One day Abraham Lincoln was walking down the street with two small boys who were both crying loudly. A neighbour passing by inquired, "What's the matter, Abe? Why all the fuss?" Lincoln responded, "The trouble with these lads is what's wrong with the world; one has a nut and the other wants it!"
It is significant that this commandment stands at the end of the ten. Evil attitude lies at the heart of evil action. It has been said that covetousness is one of humanity's greatest sins. When giving the law, God specifically spoke against this wicked tendency. In fact, the temptation in the garden of Eden was through an overwhelming desire for what was forbidden.
"To covet" is to desire intensely. This great desire for commendable things is praiseworthy (the word "covet" is in the original of 1 Cor. 12.31; 1 Tim. 3.1). But too often it expresses our self-centredness and is directed towards things not our own. The actions forbidden in our relationship to our neighbour all spring in some sense from covetousness. However, the attitude or desire itself is wrong, even when it is not expressed in action. Finally, with this command, no earthly court can try us, but we are still liable to the judgment of God.
Much of what Jesus said about the Law in Matthew 5 is in fact related to this command, for he continually points to the attitude underlying our actions. There may not be murder, but resentment and hatred towards the other person's implied advantage. There may not be adultery, but still a lustful desire for another's wife. Jesus gives what is the antidote for covetousness in the sort of love that does good even to those who do not return it (vv. 43-48).
Covetousness is described as an act of idolatry (Col. 3.5). It is the concentration of the whole being on something other than God. It sets up a completely false value-system. Modern advertising plays on the covetous spirit. The pre-occupation of many with gambling together with an increasing crime rate is one of the results of this pressure within our community.
John Stott has written, "Covetousness is to theft what anger is to murder and lust to adultery. It is the disposition which may later erupt into sinful, even criminal, action 'Covetousness is idolatry', Paul wrote in Ephesians 5.5. This makes it a sin against God as well as against human beings. It is to desire something (or someone) so much more than we desire God that we allow it to usurp his rightful place. But covetousness is also selfishness. Indeed, this commandment speaks directly to the greed of the consumer society and its cynical unconcern for the world's poor and hungry people. The opposite to covetousness is contentment" (Christian Basics, 1969).
The Bible, in both Testaments, declares the severe judgment of God upon covetousness. Again and again we see that it breeds other sins, especially where money is involved. It made Jezebel a murderer and a liar (1 Kings 21); Gehazi, a liar and a disobedient servant (2 Kings 5); Balaam, a depraved and perverted character who typifies the ungodly (2 Pet. 2.10f; Jude 11f). The seed that fell among thorns (Lk. 8.7) was "choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life" (v. 14).
Jesus said, "How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God" (Mk. 10.24), and he illustrated the point again and again. The old law made specific provisions for the care of the poor, yet too often, as in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16.19-31), riches and a callous spirit went hand in hand. It is not simply a matter of not coveting - we desperately need the generous spirit that freely gives.
Materialism places supreme value on matter and the material. It is fostered in large measure by the amazing progress of science and technology. It is increasingly assumed that scientific and human progress is inevitable, and, while some sound the alarm on pollution or the energy crisis, there is widespread belief that the science and technology that have created these problems will also be able to solve them.
But our world is in crisis. Many thoughtful people would be inclined to agree with General Omar Bradley's famous statement, "We are nuclear giants and ethical infants". Do we have the moral resources to use responsibly the great powers at our disposal? And, on the personal level, the ardent pursuit of the "rat-race" bears its own testimony to the futility of the materialistic ideal.
This is the world in which we live. To be, as our Lord has declared, the light of the world and the salt of the earth we must in some way be in the world - within society - even though in other ways we are not of the world (note Mt. 5.13,14; Jn. 17.14-16).
On the one hand, we affirm that "The world and all that is in it belong to the LORD" (Ps. 24.1a), and that we quite properly share, with others in society, in the benefits of scientific progress. (Strikingly, those involved in the rise of modern science were almost all people of deep Christian faith who searched for law in nature because of their belief in the God of the Bible, the God of order).
But on the other hand, many Christians are living a contradiction, perhaps unconsciously. In various religious acts on Sunday and throughout the week, they acknowledge the supreme place God ought to have in their lives, but for the rest of their lives they act as if it really isn't God, but matter and the material that is most important. They live as if it is human achievements - past, present, future - that are most significant for human life, and not what God has done. We all face this crisis, this temptation to try to serve both "God and mammon" (Mt. 6.24) - whether by making this pursuit of possessions a personal goal, or simply by giving matter and the material the greatest place, in practice, in human life.
Worship is not so much a matter of words but of priorities. Jesus didn't deny our physical needs, but he said, "Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things" (Mt. 6.33). On another occasion he cautioned, "Watch out and guard yourselves from every kind of greed; because a person's true life is not made up of the things he owns, no matter how rich he may be". He went on to tell the parable of the rich fool to whom God said, "You fool! This very night you will have to give up your life; then who will get all these things you have kept for yourself?" (Lk. 12.15,20).
While living in this world and using its benefits, we need to place the highest value on the spiritual. We need to see things, not as our goal, but as a means of living and fulfilling God's will. Our life must be marked by practical godliness, expressed in doing good and sharing with others. The key to this is our vital contact with Jesus Christ, who gives meaning and perspective to all of life and guides us in how to live in this world - not only to see where evil lurks, but also to see those things that are not expedient for us.
An ancient Persian legend tells of a wealthy man by the name of Al Haffed who owned a large farm. One evening a visitor related to him tales of fabulous amounts of diamonds that could be found in other parts of the world, and of the great riches they could bring him. The vision of all this wealth made him feel poor by comparison. So instead of caring for his own prosperous farm, he sold it and set out to find these treasures. But the search proved to be fruitless. Finally, penniless and in despair, he committed suicide by jumping into the sea.
Meanwhile, the man who had purchased his farm noticed one day the glint of an unusual stone in a shallow stream on the property. He reached into the water, and to his amazement he pulled out a huge diamond. Later when working in his garden, he uncovered many more valuable gems.
Poor Al Haffed had spent his life travelling to distant lands seeking jewels when on the farm he had left behind were all the precious stones his heart could have ever desired.
How we all need to recognise the great wealth of what God has already given us - and to use it to his glory!
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