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10. No Coveting


“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” -Exodus 20:17

“Covet” isn’t a word you hear every day. In fact, it’s one of those religious words that tends to have currency only in religious contexts. The dictionary defines “covet” as wrongful or inordinate desire. It comes from the Latin word for greed. The underlying Hebrew for the word means desire. It is the same word used of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3:6 (“desirable to make one wise”). To covet, then, is to desire, to want.

The commandment does not forbid desire in general. That would be to make following it impossible. It forbids a specific desire. “Don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff.” What is it about wanting what your neighbor has that is so reprehensible that it made God’s Top Ten List?

Sin always begins with desire, and desire begins with contemplating what is good or beautiful or pleasing. How does something good lead to evil? The serpent told Eve that the fruit she ate would make her like God, knowing good and evil. God later affirms that what the serpent had said was true.

“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.…” Genesis 3:22

Becoming like God. Didn’t Jesus teach us to aspire to be like God? He said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). So what Eve desired was not evil in and of itself. What made it evil was that she distrusted God. The serpent implied that God had forbidden the fruit because he was holding out on them. That distrust was the thin edge of a wedge that split us all from our Creator. Sin is not trusting God.

We are all God’s children, and like children everywhere, we expect our Father to treat us all the same. The bible tells us that God has no favorites and can’t be bribed. Wanting my neighbor’s stuff is an implied criticism of God’s fairness. Like a petulant child I complain that my neighbor got more than I did. His house is bigger. His wife is more charming. His servants are more obedient. His cow gives more milk. He has a nicer car. His lawn is greener. He gets all the breaks, and I’m stuck in this dead-end job. It’s not fair, God! Then God replies—and if we’re lucky we can hear him—”Oh, I thought you were going to trust me from now on. If there’s something you want, just ask.”

How different God’s message is from the messages we hear all around us! Wanting my neighbor’s stuff is the engine of capitalism. It drives our economy. Watch the commercials on TV. Look at the ads. Aren’t they all telling you that other people have better things than you have? Look how happy they are with their stuff! I want to be happy too. I want what he’s got. I want what she’s having.

Footnote. There are disturbing things about this commandment, things I have so far ignored so I could get at the spirit of the law. One of the most disturbing is the way it classes women and slaves as personal property alongside houses, oxen, donkeys, and other possessions. Does this mean God regards women as the property of men or that slavery is okay with God? No. The commandment addresses people in their own cultural milieu, so it uses examples they understand. The law is replete with statutes designed to protect the rights of women and slaves because of the oppressive society in which they lived.


God’s Top Ten List


The Ten Commandments are widely regarded as the foundation of Western jurisprudence. But they are also regarded as hopelessly archaic and old-fashioned. Some of them (Don’t murder. Don’t steal.) seem like common sense rules for people living in any kind of community. Others (Don’t commit adultery. Don’t desire what belongs to your neighbor.) seem to run counter to modern sensibilities. Still others (Don’t misuse God’s name. Don’t work on the Sabbath.) just seem pointless now. I propose taking a look at the Ten Commandments structured as a top-ten list, which allows me to start with number 10 and end with number 1.

The Ten Commandments are sometimes called the Decalogue, literally ten words. They were originally given to people who were mostly shepherds and nomads, without much use for the sort of tomes that get passed into law by Congress nowadays. They had to be succinct and clear. Most of them can be thought of as a two-word prohibition. Here they are rendered as briefly as I can:

  1. No other gods
  2. No images
  3. No misusing God’s name
  4. No work on Sabbath
  5. Honor parents
  6. No murder
  7. No adultery
  8. No stealing
  9. No lying
  10. No coveting

Of course, there’s a good deal more to the Law than this. There are regulations for all kinds of things, some with no discernible relation to these ten. (What possible reason could God have for prohibiting wearing clothes made from two different materials? Lev 19:19). Yet a good deal of the Law seems to be exposition of these ten. You can almost here the objections people have: “Is it murder if I accidentally kill someone in a fight when I was only trying to seriously injure him?” “Is it stealing to take something I find abandoned in a field, even if it’s not mine?” As soon as someone makes a law, someone else will be right there trying to find a loophole, and the law will get a little longer and a little harder to understand but hopefully more just. There will be judges whose job it is to interpret the law and determine whether a particular loophole is in keeping with the intent of the law. And the judges decisions will become precedents and affect how the law is interpreted going forward.

In fact, it was just this sort of process that culminated in a law so fraught with traditions and human interpretations that it was no longer recognizable, and Jesus rejected it and sought to cut through the layers of interpretation to the spirit of the Law. So he tells his followers that hatred is the equivalent of murder, that looking at a woman with lust is the equivalent of adultery, that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. Again and again he confronts the religious leaders who were condemning the poor while excusing their own violations of the law on technicalities. So I’m not much interested in the traditional interpretations of the commandments. I would like to get at the spirit behind them.

Next time, I’ll start with number 10: No coveting.


Choose Life


In February of 2013 my son’s wife, Sarah, was diagnosed with a rare brain disorder called moyamoya. In an instant their world—their plans for the future, what they had considered “normal”—was overturned. Chad faced the prospect of having a wife with a permanent disability, perhaps even of having a wife who would require constant care. The prognosis is actually much better, and Sarah has mostly recovered, slowly but with great spirit and determination. But in those first few days when Chad was learning all he could about the disease, he had to consider worst-case scenarios, and sad as it would be to lose Sarah, that was not the worst case.

