“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:17)
I recently read an article about the lasting importance of the Ten Commandments in which the author observed, “When God gave his people the Ten Commandments, he wrote them on stone to symbolize their durable, lasting nature; he wrote them on both sides of the stone to signify their thoroughness; and he wrote these laws with his own finger to attest to their supernatural character.”
Interestingly, the first four commandments deal with our relationships with God, while the last six commandments are concerned with our relationships with each other. Strangely, however, the 10th Commandment does not deal with outward and visible acts — like the other nine — but with the inner desire of wanting something that we cannot have. It’s different from the other nine commandments because it’s more concerned with what is wrong with us on the inside. Even though it comes last, it certainly doesn’t rank least. In fact, it is the only commandment of the 10 with which God chose to give examples to illustrate his point.
The word “covet” expresses the idea of an inordinate desire for something or someone for one’s own gratification. There is nothing wrong with wanting. As Herschel Hobbs notes: “When we control our wants, they are incentives to honest ambition and effort. When our wants control us, they destroy others and us. A wanting that is out of control becomes covetousness.”
There are a lot of Christians who believe that God’s admonition that we should not covet our neighbor’s manservant or maidservant emphasizes that the 10th Commandment just doesn’t apply in today’s world. Since we no longer practice slavery, this warning has lost its appeal. I don’t think God is talking about slavery. He’s talking about an uncontrollable desire that we continue to see in today’s world when we want something that we cannot have or do not need. How many young, married couples do you know who justify the employment of a maid by sacrificing more important needs?
Likewise, I see a lot of couples take serious financial risks to keep up with their neighbors. You see, yesterday’s donkey is today’s BMW, Mercedes or Suburban. And yesterday’s ox is today’s riding lawn mower, cellphone or iPad. Is there any wonder why Jesus said to his disciples, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth”? (Luke 12:15) Indeed, God’s word continues to have relevance.
The most important quality about the 10th Commandment is that it points to one of the main reasons why Jesus came. Only Jesus could keep all of the commandments. The rest of us have probably broken every one of them, including murder and adultery. If you don’t think so, read what Jesus said in Matthew 5:22 and 5:28.
I once heard Joyce Martin Sanders, of The Martins, refer to sins like covetousness as a “flesh flash.” The Apostle Paul talks about flesh flashes in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” He later realized that there is a struggle between good and evil that goes on within all of us, which compelled him to say: “What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) It was the 10th Commandment, that revealed the destructive nature of sin to Paul.
Jesus once told us that the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord with all of our hearts and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:40)
Jesus and Paul knew that the 10th Commandment moved the understanding of the law from an external, legalistic meaning to a spiritual one. It is the spirit behind the commandments that God was emphasizing all along. Love can never be portrayed in rules or teachings. It can only be seen in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord.