Reading Time: 10 minutes

When you’re greedy for more

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Exodus 20:17, Philippians 2:5-11

We’ve studied the Ten Commandments as rules for the game of life. We’ve looked at the games our culture plays, starting with “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?,” the top-rated show in America. Remember the others: “Let’s Make A Deal,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy,” “Family Feud,” “The Gong Show,” “Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire?,” “The Price is Right,” and “Hollywood Squares.” We could close with “Greed,” the game show which offers not one, but two million dollars. What’s the theme running through them all? Money, stuff, getting more.

By contrast, the tenth commandment says, “You shall not covet.” Let’s see what this commandment means for our culture and our lives, by biblical exegesis and some biblical stories along the way.

The text

The commandment begins as do the other nine: “You shall not.” “You” is plural, showing that the commandment applies to us all and that we are all tempted here. It is in the present tense, because it is still relevant today.

And it is a command, not a suggestion or a principle. Someone said that God gave us the Ten Commandments in stone so we could keep them or break them, but not bend them. A command for all of us, for all time.

The key word, of course, is “covet.” This word simply means to long after or desire earnestly. It is a common theme in the Bible.

Interestingly, the word itself is neutral. The question is not whether or not we will have desires, but what we desire, and at what price.

Some things we “covet” are good, as in wishing to emulate the great qualities of someone we admire. Some things we desire are natural, such as a good appearance or a nice car, or the ability to play golf well. So, what is “coveting” in the wrong sense?

The tenth commandment specifically prohibits two kinds of desires: to want something I should not possess, and to want something which belongs to someone else.

These can be material things, such as “your neighbor’s house,” ox or donkey. Here’s a principle for life: don’t love something which can’t love you back.

This can be the wrong desire for status, as in coveting your neighbor’s manservant or maidservant, ancient symbols of place and status.

This can be the wrong desire for people, as with “your neighbor’s wife.”

It is wrong to want anything I shouldn’t have, or to covet what belongs to you.

This commandment is crucial. If we keep it, we will keep the other nine.

If we don’t covet status or power above God, we will worship him, refuse idols, honor his name, and keep his day.

If we don’t covet status or power with others, we will honor our parents and refuse to hurt people. If we don’t covet people, we’ll refuse adultery. If we don’t covet things, we’ll not steal or lie.

Breaking this commandment is at the root of all our troubles. So, why do we?

Coveting things

First, we covet things because we have the idea that things will bring us happiness. It’s no wonder.

Thousands of people in our country spend forty hours every week designing ways to get us to buy more. They use music, slogans, sights, sounds, and colors. Their goal is to make us covet what they’re selling.

Their message is everywhere. The typical American consumer is bombarded with 3,000 advertisements daily. And they’re working. In 1967, 44% of college freshmen believed it was essential to be “very well off financially;” by 1990, that figure had jumped to 74%. By contrast, 83% in 1967 thought it was essential to have a meaningful purpose to life; by 1990, only 43% agreed.

We’re not the first people to struggle with coveting things. Do you remember the story of Ahab and the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kings 21)? Simply put, King Ahab wanted Naboths’ vineyard in ancient Samaria, but it was his father’s and he refused to sell it. Ahab became depressed and wouldn’t eat. So his wicked wife Jezebel arranged for two men to accuse poor Naboth of blasphemy; he was stoned to death, and Ahab got his field. The result was that Ahab and Jezebel died for their sin.

Three people were killed, because of one man coveting things.

From their story we learn not to want things we shouldn’t have, or things which belong to others. Why? Because such coveting will only hurt us, and hurt other people.

It’s never enough. A servant asked his rich master, “How much money is enough?” His reply: “Just a little more.”

Recently, a man on television interviewed people who had become instant lottery millionaires. He asked, “How many of you are happier today?” Not a single person raised his or her hand. One of the winners replied, “How many new suits can you buy? How many cars can you drive? Every time you get something nicer, it isn’t good enough, because you see and want something even nicer.” It’s never enough.

And we will use people to get more things. The right approach is to love people and use things, not the reverse.

Martin Buber, the Jewish poet and philosopher, suggested that only two kinds of relationships exist: I-you and I-it. We should have I-you relationships with each other, and I-it relationships with things. When we reverse them, everyone loses.

