Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reflecting on the Tenth Commandment

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

We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor's inheritance or house, and obtain it by a show of [justice and] right, etc., but help and be of service to him in keeping it.


We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away our neighbor's wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and [diligently] do their duty. (Martin Luther)

Everyone together now, “OUCH!” Here is the root of so much evil today! Greed! Envy! Jealousy! They all spring from desiring, coveting, lusting for something we don't have (or the fear that others want something we do have). This commandment gets at the heart-root of theft, forbidden by the Eighth Commandment. And of the 6 commandments that have to do with our relationships with other people, it's one of just two that speak to heart attitudes rather than outward behavior.

Let me make some distinctions clear. This commandment doesn't forbid wanting something – a nice car, a nice house, a good job – and working to obtain or achieve it. Nor does this commandment say that having such things or successes is wrong. What is wrong is envy: fixating on a thing; being willing to “cut corners” to get it; resenting or even sabotaging a person who has the desired thing.

Covetousness – envy, greed – is destructive, in society and personally. Socially, envious people aren't going to be doing the “extra” things (e.g. charity, kindness, politeness) that make a community pleasant. In the envious person, envy does scary things. Envy, like anger and hatred, embitter the character. Who wants to be around such a person?! Envy, like anger and hatred, also injures a person's health.

Getting practical where the personal meshes with society, Luther speaks to something very interesting and scary: “... not craftily seek to get our neighbor's (things) … by a show of [justice and] right”. This could take a couple of forms, in Luther's time and ours. It could mean trying to take something by means of a fraudulent lawsuit – using false evidence against another person, asserting dubious (or worse) claims against a company or a “rich” person “because they can afford it” or using the threat of an expensive lawsuit to extort money. Using government as Robin Hood – taking from “the rich” to give to “the poor” – might feel good, but it's still wrong. Fraud and theft committed using government as a proxy are still fraud and theft. It might be “legal”, but God isn't fooled – by the smokescreen of legality or by the fake, supposedly charitable, purpose. If you want to help someone, use your own money, use your own time, get your own hands “dirty”, work with like-minded friends. Personal charity is far more efficient in resource usage and far more effective than government, and will inspire others to work on things they care about.

On a personal level, envy is incompatible with a relationship with God. Envy is an expression of disbelief in God's love! Envy says that God does not and will not provide and care for you. Envy expresses ingratitude to God and contempt for the things He has provided. The thing(s) on which an envious person fixates and pursues becomes that person's god.

Today is a good day to start keeping our focus on God, rather than things or social status. Today is a good day to start replacing covetousness and envy with thoughts about how we can help our neighbor enhance their lives … and put those thoughts into action.

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