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Our Restless Cravings

San Williams

August 28, 2011
Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21

08-28-2011 SermonThis morning we come to the end of our summer series on the Ten Commandments.  When you first heard our plans, you might have assumed that an investigation of the Ten Commandments would be stodgy, tedious or dull.  Yet your responses to our sermon series have been surprisingly enthusiastic.  The Ten Commandments have proved to be more instructive, more spiritually engaging, and more relevant to our modern lives than perhaps any of us initially thought.

Today we take on the final commandment:  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”  The Word of the Lord…

Most of us have no trouble naming the things that others have that we might covet. Take  that shiny new BMW parked in your neighbor’s driveway.  Or maybe your friend’s new 55-inch flat screen high density, edge-lit, LED backlight, 3D, built in Wi-Fi  television set has you green with envy.  Or you may covet your neighbor’s house, which is bigger and newer than yours.  If you’re a student, you may find yourself jealous of your classmate’s brain, which seems to grasp the subject matter more quickly and thoroughly than your own. In short, as humans we may continually find ourselves lusting after the lifestyle, the abilities, or the goods of others.

But Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes in his commentary on the tenth commandment that this commandment is about much more than petty envy.  Brueggeman writes, “It is about predatory practices and aggressive policies that make the little ones vulnerable to the ambitions of the big ones.  In a rapacious economic system, nobody’s house and nobody’s field and nobody’s wife and nobody’s oil are safe from a stronger force. The exploitative system of Pharaoh believed that it always needed more and was always entitled to more—more brick, more control, more territory, more oil—until it had everything.”

One of the classic biblical stories illustrating the tenth commandment is that of Naboth’s vineyard in I Kings. Naboth had the misfortune of owning a vineyard that adjoined the royal vineyards of King Ahab.  After a time, Ahab sought to expand his wealth by laying claim to Naboth’s ancestral lands. When Naboth stubbornly refused the King’s attempts to buy his land, Ahab’s conniving wife, Jezebel, came up with a plan. She arranged to have some scoundrels accuse Naboth of a crime he didn’t commit, one that would lead to his execution and allow the king to claim his neighbor’s vineyard as his own. This seizure of Naboth’s vineyard is typical of those who have much, yet crave more.

The actions of Ahab and his ilk evoked an outcry from the prophets.  For example, the prophet Micah exploded with indignation:

Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance.”  (2:1-2).

Near the small village of San Jose del Progreso in southern Mexico, a Canadian multi-national corporation is operating a silver mine, one of many foreign-owned and
foreign-operated mining operations in Mexico and throughout Latin America. This mining operation and its effect on the neighbors living nearby was the subject of my son’s Master’s thesis. The Canadian silver mine operates on land communally owned by the ejido system, but the people’s rights have been ignored and their voices unheeded.  Their small houses located near the mine are crumbling from underground explosions.  Their fields, which are their sole means of livelihood, have been contaminated by arsenic, lead and mercury. Yet the complaints of the indigenous people go unheeded, because the silver under their land is highly desired, and NAFTA has made it easy for those with the money and the power to come and take it.

The story of Naboth’s vineyard keeps repeating itself.  It’s as old as civilization itself and as current as this week’s protest by the Oglala Sioux, who are trying to regain the Black Hills that white settlers first coveted and then took.  In truth, the disregard of the tenth commandment is behind most of the wars, oppression and suffering throughout the ages.  In his New Testament letter, James points to covetousness as the very root of human conflict:    “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?  You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”  (4:1-2)

The last of the Ten Commandments takes us to the place where misdeeds against our neighbor—murder, adultery, stealing and false witness—begin.  These sins begin in the human heart, a heart that is forever craving what it does not have.

Now before we sign off on the tenth commandment, let’s recognize how it rebounds back to the first commandment:  “You shall have no other gods…”  Even if coveting doesn’t directly harm our neighbor, it can still be spiritually lethal.   John Calvin put it this way:  “The purpose of this commandment is:  since God wills that our whole soul be possessed with a disposition to love, we must banish from our hearts all desires contrary to love…the heart, then, insofar as it harbors covetousness, must be empty of love.”   Or, as we sang this morning in our opening hymn, we can easily become a people who are “rich in things, but poor in soul.”

Remember the story of the rich man and Jesus? The rich man was eager to know what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus responded by ticking off the commandments. “But I have kept the Commandments since my youth,” declared the rich man.  We’re told that while Jesus loved this man, he indicated that he lacked one thing.  “Go and sell your possessions,” Jesus instructed. “Give your money to the poor and follow me.” This, however, the man was not willing to do. What the rich man lacks is that he covets.  He is captivated by his desire for his own wealth, so he is unable to follow Jesus.

Friends, the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet,” offers a fitting conclusion to the Decalogue. In a way, it sums up and brings together the two primary strands of the Commandments:  love of God and love of neighbor.  Desire itself is not the problem.  Rather, it is wrongful, misplaced desire—the sort of desire that endangers our neighbor’s well-being and stymies our relationship with God—that we must be on guard against. Martin Luther noted how coveting is, fundamentally, a lack of trust in God. In his Treatise on Good Works, Luther wrote, “A man is generous because he trusts God and never doubts that he will always have enough. In contrast, a man is covetous and anxious because he does not trust God.”

May God free us from our restless cravings so that we can live generous, unselfish lives, serving our neighbors and trusting in our God.