Covetousness is a mindset, an attitude to life

Chapter 10   COVETING what belongs to another

The tenth commandment does not deal with the particulars of what we do or don't do. It describes an attitude of mind. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house" (Exodus 20:17). That translates into "My house may be adequate for my family, but I wish I could have a house like that one." The covetous person is always wishing.

The commandment goes on "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife," which is not the same as the intention to commit adultery (as under the seventh commandment). It means "I wish I could have a wife as beautiful as that young movie star." Then the commandment focuses on servants and attendants. Those who are already rich think "I wish I could have a footman to open my door, a parlor maid, a chauffeur, a gourmet cook to impress my guests." The commandment specified "an ox, or donkey" which in our day means "I wish I could have an air-conditioned tractor and combine like farmer next door, or a Rolls Royce to drive around and impress my friends."

And the command concluded with "You shall not covet . . . anything that belongs to your neighbor." That might include a more impressive position, special honors, or status in society (Exodus 20:17). A social climber is eager to move up to the next level. A fashion freak wants to be the best dressed woman in town. A favorite television series from England was "Keeping up with Appearances" which described Mrs. Bucket's relentless pursuit of respectability. A critical person covets the opportunity to cut others down to size. The bore covets someone's ear to listen interminably.

Covetousness is a mindset, an attitude to life. It is the way we look. Jesus said "If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness" (Matthew 6:22-23). It is an attitude of never being satisfied with what you have. Jesus said "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he went on to tell a parable. "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself. 'I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my gain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be" (Luke 12:15-20). If we are never satisfied, we are probably enslaved to covetousness. We might need a heart attack to come to our senses.

How do we avoid covetousness and attain contentment? A simple answer is the pursuit of simplicity. As Paul said, "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment" (1 Timothy 6:6). There is something beautiful about a contented home; people who live simply but seem satisfied. The secret of happiness is to reduce our greeds. A good start is learning to live on a budget, save a little, and give away one tenth of one's income (see under the eighth commandment). I liked the prescription given by Arthur Gish. "Eat sensibly, dress simply, simplify your tastes, throw away status hangups, spend as little as possible, see how much you can give away" (Beyond the Rat Race, Keats Publishing, 1973).

We can also ask the Holy Spirit to free us from compulsive shopping. He can guide us to eat sensibly and buy the few good quality clothes that we need. Simple gifts are appreciated more than expensive luxuries that make the other person feel indebted. The aim is to foster love and joy among friends. When I was Rector of St. James Church in Kingston, every year I would announce that, instead of a $2 Christmas card, a hug or a personal greeting would give me greater pleasure.

That does not mean living like a scrooge. We need weekly relaxation and a holiday from time to time. But we don't have to impress our friends with how many cities we have visited. Nor do we always need a five star hotel. There is nothing happier than picking a small town, settling in, getting to know ordinary people, sharing their food, and enjoying their pleasures.

But we have no business eyeing the way others choose to spend their money. Everybody has different hobbies, pleasures, and priorities for the children. One person needs a cottage, another needs stereo equipment, or a library, golf clubs, hockey equipment, or a horse to ride. And we don't criticize an ambassador for wearing the right suit, or an executive being properly dressed for business. A car can be chosen for the purpose it has to perform, not to impress the neighbors.

Covetous people are despised in every country of the world. We find it nauseating when wealthy people, who have just splurged thousands of dollars on fripperies, complain to ordinary people that they are so tight for money. As opposed to ostentation, those who choose a simple lifestyle are admired. And they often have great influence, as did Jesus (and Gandhi). Which is why we have listed this universal category of moral judgment as:

10  We should not greedily eye what belongs to others

As in the other nine rules of life, the aim is not to condemn us, but to teach us how to enjoy life, love others, and be appreciated.

Under the tenth commandment we might include the desperate coveting of the love of others. "For God's sake, love me. Why doesn't anybody love me?" Such people latch on to one person after another to drain them dry of all the love they have to give. This is the sin of possessiveness. One person who greedily demands love can ruin a whole family. The only cure for that pathetic condition is to see how much love we can give to others without demanding anything in return.

As we have seen in the previous commandments, love is something we can learn in a community which is a school of the Holy Spirit. Unlike a country club, it should have poor people as well as rich people, those who are educated and those who can't read, the sick and the healthy, young and old. You begin sharing in chores, making a small contribution to the needs of others, praying for them, and letting the love of God eradicate the covetousness that has been ruining your life. Slowly you learn that you don't have to keep up with the Jones' and the covetousness that longs to get ahead of them is as mindless as it is hurtful to oneself and to others.

Chapter 11   JUSTICE  as the righting of wrongs