You Shall Not Covet

You Shall Not Covet

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:17)

Coveting is a marriage of two of the seven deadly sins—one part envy, one part greed. Greed is the inability to say, “Enough.” It is the desire that lurks in the basement always asking for more. It is an emptiness that seeks fulfillment through the next acquisition. Envy is the inability to enjoy the life we have because our eyes and thoughts are always on what another person has.

Coveting weds the two by supplying the specific object of our envious greed—the neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, or work animals. Coveting is worse than envy or greed in that it takes aim both at another named person and that which belongs to that named person.

Coveting is also rooted in the other commandments. Lusting after the neighbor’s wife leads toward adultery. Wanting the neighbor’s land and farm animals leads toward stealing. Making these persons and their objects the aim of our life is akin to idolatry.

The sin of coveting moves the commandments from deed to motive. It is possible to be covetous and never steal or sleep with the neighbor’s wife. We simply want what our neighbor has. This heart hindrance makes it impossible to be a good neighbor. Coveting objectifies the neighbor and prohibits us from loving the neighbor as we love ourselves. It is a violation of community.

The last two commandments deal with the neighbor—not bearing false witness against the neighbor and not coveting what belongs to the neighbor. “Neighbor” becomes an important word for the people of God, and an even more important word in the double command of Jesus—love God; love the neighbor.

Now that I am a grandparent, I have been reintroduced to children’s TV programs. I’m watching Sesame Street again. I’ve been away a long time. But I was pleased to see that not too much had changed.

And all of them are still singing my favorite Sesame Street song, asking, “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” Remember that song? They talk about the daily tasks of the people you might rub elbows with on your street. The firefighter, the grocer, the mail carrier, and so on.

It is a way of teaching children to know who lives and works in the neighborhood. And in my day (or at least in my daughters’ day), when Sesame Street was over, Mr. Rogers came on. This wonderful man began his show by asking, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” He opens his home to the neighbors and introduces us to the people who live and work around him.

Children’s television shows aren’t the only ones who know community is important to us. Even the cell phone companies are interested in neighborhoods. They create a network of those who are on the “in” plan, meaning that they reside within the same carrier and can talk with each other free of charge. It’s like a virtual gated community of cell phone neighbors. Some neighborhoods are as small as your favorite five. Others are as large as anyone on the same carrier. They are selling service by making it cheaper for us to be connected to the people we want to do life with.

God has always been interested in neighbors, because there was a time when His people had none. When they were slaves in Egypt and exiles in Babylon, they had no neighbors. There were no little Egyptian or Babylonian children walking around singing, “Oh, an Israelite is a person in the neighborhood, in the neighborhood, in the neighborhood. Oh, an Israelite is a person in the neighborhood, a person that you meet each day.” They weren’t on anyone’s “in” plan. No one treated them neighborly. They were aliens, strangers.

And they cried. And God heard their cries and moved in love to redeem them from their slavery and from their exile. After God brought them out, He gave them instructions regarding neighborly love (read Deuteronomy 10:12-22).

The God who loves the stranger calls His people to turn strangers into neighbors by doing justice, feeding, providing, and welcoming them into the community. In Egypt and Babylon, they did not experience neighborliness. In Israel, the strangers were to be loved. This love is rooted in the character and ways of God, who acted neighborly when no one else cared.

Jesus met a young scribe who wanted to know the interpretation of loving the neighbor. “Who is my neighbor?” he asked. He hadn’t seen Sesame Street. Jesus treated him to the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the neighbor ends up being the one who showed mercy.

This way of life—loving the neighbor, showing mercy, providing, and welcoming—is the polar opposite of coveting. Rather than having an eye on the neighbor’s wife, house, and work animals with the desire to have them, our eye is on the neighbor and our desire is to do him or her good. Where there is coveting, there can be no neighborhood.

Today’s post is an excerpt from Dancing with the Law: The Ten Commandments.

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