Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with ten commandments, the most honored code of moral behavior in human history. There is one commandment, however, that, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect. It's the last one. Nobody takes it seriously. Have you ever heard of anyone being punished for breaking Tenth Commandment? People have been hanged for breaking the Sixth Commandment (murder), dishonorably discharged for breaking the Seventh Commandment (adultery) and sued for breaking the Ninth Commandment (perjury), but nobody has ever paid a fine or gone to jail for coveting. No human law attempts to govern human attitudes, but God's laws does. Even if there were a criminal law against coveting, no human detective could discover its violation, but God can.
Not even the church takes the sin of greed seriously. The Southern Baptist Convention called for a boycott of Disney because of their policies favorable to gays and lesbians. But no entertainment industry has ever been boycotted because of policies favorable to wealth and opulence. Churches pass resolutions against the sin of intoxication by the spirit of alcohol, but where are the resolutions against the sin of intoxication by the spirit of avarice? Some churches refuse to allow anyone to serve as a church officer whose love for another woman made him divorce his wife, but where is the church that disqualifies someone on the ground that his love of money has made him too ambitious? The rich young ruler is no longer offended by the severe demands of simple Christ-like living (Luke 18:18-23). Instead, the rich young ruler is welcomed and invited to serve on the budget committee.
Nevertheless, the commandment says, "Thou shalt not covet." And then it gets real specific: you shall not covet your neighbor's house, wife, slave, ox or donkey. I'm happy to say I have never coveted my neighbor's slave, ox or donkey, though I confess I sometimes cast an admiring eye on the new houses springing up like dandelions in our town. Aren't they beautiful? Don't you wish you could swap yours for theirs? But the word of God says, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house… nor thy neighbor's wife."
Coveting my neighbor's wife reminds me of what God said in the Seventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." The Tenth Commandment takes that one step further saying: don't even think about it! In case you are not feeling guilty yet, the last commandment adds a final catch clause: Thou shalt not covet "anything that belongs to your neighbor."
I believe God intends this commandment for our age even more than for the time in which it was originally given. Greed is certainly a greater problem for us today than for Moses and his rag-tag followers in 1400 B. C. There weren't a lot of things one ancient Hebrew could possess that other Hebrews did not already have. One might have ten goats and another twenty, but goats are goats and no big deal around which to build a strong case of covetousness. With few exceptions the entire Hebrew community shared the same standard of living and enjoyed equal opportunities.
Ah, but today we are blessed with a great abundance of goods with which to feed our greed. We have the technology to create an infinite variety of things that people want, and we have an advertising industry to make people want them. Add these two together, and we have a foundation for covetousness, the bedrock of our whole economy. People get all they can and can all they get.
Economist John Maynard Keynes wrote: "For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still." Ivan F. Boesky told the graduates of the School of Business Administration at UC Berkeley: "Greed is all right, … I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself." That was before Boesky was convicted of insider trading violations, and paid $100 million in fines for his illicit profits.
Makes it Hard to Live with Ourselves
Wouldn't it be interesting to hear today's teenagers tell their kids what they had to do without? Yesterday's luxuries become today's conveniences and tomorrow's necessities. It is trite but true: the more we have, the more we want. President Lyndon Johnson spoke for all of the dissatisfied when he said, "All I want is all there is." Human hunger for worldly goods is insatiable. Covetousness is a sore which the more you scratch, the more you itch.
"Satisfaction guaranteed" is a vain promise to those who set their hearts on possessions, power, or status. Covetous people play the game of life like Pac-Man: they gobble up all they can, but inevitably they are beaten and eaten. They can't win for losing. If they don't get what they want, they are frustrated; but if they do get what they want, they are quickly bored. The most bored people on earth are not the underprivileged but the overprivileged. They have everything to live with but precious little to live for.
The Bible gives us an intriguing set of paradoxes concerning material goods. They are good things (Luke 16:25), but we must not long for them (Colossians 3:5-7). They are to be enjoyed, but we must not make that enjoyment our goal. They are things we need (James 2:16), but we must not devote our lives to getting them (Matthew 6:31-32).
