I covet. I covet another world. Not this one.
I covet. I covet another life. Not mine.
We desire, we want, and we dream—we covet worlds not ours and lives different from our own. Yet the last commandment, the tenth, the culmination of all the others, says, “Thou shall not covet.”
I break that commandment everyday before breakfast, when I turn on the radio and hear the news about children stolen from their parents, confined in cages, all in the name of the president’s immigration policy. I hope you covet, too—I hope you want a different world, I pray that all of us do. How do we live with what we have, with the world as it is, when it’s so miserable, so devastating, so full of terrors for vulnerable people?
I bet you break that commandment too, as you consider our world, or perhaps as you consider your own life—as all of us want what our neighbor has, the life they’ve managed to put together. At our best maybe we are modest in our coveting, and we only want a couple things—not a whole new life, not a whole new world, we only want to add one thing to our lives, or we want to make an exchange: this part of my body for that person’s part, my job for their job, my lackluster ability for their skill.
I covet the prime minister of Canada—Justin Trudeau. I wish we could trade Trump for Trudeau.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” the commandment states. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).
This verse from Exodus hints at a troubling reality. I don’t know if you noticed it. The commandment is about possessions, about taking possession of what doesn’t belong to you, and one category of thing, among the objects worth stealing—listed beside oxen and donkeys—are women. The “You” of these commands—the “you” in the “you shall nots”—are the men in the community, men who possess things, like slaves and houses and oxen and women.
The best sense I can make of all of this, of this last commandment, is to read it as a protective rule—that it is addressed to a world where men think they can do whatever they want, to exercise power however they see fit, going around taking what is not theirs. The commandment is written against the egregious offenses of a sexist world—a world that’s still around, gripping our lives, turning women into objects, men drunk on their own power, taking advantage of a world set up for them, for us, to do whatever they want, to covet, to steal, to take.
This has everything to do with Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, their abuse, their misogyny, their violence. And it’s what we see happening in the White House and the justice department, with a few men living out their fantasies of power, of domination, of ruling the world, of taking and stealing—that’s what’s behind the stories this week about all the children kidnapped from parents at the border: coveting as hunger for power, coveting as thirst for domination, coveting as the objectification of people, of squashing people, dehumanizing them until they get listed among the animals—oxen and donkeys and migrants.
“You shall not covet.” It’s about power, coveting is about power, about control, about taking possession—of land and fields and animals and people, dominion over the world.[i]
And that desire insinuates itself into our lives—maybe not on a grand scale, as if all of us covet dominion over the whole earth, but in small ways, in places we claim as our own, our claims of ownership, our petty attempts at dominion over our lives, over the people in our lives.
We want to be owners, masters, even if it’s mastery over a small corner of the world. Most of the time we mean no harm—we can’t do much harm because we have so little power, so little authority, our small lives lack the access to the levers that move the world, we don’t have generals and CEO’s of fortune 500 companies on our speed dial. I always think of that Garth Brooks song, I heard it in my Junior High years—“I’ve got friends in low places.” That’s what I’ve got, in terms of my world influence. I’m guessing none of you have Jeff Bezos or Jeff Sessions in your contact list. They aren’t calling you for your advice about global domination.
But I don’t want to let myself off the hook, with this commandment. As a man, living in a world set up for men, for men to be in charge—as a man with a pastoral position, I have influence, there are flows of power that pass through my status, and all of us should be honest about that, for our healthiness as a community, for the wellbeing of our life together, that no one has dominion over another—not me, not you, not anyone—not dominion but love, Jesus says, to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:40).
Love is the antidote for coveting. To love your neighbor as yourself involves mutuality, it means that both of us have something to say about the relationship, both of us matter. That’s the opposite of coveting. To covet turns the world into an object, an object without the ability to respond, without the ability to have a say, without the ability to give permission, to offer consent.
But Jesus says that love involves the thoughts and feelings of others. To love your neighbor as yourself means that we always have to think about what’s best for the other person, to recognize their needs and wants as real as our own, as important as our own.
Mutual love means we teach and learn from each other—we approach each other in a posture of listening, of discovering what it means to love, of letting each other know what counts a love, explaining what is loving. We let each other know if this is love, if this is what love is supposed to be like.
To love your neighbor as yourself means that I can’t define a loving relationship on my own—as if I could tell you what it means to love you, without you speaking for yourself. Mutual love dismantles one person’s power over another person.
I started out my sermon wondering about my own covetousness, how I think we all covet another world, a different life. Maybe covet is the wrong word for that feeling, for this sense we all have, that there’s hope, hope in God’s justice, God’s peace, a world redeemed by God’s love—for us and for our neighbors, the neighbors we see everyday in our lives and the neighbors crossing borders, hoping for safety.
Maybe the word is hope—that we dream, even with covetous dreams, because we don’t want the world as it is, we don’t want our lives as they are, because there’s so much misery, so much devastation, because this world is so full of terror for vulnerable people.
How do we deal with it all? That’s the question I have, every day. And I think part of what the tenth commandment is getting at, with it’s teaching against coveting, with it’s command against fighting with our neighbors for ownership, for possessions, for mastery—part of what’s going on in the commandment is a word against jealousy, a warning against the way resentment destroys our relationships. It’s a call to stop being distracted by what others have, to cease from our petty obsessions, our trivial manipulations, our jockeying for power, always pitting ourselves against someone else, for wanting what they have, for control.
It’s a caution against seeing this world as a competition for possessions—to gain as much of the world as possible through money and assault and borders, claiming more and more for yourself, for a personal life or a national life. To covet is to disregard the actual lives of neighbors—to ignore their subjectivity, their thoughts and feelings, their wants and dreams.
The problem is that to live in a competition for control hurts people. It hurts people because that way of life blinds us from each other, blinds us from love. We shut ourselves off from mutual love, from receiving each neighbor as a gift, a whole world of God’s mysteries there, in a neighbor.
That’s the promise we’re offered in Scripture—this mystery of God’s love, each person as an invitation into the wonder of God. The love of God and the love of neighbor—all the commandments are held together in that love, Jesus says.
To live without the distortion of coveting, that’s what Jesus has invited us into: a way of life where we discover God anew in a neighbor, a shared life of mutual love.
[i] Brevard Childs argues that the Hebrew word for “covet,” chamad, denotes more than internal desires. It’s a word that has to do not only with desire but with the taking, with the power to take possession: “To the impulse of the will is added the necessity of a corresponding action… much more on the emotion itself.” Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1974), 425, 427.