The Problem with Coveting

The Problem with Coveting August 13, 2020


How is it that “coveting” is such a severe sin that it rates inclusion in the Ten Commandments?  After all, unlike murder, adultery, stealing, and false witness, it doesn’t really do any harm to one’s neighbor.  I always wondered that.  But thanks to last Sunday’s sermon, now I know.  And I see that the prohibition against coveting takes us deep into the heart of Biblical ethics.

Our pastor (and son-in-law) Ned Moerbe has been preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments.  I have been amazed to see how the has been able to tie in the assigned readings from the lectionary, though they aren’t specifically on the Commandments, to the topics at hand, demonstrating the unity and applicability of Scripture.  He concluded the series by considering “Thou shalt not covet.”

Actually, by Lutheran and Catholic numbering (we count having “no other gods” and not worshipping “graven images” as comprising the First Commandment), there are two commandments against coveting:  “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house” (that is, property), and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass (that is, relationships), nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”

Just as Jesus said that the entirety of God’s Law can be summarized as loving God and loving one’s neighbor (Matt 22:38-40), the first table of the commandments (the first group) deals with how we are to love God and the second table deals with how we are love our neighbor.

It is true that coveting does not overtly harm our neighbor.  Desiring what my neighbor has does not hurt him, unless coveting gives way to actually acting on that desire, by, for example, violating the commandment against stealing.  But coveting is a sin that harms me, even if I never act upon it.  Coveting is not a matter of committing external actions, as in other commandments.  Rather, it is a condition of the heart.

That sin is not just as an action but an internal state is the point Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount.  Not just murder but hatred and contempt violates the commandment against killing.  Not just actual fornication but lust violates the commandment against adultery (Matt 5:21-28).

In fact, the sinful inner state is the prior cause of the other sins.  Before you steal, you first covet what belongs to your neighbor.  Before you commit adultery, you covet your neighbor’s wife.  Our pastor pointed out that the original sin of Adam and Eve involved coveting–wanting to be like God (Gen 3:5)–as did the sins of the Israelites listed in the Epistle reading for the day (1 Cor 10:6-13).

Then our pastor made a particularly illuminating connection:   According to the New Testament, “covetousness. . .is idolatry” (Col 3:5).  Thus, the last commandment(s) connect to the first commandment(s).  They both forbid idolatry, one from the aspect of God, and the other from the aspect of our neighbor.  The Ten Commandments come full circle!

How is coveting idolatry?  To sinfully desire what your neighbor has is to be discontented with what God has given you.  It is thus a failure to “fear, love, and trust in God above all things,” in the words of the Catechism, which is also what it means to violate the first commandment!  Both have to do with the lack of faith.

Graven images can distract us from trusting the true God, and so can our desire for possessions or relationships.  But we can trust God to meet all of our needs.  And, in fact, He has already given us gifts that are right for us, and He will continue to do so.  We do not need to covet what He has done for someone else.

We may not have externally dishonored our parents, murdered, committed adultery, stolen, or bore false witness, but can we say that we have not coveted other parents, or someone else’s life, or some other sexual partner, or some other truth?  The Law leads us inexorably to the sin within our own heart.  And the cure for them all is faith, made possible by the Cross of Jesus Christ, who has atoned for both our external and our internal sins. He offers both forgiveness and an inner transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit that bears fruit in love for both God and our neighbor.

Thus the Law leads to the Gospel.  As Luther said, if we can just fulfill the first commandment, to have no other gods before the God of the Bible–that is, to have faith in Him–all of the other commandments will take care of themselves. In the words of the Large Catechism, “where the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this [first] commandment is observed, all the others follow.”  And the last of the commandments leads us back to the first, exposing our need for faith and reorienting us to a genuine love for both God and our neighbor.

One other thought occurred to me during the sermon.  Again, the Lutheran numbering of the commandments distinguishes between coveting our neighbor’s property and coveting our neighbor’s relationships.  Interestingly, our animals  are under the category of relationships.

Evidently, the Bible sees the ownership of living things as different from the ownership of objects.  Yes, we can speak of “my spouse,” “my friend,” and “my employees,” but this ownership is in a different sense than when we say “my house,” “my car,” and “my clothes.”

The commandment puts the neighbor’s ox and donkey in the former category.  We can say “my dog,” but that is clearly a relationship that is different in kind from “my computer.”  This would apply to pets.  But also to livestock.  Yes, the farmer raises cattle in order for people to eat them, but they are still living beings.  The main kind of livestock in the Biblical world was sheep, and, yes, the sheep would be shorn and lambs would be slaughtered and eaten.  But still, the Bible speaks of a relationship between the shepherd and the sheep.  The shepherd knows his sheep, and the sheep hear his voice (John 10:1-6).  The specific animals referenced here, the ox and the donkey, were working animals.  They worked together with the farmer to plow the fields and haul the produce.  And of course there is a relationship there.


Illustration:  “Allegory of Coveteousness” by Herman Hahn  (1604)/ Public domain via Wikimedia Commons




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