Jesus gave loaves and fish to the multitudes (Matthew 14:15-21) but then warned them not to live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4). He taught the disciples to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11) but warned them, "Do not be worried about food and drink you need in order to stay alive, or about clothes for your body" (Matthew 6:25).
These paradoxes become a little easier to understand if we distinguish carefully between means and ends. Jesus said, "Seek first the kingdom of God… and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33 KJV). His kingdom is our goal; everything else is merely a means of achieving it. Worldly goods are valued for the way they contribute to the kingdom of God. If they build God's kingdom, they are good. If they do not, they are worthless or worse.
Material goods can be a currency of love — the means by which we share love with one another and through which we discover the love of God. We are to desire no more of them than we can get justly, use wisely, distribute cheerfully, and leave contentedly. The Bible does not say, "Money is the root of all evil." It says, "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10).
Those who are covetous pine in the midst of plenty, like Tantalus up to his chin in water, and still thirsty. Greed makes it hard to live with ourselves and …
Greed Makes It Hard To Live with Others
There is profound wisdom in Aesop's parable of the greedy man. Zeus promised to grant him any wish provided that his neighbor would get twice as much. He could wish for a mansion, but his neighbor would get a castle. He could wish for twenty cows, but his neighbor would get forty. The story ends with the man wishing to lose one eye!
Roland Diller, one of Abraham Lincoln's neighbors in Springfield, wrote about an incident that happened in his early life. Called to his door by the cries of children in the street, he saw Lincoln striding by with two of his boys both of whom were wailing aloud. "Why, Mr. Lincoln, what's the matter with the boys?" he asked.
"Just what's the matter with the whole world," he answered. "I've got three walnuts, and each wants two."
That is, indeed, what is wrong with the whole world. Greed makes it hard to live with others because a person filled with greed sees other people as competitors instead of partners. Thus, greed destroys fellowship. It creates a kind of hell on earth — no satisfaction, no security, no peace, only the constant discontent of unfulfilled selfish desire.
However bad a generous person may be, some will like him (e.g. Robin Hood and Jesse James are honored in American folklore). On the other hand, however good a greedy person may be, all will detest him. Generosity covers a multitude of vices, but greed cancels a multitude of virtues. A miser may be valued as a ancestor but not as a neighbor. Greed makes it hard to live with others and…
Greed Makes It Hard to Live with God
Greed makes it hard to live with God because greed is completely contrary to God's nature. God is infinitely generous. "He gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil" (Matthew 5:45). There can be no fellowship between God whose heart is afire with love and people whose heart is frozen with greed.
When greedy people pray, it is not to seek God's will but to enlist his help in supplying their selfish desires. They seek God not for himself, but so they can hire God as a night watchman for Mammon.
By this time you may agree that greed makes it hard to live with yourself, with others and with God. But where, you may ask, can you find contentment that overcomes covetousness? Certainly not in a simple reassurance that you don't really need what you want. The fortress of desire is far too strong for that. Only a greater love can displace the deadly desire of covetousness. Paul advises the Corinthians to "Covet earnestly the best gifts" (1 Corinthians 12:31 KJV). The best gifts are not your neighbor's car, house, or wife. The best gifts are wisdom, kindness, courtesy and honesty. Paul said, "Set your hearts on the things that are in heaven… Keep your minds on things there, not on things here on earth… Put to death, then, the earthly desires at work in you, such as sexual immorality, indecency, lust, evil passions, and greed" (Colossians 3:1-5). The only thing that can conquer the strong desire of greed is the stronger desire for better things. "Fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable" (Philippians 4:8-9).
David said, "Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart" (Psalm 37:4). That doesn't mean the Lord will give you what you want, but he will fix your "wanter." The secret to overcoming covetousness is to desire God so much you can't be bothered by inordinate greed for anything else.