It’s possible to use things for people and God, thereby keeping the tenth commandment.

For instance, at last Monday’s Experience 2000 lunch downtown, Bo Pilgrim spoke. He wore his pilgrim hat, put Henrietta the stuffed chicken on the podium, and simply preached the gospel. Then he called attention to a gospel tract he had written—there was one at every place, for all 220 people at the lunch. Inside each one was a $20 bill, to encourage us to take the tract and read it. He said, “It’s not mine, and there’s more where that came from.” He’s right.

And he kept the tenth commandment.

Coveting people and status

Second, we covet people. We have the idea that people will bring us happiness.

That’s what David thought when he saw Bathsheba. And Uriah died, David was disgraced, and his family well into permanent turmoil and dysfunction as a result.

And third, we covet status.

This may be the greatest problem our community faces today. Things and people are a means to status. Cars and houses and popularity are means to the end of standing and status. This kind of coveting is all around us.

A flyer in the Dallas Morning News recently advertised a seminar coming to our city: “Unleash the Power Within.” Jacuzzi has announced a new whirlpool with a built-in nine-inch television, a wall-mounted CD and stereo system, and a floating remote control to run it all. The New York Times recently described a company which manufactures artificial trophy fish for your wall, for sale on the internet. We all want more status, don’t we?

We’re not the first.

Listen to Paul’s confession: “I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire” (Romans 7:7-8).

Here was Paul’s problem, the only sin he ever admits committing anywhere in the New Testament: coveting. Not after things or people, but status. Wanting to be a Pharisee of the Pharisees, wanting to be the most zealous for the law and the rituals of their faith, wanting to be the holiest man in the nation. Paul admits that this was his own heart.

I admit that this is an issue for me as well: wanting to impress you, to please you, to perform well for the sake of status and achievement. Who today doesn’t struggle here?

Coveting at its root is all about me. “I trouble.” Note that the middle letter of pride and sin are the same. But as with other kinds of coveting, we can never have enough. Enough status, or reputation, or honor. We always need a little more.

Conclusion

So what is the answer to our problem?

First, we admit that seeking things, people, or status we should not have is wrong. Seeking things, people, or status which belong to someone else is wrong. We start there.

Second, we admit that we cannot solve this problem ourselves. Our fallen human nature wants things, people, and status. We must have the nature of Jesus as our own.

This was Paul’s experience. The same man who admitted that he had “every kind of covetous desire” later said, “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 everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13).

We can keep the tenth commandment, with the help of Jesus.

Listen to Jesus’ story with the tenth commandment: he, being in very nature God, chose not to covet the things, people, or status of heaven. Instead, he “made himself nothing” as a servant, to die for us. And so God restored him to the highest place and the highest name, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

He refused to covet, and received from his Father more than coveting could ever have given him.

Now his Spirit is ready to help us have his humility. Will you admit that you need his help with coveting? Will you ask for that help? Will you trust God for it? Will you ask Jesus to make you like himself? The results will outweigh whatever they cost you today.

There was an elderly man who lived on the island of Crete. He loved everything about Crete—the hills and mountains, the beaches, the sunrises and sunsets. And so when it came time for him to die, his sons laid him on the soil of Crete. He scooped into his hand some of that soil, and then he died.

He found himself outside the gates of heaven. They opened, and he started in. Then the angel saw his clenched fist and asked what was inside. “Crete,” he said. “I go nowhere without it.” The angel said that he would have to let it go to come inside. “Never,” he said, and sat down outside the wall.

A week went by. The angel came back out and asked him to let go of the soil of Crete and come inside, but he refused. Another week went by. Then an old friend from years before came out and asked him to release his dirt and come in, but he refused. Another week went by; his soil was dry and caked, and he cupped his hands under each other to hold it.

Then the gates opened, and his granddaughter came out to him. She said, “Grandfather, the gates only open for those with open hands.” He looked at the soil of Crete in his hands, then finally released it. It fell through the heavens as he took his granddaughter’s hand. The gates opened, and he went in. Inside, was all of Crete.

What’s in your hand today?