We humans are a feisty lot. We cling to life and hope. Our hero stories are about people who don’t give up, who may be beaten but never surrender. We all want to be Rocky Balboa—indomitable even in defeat. Of course, there is a dark side to this pluck. It can quickly slide into individual hubris, defiance, stiff-necked rebellion. Our worst qualities are our greatest talents gone awry. But let us consider only the bright side. We admire courage not because it is useful or efficient but because it is good. Courage is life-sustaining and hope-building. It takes courage to face a future that includes moyamoya. In fact, it takes courage to face any future, because no matter how we may try to minimize the risks, every future includes them.

When Chad proposed to Sarah, neither of them knew about moyamoya, not even that there was such a disease. If Chad had known, perhaps he would not have proposed. If Sarah had known, perhaps she would not have accepted. Such hypothetical ruminations are pointless, to be sure, but they expose our vulnerability. We cannot know what will happen in the future. In fact, knowing might paralyze us. We can only make choices at every turn that we hope will further our happiness. This might seem like unremitting selfishness, and it would be if our own happiness could only be secured at everyone else’s expense. But even when we make sacrifices for those we love, we do so knowing that to choose otherwise would bring us misery, not happiness.

I want to be clear about this from the outset: Everyone makes choices they think will make them happy. No one deliberately chooses misery and despair over happiness and hope. In fact, it is hope that often misleads us into making unwise choices. We go for some short-term gain, perhaps aware of the long-term consequences, but hoping they can somehow be averted. The whole credit card industry is built on this “buy now, pay later” concept, and huge sums of money are spent every year urging us to indulge ourselves now. It seems freeing at first, but it can turn into a terrible slavery.

In the same way, I don’t think any pregnant woman wants to have an abortion. Clearly, if abortion were something to be desired for its own sake, then women would get pregnant for no other reason than to have one. Rather, abortion seems like the best choice under the circumstances. Maybe the mother is too young for motherhood. Maybe the father forced himself on her. Maybe the pregnancy comes at a bad time for her education or career. Whatever the reason, she finds herself pregnant and not wanting a child now. Despite nearly 40 million abortions since 1973, the number of live births per woman has hardly budged. It’s not that women no longer want children. It’s that they want them on their own terms: when they feel ready for them. And we have the medical technology to make that happen. A woman who gets pregnant when she wants a child, when she has a caring and supportive partner, when she is part of a community that will help her with all the decisions and changes that having a child entails, is in a far different situation than a woman alone, feeling scared and vulnerable and not knowing what to do or where to turn for help. By  choosing abortion, women gain control over the most inconvenient aspect of childbearing: the when.

This control, however, comes at a great cost. It costs the father any say in whether his own son or daughter lives or dies. It costs the woman guilt and hardness of heart. It costs society indifference toward its most weak and vulnerable members. It costs the child its life.

The cultural battle over abortion has become so polarizing and polarized that it is virtually impossible to discuss it with civility. On one hand are staunch defenders of women’s rights infuriated that anyone should tell them what they can and can’t do with their own bodies. On the other hand are abortion opponents who see abortion as the moral equivalent of murder—killing for personal convenience. There seems to be no middle ground for compromise or debate.

I have friends on both sides of the issue. I’m sure many others do as well. I tend to keep quiet about my own convictions when the topic comes up. I do so partly to avoid strife and partly because I’m not sure my own position is unassailable. I have deep and real sympathy for those who regard abortion as a women’s rights issue. But I also regard the millions of unborn children whose lives were cut short to benefit someone else as an American holocaust, a tragic slaughter of innocents in which I and the rest of the American church are implicated. For what have we done to secure the rights that women ought to have?

It seems quaint nowadays, but I can remember when an out-of-wedlock pregnancy was a cause for real shame for a young woman, when she risked being cast off by her family for bringing disgrace on them. The stigma attached to unbridled sexual activity was real and shared by most middle-class Americans. Young women and girls would risk death to avoid it, and many who sinned lived in dread that their sins would be discovered. At the same time, men and boys, at least equally culpable in producing a pregnancy, could boast of it among their peers and feel no shame at all, or if they did, they covered it with bravado and coarse joking. Now the shame is not at having done something immoral but at having disregarded the many public cautions against unprotected sex, for sexual adventuring is now regarded as a normal and quite natural part of growing into adulthood. We now expect everyone to have had multiple experiences with various sexual partners before committing to marriage, and anyone who openly advocates for celibacy before marriage is regarded as a freak. Some cultural changes have been improvements; others have not.

Even today when so much has changed, the burden of pregnancy, birth, and having children falls disproportionately on women. Abortion empowers a woman to reject that burden until she is ready to carry it. She need not rely on her parents. She need not rely on a man. She can simply choose not to have a baby. All these same benefits, however, also apply to contraception. A woman who chooses contraception can usually avoid pregnancy altogether, and her decision does not claim the life of her baby. Of course, contraceptives also have a cost, and the Catholic church prohibits their use in recognition of that cost. But the cost is far lower than the cost of an abortion.