Technically speaking, God’s Tenth Word tackles coveting.
“Thou shall not covet” your neighbor’s house, or your neighbor’s spouse. Not another’s servants or hired help. Not a donkey or an ox – or anything else that belongs to your neighbor. Or a friend, and even a stranger.
Just so we’re all on the same page, to covet means you spot something that’s not yours, but boy, oh boy, you really, really wish it were: Life certainly would be better if you drove a sweet ride like Dylan does. All my troubles would be over if I just had a cushy job like Meredith’s. Must be nice to spend a hot summer afternoon with your pontoon boat nosed into the wide beach of a river sandbar.
As another observes, coveting is seeing the world through the spyglass of “if only … .” If only your children’s teeth were straight and white as the Williamson kids’s. If only your house were a little larger, if only your abs a little flatter, if only your hairline a little thicker and forehead a little smaller, then life would be grand – every day a dance of circadian rhythm, “Tra, la-la, la-la!”
For the most part, you and I covet in silent invisibility.
You may well be the biggest, most-chronic coveter in Allamakee County and all of northeast Iowa. But it won’t necessarily lead to any obviously heinous, Commandment-breaking behaviors. What it will do, however, is make you very, very unhappy. Which makes coveting a catch-all category for our instinctive tendencies to detour God’s direction, thwart God’s will, and dwell apart from God and God’s people.
Thus the mournful lyrics of a song we like to sing give voice to our lament: “I was there when you were but a child, with a faith to suit you well; In a blaze of light you wandered off, to find where demons dwell.”
The problem with desperately wanting something that someone else now has is the ever-present danger that coveting will rip-out your moral guardrails. When you’re navigating from a mindset of coveting, there’s no solid, yellow line to keep you from swerving too far left; no white fog-line to keep you from veering too far right; no caution tape to keep you from harm’s way; no orange-and-white-striped barricade to stop you from creating chaos.
Indeed, coveting can be a silent, invisible sin – an affair of the heart, a dis-ease of the mind, darkness overshadowing one’s soul. But it can also incite theft, lure you into unfaithful relationships, lead you to spew endless litanies of lies, and just generally give all the Commandments a thorough beating.
Coveting can and will pour more volatile stress upon an already-furious pace of life. It’ll further fan the flames of rabid fear of missing out – such that, dare I say, you ignore the Sabbath, and separate yourself from the blessing of caring community, and abdicate your call to holy service on what is, after all, supposed to be the Lord’s Day.
Bottom line, coveting can and will entice you to break every other blessed law and commandment that the Lord ever gave – including the Greatest to love and serve God and neighbor – friend and stranger – as you yourself would want to be loved and served.
But even if you’re going a bang-up job respecting God’s other Words, the core problem with coveting is that it slays joy – that elusive sense of Eden’s paradise for which we all grope and grasp with desperate hope.
And thus to Eden we turn for our Scripture lesson: Genesis 3, a biblical story that serves as its own illustration and life application.
To lure Eve into biting the forbidden fruit, the serpent first must make her want something. The serpent of Eden’s Garden never says that the fruit in question will be juicier or tastier – more organic and locally sourced – than any other food. Evil doesn’t try to make Eve rebel against the very notion of having to follow some rules.
No, the evil serpent steers Eve’s coveting toward some vague destination where some intangible brand of otherworldly knowledge might be discovered and acquired. Once Eve finds herself coveting such supernatural wisdom, she convinces herself that her life is lacking, coming up short, not aligning with culture’s template of worthiness.
The irony of it all is that Eve already has it all! She’s wanting even more in her place of already-abundant paradise. That the devil can make her restless amid such perfection is chilling. If even in Eden men, women, and children are vulnerable to desiring more than they already have, the rest of us who now live east of Eden can be well-assured that this temptation remains quite muscular, and we constantly struggle and grapple against its brawn.
Then again, if it seems ridiculous to think about someone in Paradise becoming restless for more, just think how equally ridiculous it is for us to feel this way, given the vast blessings you and I receive from God. Most of us, much of the time, are neck-deep in blessing! And there are more than a few saints here in this place who view their daily, uphill slogs and personal challenges with such Kingdom vision.
In this way, Genesis 3 becomes a great passage to illustrate the idea that covetousness really can lead us to breach the peace in a variety of ways – shedding the blood of our relationships on hills that really aren’t worth dying on, stymieing God’s efforts to redeem the world, and crimping our generosity of time, talent, and treasure.
Listen for the Word of the Lord.
The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the LORD God had made.
One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” She replied, “Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden. It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God told us, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it. If you do, you will die.’”
“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”
Eve was convinced. She saw that the tree in the middle of the garden was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So, she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, Adam, who was with her. And he ate it, too.
At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. When the cool evening breezes were blowing, Adam and Eve heard the LORD God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the LORD God among the trees. (Genesis 3:1-8 NLT)
In the woods, cowering in fear, behind an autumn-hued sugar maple – with absolutely no desire to “see God in nature,” let alone let God find you:
Not exactly a picture of another day in paradise!
Or is it?
You and I seek the holy grail of perfection, and God’s Commandments sketch out the shapes and contours of that goal. But even the best runner of earth’s moral marathon only moves inches closer to the finish line of perfection. This Tenth Word – and the other nine Words of prequel – never let us forget the grim fact that – despite all our blood, sweat, and tears – we’re moving toward perfection at a snail’s pace, slower than molasses in our upcoming January.
Yet, Jesus is enough. Grace is enough. You are enough!
And forget not these assurances from the New Testament book of Hebrews:
“Since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. Jesus, our brother, knows and understands our every weakness, because he faced all the same trials, testings, and temptations that we do. Yet he did not sin. So come boldly to the throne of our gracious God, where you will receive heaven’s mercy and find grace to help when you need it the most.” (Hebrews 4:14-16 NLT)
Ancient words, ever true! The Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, October 15, 2023. It is the 12th in his current series on The Ten Commandments. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee and Jen Wilkin inform the message.