To covet something is to crave or to have an inordinate desire for something you do not have. The tenth commandment says, “You shall not covet.” While all of the commandments have various layers of application, the range of this command is broadly reviewed within the text itself. exodus 20:17 says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
In reading the full command, it might be easy for a modern reader to get distracted by what appears to be human commodification: namely, a possible interpretation that a “wife” is just another part of a man’s property or, possibly, that this text is an implied endorsement of slavery. Neither is the case, as other Scriptures make plain. The point of this passage, although its original setting does arise out of the ancient world, is to highlight various things that distinguish people from one another. Perhaps in the ancient world having five servants would set you apart from your neighbor, whereas today it is that you drive a BMW and have a house on the lake. The point is that we compare ourselves with others and we develop inordinate, unhealthy desires for that which we do not have.
One of the most striking things about this commandment is that it does not focus on any outward activity at all. It is fitting that the tenth commandment brings the moral code of God right into the human heart. Hebrews 4:12–13 says that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword . . . it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” This is where the Ten Commandments bring us. We are now looking at intentions and inner motivations.
It should be clear that there is nothing wrong with setting goals and working hard toward an academic degree, the purchase of a home, or a promotion at work. The idea that all desires are evil and wrong is a teaching of Buddhism, not of Christianity. The tenth commandment focuses on an unhealthy coveting of what belongs to another, and for which we are not prepared to work hard and earn, or for which we work for the wrong motivations. If our motivation is self-focused, or even if it is to earn God’s favor (which cannot be earned), then we can easily find ourselves in violation of the tenth commandment. Comparing ourselves with others and wanting something or someone we don’t have can give birth to coveting. Whether it is a possession, a position, or a person, we must keep ourselves free from such inordinate desires.
The Scriptures teach, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (Hebrews. 13:5). What a great liberation would be ours if we lived in such contentment! Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The very idea that it is better to give what we have to others, rather than to covet for ourselves what someone else possesses, is a radical reorientation of an entire worldview that can so easily become dominated by worldly values rather than the values of the kingdom of God. Indeed, the tenth commandment represents a reorientation of our lives around the values of contentment, recognizing the needs of those less fortunate than ourselves, and drawing our identity and self-worth from God. It returns us to that reorientation of life and heart that the Decalogue pronounced in the opening command. This is the great gift that is ours if we keep the tenth commandment.
Did you enjoy this entry? It is part of a book by Timothy Tennent titled, Ten Words, Two Signs, One Prayer: Core Practices of the Christian Faith. In its pages, Tennent casts a vision for a long tradition of Christian discipleship and catechesis focusing on the Ten Commandments, the two sacraments of baptism and Communion, and the Lord’s Prayer. It will helps individuals and groups:
- Gain a deeper Christian appreciation of God’s Ten Commandments to his people Israel
- Learn the meaning of the two sacraments—baptism and communion
- Discover the value of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray (the “Lord’s Prayer”)