November 3, 2019. Sermon Title: The Tenth Commandment

First Mennonite Church

November 3, 2019

The Tenth Commandment

Texts: Exodus 20: 17; James 4:1-3

Exodus 20: 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

James 4:1-3

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

Covet is described as a strong desire to have something that belongs to another. Coveting refers to the destructive force/power of desire.  And by desire, I am referring not to the vague internal feeling that arises in the heart when one sees something appealing. I am referring to the uncontrolled force of publicly taking something that belongs to another, which can be through stealing, cheating, defrauding, or through the perversion of justice.

In the book of Micah, the prophet accused Israel’s leaders of doing that. In Micah chapter two we find these words:

Woe to those who plan iniquity,
to those who plot evil on their beds!
At morning’s light they carry it out
because it is in their power to do it.
They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them.
They defraud people of their homes,
they rob them of their inheritance.

We should remember that desire is neither bad nor good in and of itself. In the book of Psalms we read:

Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
(37:4). Psalms 40, verse eight, speaks of desiring to do God’s will. Therefore, having a desire for some things is natural and can be good in many instances. Desire turns destructive when the object desired for belongs to another. In such instances, the desire acted upon not only destroys the cohesiveness, trust, and wellbeing of the community, but it also destroys the one who acted covetously. In Genesis three we have the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis three, verse six, we read that Eve saw that the fruit as good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable to attain wisdom, which the serpent said God did not want her to have and for which God gave the prohibition regarding the fruit. As we know, Eve acted on her desire and brought her and the world every negative consequence.

Coveting or having desires in ancient Israel did not relate to sexual objects, as it is often understood today. Coveting referred primarily to matters of economic value, like gold, silver (Deut. 7:25; Josh. 7:21) land, houses, and vineyards (Exod. 34:24; Micah 2:1-4). The commandment prohibiting coveting has the purpose of curbing the impulse of acquiring things with the only goal of incrementing one’s economic property and power through immoral and violent means. The purpose of the commandment is the prevention of dishonoring and violating the neighbor’s belonging, thus impairing the wellbeing of his household. It is very interesting that the second element in the list in the commandment against coveting is the wife of the neighbor, which we might make us think refers to the desire of committing adultery. But that was not the case. We should remember that in ancient patriarchal cultures, as was Israel’s, wives were considered part of the household property of men, as were their male and female servants, oxen, donkeys, and other farm equipment.

You shall not covet, is the tenth commandment. It seems that the commandment summarizes all the previous nine. In verse two of Exodus 20, where the ten commandments are given, God declares, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Egypt enslaved Israel. Egypt took hold of a people that did not belong to it. Slavery was the result of Pharaoh’s covetousness. Therefore, Israel should have known firsthand the dangers and the pain it is inflicted upon others when they desire to take what belongs to other’s go uncontrolled. Coveting hurts and destabilizes the household’s or community’s resources. It creates an imbalance and unjust accumulation of resources destined for the whole community. Coveting is also evidence of a lack of faith in God who provides what is necessary for life, as we will see a little further ahead.

Covetousness is part of the sin nature in the human heart. You can prove this by visiting a daycare room filled with toddlers. If Johnny is playing with the little blue car, out of a dozen little cars available, Jimmy will also want the blue one with which Johnny is having a good time playing. Just imagine the degree and ugliness envy takes place among high school teenagers. World history is replete with undeniable evidence of the destructive and violent force of covetousness among nations. The words of James accurately describe the destructive force of avarice and greed that come when the tenth commandment is broken.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

According to James, coveting, envy, and uncontrolled desire are what leads to conflict, from the daycare center rooms to the world stage. Conflicts, violence, and wars arise from the desire of taking what belongs to another. The desire to hoard and to accumulate stuff, property, wealth, and everything, which are believed to give personal security, is born out of the idea of scarcity. If we believe the service stations will run out of gas by tomorrow at 10 in the morning, we might not mind being at the gas station at midnight tonight with a couple of containers besides our car to fill up. When someone believes a certain collectible item will increase exponentially in value in 10 years, he or she might turn the world upside down desperately searching and getting that item by all means possible.

Scarcity. Eve thought she did not have wisdom. The solution: eating the forbidden fruit would give her the wisdom she needed. Ahaz thought he did not have enough vineyard, so he killed Naboth and took away his vineyard (1Kings 21). Coveting arises from the feeling of not having enough with what we already have. Contentment is the opposite of coveting. The passage we read in Philippians, Paul declares, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (4:12-13).

Learning the secret of being content is to realize that riches do not satisfy the human heart, but neither can poverty take away contentment from the heart. Paul learned to be content when there was abundance, but he also knew to live when he was lacking.

Paul was content when food abounded, but he also bore with patience the lean times and even went hungry, as when he was in the Philippian jail. And what he reveals in verse 13 shows that contentment does not depend on outward situations or circumstances. Contentment had to do with what God does inside of us. Contentment is not born from the human heart but from the trust that God will take us through every situation in life. Paul’s being able to cope well with abundance as well as with want, with being well fed or with being hungry did not depend on his own strength but only through the strength of Christ.

So, how can we obey the tenth commandment and live with contentment? First, we need to live in constant gratitude to God for what we already have. Instead of focusing on what we are missing, let us be grateful for what we have. And when we are in need, let us not be desperate and praying to God to change our situation, but let us pray to God to open our eyes to help us see what he is trying to teach us. He might be teaching us the secret of contentment as he did to Paul.

Another key element to obey the commandment and to live with contentment is to be flexible. When the pantry only has potatoes left, let us see what we can make with potatoes. We know the saying, “When life throws lemons at you, make lemonade.” Or, as the other saying goes, “Never say ‘never.’” Never say you don’t eat this or wear that. “Only the rigid gets out of shape,” goes the saying. Flexibility is the strength of contentment. Above all, flexibility means we are willing to be shaped in the likeness of Christ. We should remember that God’s main purpose in calling us is not to drown us with an abundance of material things but to shape us in the likeness of his dear Son.

You shall not covet, says the tenth commandment. Contentment is the opposite of covetousness. Contentment is the secret through which we can live with either abundance or want, and we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. Amen!

Pastor Romero