Restraining Greed

Ten Commandments - 10

Restraining Greed

The Focus of the Tenth Commandment

(Exodus 20:17)

The tenth commandment differs from all the others by its focus on inner attitudes rather than on outward actions. In this final message in his series on the Ten Commandments, preached at St. Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 27 December 1998, Rob Yule sees covetousness not only as a symptom of our consumer culture, but of our need for a new heart.

The commandment about covetousness is subtly different from all the rest. It refers not just to wrong actions, but to wrong attitudes. All the other commandments deal with particular actions. We are to worship only the one true God, never make or worship idols, or dishonour God’s name. We are to keep the Sabbath, and honour our parents. We are not to kill, steal, commit adultery, or bear false witness. All these are specific actions. But the tenth commandment deals not with actions, but with our innermost thoughts and desires. ‘You shall not covet’ (Exodus 20:17).

Because it is concerned with attitudes, not just actions, the tenth commandment is the most challenging and far-reaching of the commandments. We can control our actions, but it is difficult to control our thoughts and desires. We can stop stealing, but it’s much harder to stop wanting to steal. It’s easy not to hit a person; it’s much harder not to hate them. We can avoid committing adultery; it’s much harder not to have lustful thoughts or covetousness desires. Outward actions can be controlled; but inward thoughts and desires are difficult to control.

The tenth commandment, by its inwardness, exposes the sinfulness of our hearts. It reminds us how inwardly corrupt we are. ‘The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse - who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9).

By its concentration on attitudes the tenth commandment also shows that the other commandments have an inward aspect. We cannot congratulate ourselves on a merely external observance of the commandments, like the man in Albert Camus’ novel The Fall, who prided himself on his high moral principles. He would never dream of sleeping with the wife of a friend. Only, a few days beforehand, he would ‘simply cease to feel any friendship for the husband.’ (Penguin ed., London, 1957, p. 44). The tenth commandment, with its emphasis on integrity of heart, shows that we cannot indulge in that kind of sophistry and self-deception when it comes to keeping God’s laws. We must do God’s will with inner integrity, as well as with outward activity. We cannot pass ourselves off as paragons of virtue or model citizens, if our heart attitudes are corrupt and depraved. The tenth commandment indicates our need of a heart transplant, a new heart and a new spirit. ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.’ (Psalm 51:10).

The prohibition of covetousness unmasks three forms of wrong desire that we are all familiar with.

1. Covetousness is desire for what is forbidden.

It’s strange, but once something is forbidden, it becomes attractive. Almost instinctively we want what we cannot have. St. Augustine tells how, when he was a boy, he and his friends made a raid on a garden and stole some pears. He tells us that he had far better pears in his own garden. The pears he and his friends stole were so hard and sour they couldn’t eat them. The sole pleasure they got was the excitement of the raid, the pleasure of taking what was forbidden.

Ever since Eve and Adam took the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, to want what is forbidden has become a characteristic of our sinful desires. That’s how Paul sees it in his discussion of covetousness. ‘I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet".’ (Romans 7:7). As every primary school teacher knows, if you draw a line on the playground and tell the class to stay behind it, immediately there will be toes edging across that line. The commandment against coveting exposes our sinful attraction to what is forbidden.

2. Covetousness is desire for what others have.

The commandment against coveting highlights, secondly, our wrong attraction to what others have. We are terribly dominated by this elemental passion. A home without a television set would be bliss, were it not for the chorus of complaints from the children who want one in order to be like the family down the road! The odd thing is those parents down the road might in fact envy our more placid family lifestyle, free from the acquisitive pressure generated by television images and advertisements!

This is the strange thing about covetousness: we covet the kind of life someone else lives, not realising that the other person may all the while covet ours. A poor person envies a rich person for his money, but a rich person might envy the same poor person his simple lifestyle or robust health. A tradesman might envy a doctor or a university lecturer their salary, while they might envy him because he can stop work at 5.30 pm, and enjoy an evening free from anxiety.

It always seems that the other person is better off than we are, so we envy their position in life. William Barclay illustrates this with a delightful story about a golden house (The Old Law and the New Law [Edinburgh, St Andrew Press, 1972], p. 47). There was a boy who lived in a house on one side of a valley. On the other side of the valley was a house, which he saw every day. It seemed the most wonderful house in the world. He called it ‘the house with the golden windows’, because every morning when he got up he would look at it, and it seemed to have windows of gold.

