33, 35)
When I left my marketing agency job to freelance from home, one of the first lessons I learned was daytime TV can be frightfully seductive. Once it’s got you, it holds you with enticing promises of “what’s coming up next.” Before you know it, the day’s gone. I had to set a policy: No TV. In exchange, I could record one guilty pleasure to enjoy over lunch—assuming I got to eat lunch. So (brace yourselves) I chose “Judge Alex,” a syndicated court show featuring a strikingly handsome Cuban-American jurist with a sense of humor and compassionate streak I admire. Today’s episode about a botched used-car sale between friends—a common complaint—startled me with the announcer's opening summary: “They were closer than close, but material things came between them!” I thought, That’s mighty lofty language for a deal gone bad. Yet as I watched the case unfold and saw how broken trust over a thing irreparably severed the litigants’ friendship, my mind kept inching toward covetousness. I did my best to leash it, because it’s an uncomfortable subject for us. When last did you open a book, click on a blog, or hear a sermon that addressed wanting something so badly you were willing to hurt someone—a loved one, neighbor, coworker, or even yourself—to have it? We just don’t care to discuss it. Instead, we work around it, casting it as the silent partner of sins we view more seriously: greed, lust, envy, deceit, and so on. If covetousness plays a decisive role in so many destructive pursuits—and it does—should we not talk about it as much as, or more than, the rest? How have we got so detached from a sin so tightly affixed to so many weaknesses?
Tenth Out of 10
A big part of the problem originates with The Ten Commandments, where covetousness comes in tenth out of 10. Of course, it’s grossly incorrect (and downright silly) to presume they’re ordered by priority. Still, because they begin with four exceedingly profound edicts that define Hebrew faith and culture—a preeminent God, no idols, devout reverence for His name, and the Sabbath—it’s easy to think of the remaining six as amendments to a divine constitution. What’s more, they also suggest ordinal significance. “Honor your parents” (5) tops this section because those after it concern antisocial behaviors that often result from rebellion and squandered upbringing: “Don’t kill” (6). “Don’t commit adultery” (7). “Don’t steal” (8). “Don’t lie” (9). Then, if we track the relative social and psychological impact of each act, they do appear less consequential by descending rank. Thus, for many, it stands to reason number 10, “Don’t covet” is the least important on the list. “What harm is looking without touching?” we ask. And this is our first mistake, as touching always starts with looking.
We know not to question God’s wisdom in including an anti-coveting law in His precepts. Nonetheless, we’re tempted to minimize its relevance because the original language and grievances it cites are ridiculously archaic: “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) The chattel kills it for us—wives and servants defined as male-owned property on par with real estate and farm animals. The examples are so morally repugnant we dismiss the whole thing as indefensible. Taking this tack invites downfall by suggesting since these egregious practices no longer exist, covetousness is not a “modern problem.” But it is. It’s a really big problem. In fact, given how much more we have and our heightened awareness of what others have, it probably poses a bigger threat to us—despite our “progress”—than ancient Israel.
First-century Christians had no issue with calling covetousness by name. It was an evil unto itself—not one folded into “bigger” sins. And it seems they were able to get past the examples to focus on the principle set down to combat the sin’s dangers. Paul, who wrote off most laws as obsolete and irrelevant, makes a point of expressing gratitude for the Tenth Commandment in Romans 7.7: “I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’” Whether or not its examples were germane to him, they illustrated the principle and that was enough. Indeed, he strikes this note in Acts 20.33-35, as he bids the Ephesians a fond farewell. “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing,” he professes. “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
What’s remarkable about this passage is its usefulness in explaining what Paul means by “I wouldn’t have known what coveting really is” in Romans. “We must help the weak” is the critical link. Covetousness makes the Top Ten by being more invidious than raw lust or greed, envy or deceit because its linchpin is exploiting vulnerability. Once we fix our hearts on getting something that belongs to someone else—be that property position, success, or reputation—it drives us to search for and devise ways to capitalize on his/her weaknesses. We lie in wait for an opportunity to help them fail. We discourage them to our benefit. We take advantage of their trust. Sometimes we even go out of our way to get “closer than close” so things we want from them will come between us.
We needn’t regress to classifying people as property to admit covetousness reduces them to that. There’s no difference between “I’ve got to have that!” and “I want him/her!” The world runs wild with lost souls pouncing on vulnerabilities with the intent of crushing relationships, success, reputations, and hopes. And for what? A lover. A promotion. A leg-up. A laugh. The moment admiration for another’s blessings switches to imagining they can be ours is the instant we sense covetousness at work. If we’re wise, we shut it down before it infects our minds, eyes, ears, and tongues. Covetousness inverts everything Jesus taught and exemplified. It’s an evil unto itself. It compels us to hurt whom we should help, to hate what we should honor. Coveting people and things meets no need. It serves no purpose. When it enters our minds, we need to call it by its name and confront it for what it is.
Coveting inverts everything Jesus taught and exemplified. It compels us to exploit others’ weaknesses. It’s an evil unto itself and we should confront it for what it is.