One day he decided to visit it. He took his lunch and set out walking across the valley. When he reached the house a boy about his own age came to the door. ‘Where do you come from?’ he asked. The first boy replied, ‘I come from that house you can see across the valley. The other boy said, ‘You mean you’re the boy who lives in the house with the golden windows? Every evening I see the windows of your house pure gold.’ ‘Not so,’ said the first boy, ‘you are the one who lives in the house with the golden windows.’ ‘I’m not,’ said the second boy, ‘it’s you who lives there.’ ‘Look,’ said the second boy, ‘you can see for yourself.’ It was now late afternoon as he pointed across the valley, ‘There’s your house, and the windows are gold!’

We covet, because we mistakenly think that the other person’s life is better than our own. They live in a golden house, and we live in a plain one. In the morning the sun shone on the house on the one side of the valley, so that it looked as if it had golden windows. In the evening the sun shone on the house on the other side of the valley, so that now it seemed to have the golden windows. Each boy thought that the other boy’s house had golden windows. But in reality both boys lived in a golden house. Contentment is accepting our place in life as best. Contentment is saying, with the psalmist, ‘the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.’ (Psalm 16:5). Contentment is saying, with the hymn writer,

Hast thou not seen
How thy heart’s wishes have been
Granted in what he ordaineth?

Such contentment is the true antidote to covetousness.

3. Covetousness is desire without bounds or restraint.

The third commandment highlights the way our entire modern consumer culture is built upon covetousness. In Sarajevo, they need to heed the commandment not to kill. In New Zealand, we need to heed the commandment not to covet. We exalt the free market, unrestrained competition, commerce built upon satisfying wants, and advertising dedicated to increasing and maximising those wants.

As the postwar boom began forty five years ago the English theologian D. R. Davies wrote a provocative book called The Sin of Our Age. In it he said of our materialistic culture that ‘the good life has become inseparable from the maximum possible consumption of things. The dogma of the new religion is the dogma of increasing wants.’ What would Davies say of our consumer society today? In the nineties our entire society is based on the violation of the tenth commandment.

Think of the symbols of affluence in our culture. Expensive off-road vehicles, many of which will never go off-road unless they leave it in a vehicle accident. Extravagant houses with four car garages and more rooms than will never be needed to house today’s diminishing-sized family. Fashion clothing whose labels cost more than the fabric, and simply cover our pride and vanity. It all illustrates something ancient and primitive: ‘covetousness, which is idolatry’, as Paul summed it up (Colossians 3:5).

Joy Davidman, in her book on the Ten Commandments, puts it insightfully. The coveter, she says,

. . . learns to value what he gets chiefly because his fellows can’t have it; to desire his neighbour’s wife, not because she is beautiful, but because she is another’s. . . . Before long the gold and elephants, the convertibles and chinchillas, are no use at all to the coveter in themselves; he will drop them the instant they go out of fashion, he even resents them a little as responsibilities; but he must have them to convince himself that he is all-powerful, all-successful, all-important. (Smoke on the Mountain [London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1963], p. 113).

We need to beware of the sin of covetousness. It is a snare to us all. It is boundless in its appetite. It isolates us from others, it puffs up our pride and inflates our self-importance, it leads us to pursue foolish fripperies and miss the point of life. Jesus warned ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed [or covetousness], for a one’s life does not consists in the abundance of possessions.’ (Luke 12:15).

Ultimately, the real solution to covetousness is contentment. Paul, that gifted but self-sacrificing pioneer of Gentile missions, said of himself, ‘I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.’ (Philippians 4:11-12).

Woody Guthrie was the folk balladeer of the Great Depression in America. In his autobiography, Bound for Glory, he brilliantly recreates what it was like growing up in poverty in Oklahoma. He and his friends used to play with stick horses. They reared them, broke them in, learned their individual characteristics, rode them, traded them. A whole vivid world of imagination was available to those poor kids, lacking any of the sophisticated playstations and plastic constructions sets available to kids today. After I read that chapter to my children they themselves had hours and hours of happy play with stick horses of their own, each with their own unique temperament, their own way of handling or of bucking.

Learn to live simply. Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. We need to control our appetites, reign in our covetousness, and be content with what we have.

Rob Yule
27 December 1998

© 1998, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand