[A24] God's Warning Against Covetousness (The Small Catechism)
“These last commandments deal with the root and source of all sin; namely, the evil desires of the heart. It is true that, in the explanation of all the commandments, we bring out the fact that they are broken first of all in the heart, and that they are kept aright only when kept in and from the heart, and that in their scope they are all-inclusive. The Fifth Commandment, for instance, does not only forbid murder, but also anger, malice, and every kind of malevolent affection. This is Scriptural, though it is not expressed in so many words in the commandments themselves. Luther correctly introduces this in his explanations, but he gets it from other Scripture teaching and from the central thought of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments.”
Table of Contents
24. God’s Warning Against Covetousness
“Thou shalt not covet.” — Exodus 20:17.
“I had not known sin, but by the law; for I had not known lust, except the law had said… Thou shalt not covet.” — Romans 7:7.
The Ninth and Tenth Commandments treat, so far as specified objects are concerned, with things already prohibited. The Ninth re minds us of the Seventh; and the Tenth is, in part at least, touched upon in the Fourth and Sixth. But the thought contained in the Ninth and Tenth is by no means exhausted in the former commandments. Indeed, they take a decided step in advance of anything contained in the Second Table of the Law. There is a sense in which these last two commandments present but the negative side of which the first is the positive. The first says God is to be supreme in our thought and affections. These two say that not even in thought or affection is anything to be enshrined in place of God.
These last commandments deal with the root and source of all sin; namely, the evil desires of the heart. It is true that, in the explanation of all the commandments, we bring out the fact that they are broken first of all in the heart, and that they are kept aright only when kept in and from the heart, and that in their scope they are all-inclusive. The Fifth Commandment, for instance, does not only forbid murder, but also anger, malice, (Ml) and every kind of malevolent affection. This is Scriptural, though it is not expressed in so many words in the commandments themselves. Luther correctly introduces this in his explanations, but he gets it from other Scripture teaching and from the central thought of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments.
The primary object of these commandments is to emphasize a right state of heart, the absence of which is sin. God’s laws must be kept in thought and desire as well as in word and deed. No one keeps them unless he is free from the desire to break them. This is the very point man is prone to overlook. When he has been a good son and citizen, a good husband and father, an upright business man in his outward dealings, and a friendly, helpful neighbor, he is inclined to life up his head and say: “I have met all the requirements of God and man, and lack nothing.” But here is where God steps in with His searching heart-test. Have you never entertained wrong thoughts or unlawful desires? To enforce His view of sin God, once and again gives the command: “Thou shalt not covet.”
The sin denounced in both these commandments is the same so far as its nature is concerned. It differs only in the object toward which it is directed. And so far as the grosser sins are concerned, which result from the coveting, they have been considered under previous commandments, especially the Sixth and Seventh. As a result, I will combine the Ninth and Tenth in this treatment, and consider only the fundamental thought they are designed to emphasize — the sin of covetousness, the warning against it.
There are three leading thoughts I shall seek to keep in the fore-front: the nature of covetousness, the sin of covetousness, and the gain of godly contentment.
The Nature of Covetousness
Let us study briefly the nature of covetousness. “Thou shalt not covet.” This commandment, this interpretation of the true inwardness of the other commandments, puts a distinguishing mark on the whole Moral Law of God. Many of the other commandments, in some form or other, are found in the literature of other ancient people be sides the Hebrews. They probably derived them, directly or indirectly, from the Hebrew Scriptures; in any event, it is clear that they were capable, in a measure, of appreciating them, of discerning their practical value. But in no code of laws be sides that given by God to the Hebrews do we find anything resembling the fundamental, heart-searching prohibition of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments: “Thou shalt not covet.”
We have here, then, one of the fundamental differences between the religion, the morality, which God sets forth in His Word and demands of his children and that which natural religion recognizes and demands. God looks at the inner life and not merely at external conduct. He wants an outward virtue; but it must not be assumed: it must be the outward expression of inner holiness.
What is covetousness? To covet means to have an inordinate, irregular, unlawful desire for that which we do not possess, and cannot lawfully, innocently, possess. The original meaning of the word covet was to take delight in some object, and, because one delighted in the object, to set his heart upon it. This explains the use the Scriptures, in a few places, make of the word, applying it to the desire for laudable objects.
“Covet earnestly the best gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31).
But it is now used almost exclusively of the desire for the possessions, more particularly, of the wealth, of others. Covetousness is a passion to grow rich, usually at any price. This passion becomes the great aim of life. And with the growth of this passion the heart be comes corroded; inconsiderateness, mercilessness, and injustice characterize the covetous man’s treatment of his neighbor.
Avarice is a term sometimes used as a synonym of covetousness, but it is not wholly synonymous. Avarice is specifically a passion for money; a love of money for its own sake, not for the good one may do with it or get out of it for one’s self. The avaricious person loves the glitter of coin, the touch of currency. He delights to hoard it, rejoices to feast his eyes upon it. He loves money as some people love their children, as the saint loves God. The avaricious person never wants to part with his money. This spirit is well represented by the mes sage the Spanish adventurer, Cortez, sent to Montezuma:
“Send us gold, for we Spaniards have a disease which can only be cured by gold.”
This disease is highly contagious. Many in all ages, and every clime, have caught it. It feeds upon itself, and yields but slowly to treatment.
Dante, in his description of his travels, represents the dangers to the inner life under the form of various beasts. He likened the pleasures of life to a leopard, sly and cunning; but he was able to make his way past it in safety. Ambition is compared to a lion, fierce and combative. The poet acknowledged himself afraid of it, but was not conquered by it. Avarice he depicts as a wolf, gaunt and hungry; and he confesses that he was forced back by it, step by step, into the darkness. This has been the experience of many a person in his conflict with this enemy.
One of the particular dangers of avarice is that it is frequently found in people who are, other wise, exemplary in their lives. A man may detest uncleanness in word and deed, he may be a man of his word, and discharge the duties of life he assumes with fidelity, and still set this undue, exaggerated value on the perishing things of this life, with the result, however, that his finer perceptions gradually become bleared and his nobler feelings blunted.
Covetousness, while it has, in general, the same significance as avarice, is to be distinguished from it. The covetous person, as we have seen, has an inordinate desire for gain; but covetousness is wider in its application, going out toward all kinds of possessions. It includes the desire to get them by unlawful means if necessary; by craftiness, as Luther expresses it, or a show of right. Furthermore, the covetous person may not desire to get and to have in order to keep, but to squander. The covetous man may be a veritable spendthrift. Indeed, he often covets only that he may have that wherewith to gratify his whims or his lusts.
A man may be covetous also of other things than wealth. David and Herod each coveted another man’s wife. Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard, not because he needed it, but because it would complete his pleasure grounds. And many a man covets another’s good name, his friends, his social position, or his station in life. Envy, therefore, is first cousin to covetousness, for it is a feeling of dissatisfaction at beholding the good fortune of another.
Covetousness is often given other and less repulsive names. We often say of a man that he drives a close bargain, that he knows how to take care of number one. We sometimes designate him as a thrifty or far-sighted man, when, in reality, he is actuated by covetousness. But however we may modify the term, God does not look on real covetousness as a little thing. The Bible tells us that God abhors the covetous man (Ps. 10:3).
The Sin of Covetousness
That covetousness, the desire for things, perishing things of the earth, is a sin will not come as news to any one acquainted with Bible teaching in only a general way. There are not many sins which receive more frequent or more scathing treatment at the hands of those who spoke for the Lord. One reason for this is the fundamental, far-reaching character of the sin. Another is its frequency and god’s warning against covetousness the many other ills to which it is related as cause or effect.
Covetousness is a sin against the neighbor. The covetous man soon becomes, if he does not start out with being, a loveless man. He is afflicted with a concentrated form of selfishness. In a moral sense, he is the victim of hardening of the heart, and a consequent atrophy of the feelings. Not caring for other people, he soon comes to look down upon them, especially if they are less fortunate than himself. He begins to feel that the man whose hand lacks skill, whose mind is less sagacious than his own, whose plans are marked by feebleness, was made to be trampled upon, and plucked at every opportunity. As the spirit of covetousness grows in a man he will begin to justify this conduct. He pretends to see in man’s poverty or helplessness an evidence that God does not care for him; and, he argues, if the unfortunate man is not considered by God in heaven, he need not be considered by man on earth. As a result we have such designs conceived and executed on other men’s property as are described by the prophet:
“They devise iniquity, and wish evil upon their beds! When the morning is light, they practice it, because it is in the power of their hand. And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away; so they oppose a man and his house, even a man and his heritage” (Micah 2:1, 2).
This same spirit of covetousness, in another direction, is back of the story of David’s fall. It led him not only to take another man’s wife, but to cause that man’s death. A large part of the sins of the world owe their parentage to covetousness. The class distinctions and rivalries, the labor wars, the capitalistic combines and other methods of oppression, are all largely fathered by it. The lust for land, for commerce, for prestige sets nations to cutting each other’s throats. It is the same greed, in a smaller way, which leads some men to theft and forgery and business deception, and others to gambling. Still others it leads to engage in trades and manufactures which are the curse and destruction of mankind. It leads them to sell the honor of their sons and the virtue of their daughters. No wonder a loving God, who desires the welfare of men, for time and eternity, thunders His command from Sinai: “Thou shalt not covet!” No wonder that the gentle Jesus adds His warning: “Beware of covetousness.”
Covetousness is in a special way a sin against oneself. It stands as a barrier in the way of the realization of the ideal or goal for the attainment of which man was created. It is closely akin to the materialism which regards this life as the all of existence, and, therefore, present gain as the only possible gain. Jesus was warning against this danger to oneself when He said:
“Take heed, and beware of covetousness; for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth… The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment” (St. Luke 12:15, 23).
The development, the unfolding of life itself in beauty and power, the bringing of life into harmony with its original natural environment — into fellowship with God, and into the love of truth god’s warning against covetousness and righteousness; the setting of life’s forces into the movement toward the realization of its Divinely appointed goal; and then to help others to come to the same glorious heritage — these are the purposes for which men are to live, and in the pursuit of which alone they can attain to peace and happiness here and bliss hereafter. The covetous man defeats these ends in his own life. Covetousness leads man to put his body above his soul, pleasure above duty, time above eternity, the creature above the Creator.
The covetous man, in thus perverting God’s law, does not only greatly endanger his prospect of attaining eternal life, but he largely defeats his own present purpose. He is covetous and employs the means of the covetous man, because he thinks thereby to increase his pleasure, but instead of augmenting it he progressively destroys it. The covetous man has ceased to be a satisfied man. And his dissatisfaction increases. The more he gets the more he wants. The desire to get comes to gnaw like a ravenous beast at his vitals. He be comes suspicious of everyone, even his nearest kindred. He scents everywhere plots against him and what he has. And the sight of even little things which he does not possess and cannot find ways of possessing, makes him miserable. Ahab is a good example of this. He was a ruler. He had a high station in life. He had riches. But he wanted Naboth’s little vineyard. Naboth, because it was an inheritance, and was not to be alienated from the family, would not part with it. As a result, we are told that Ahab “laid him down on his bed, and turned away bis face and would eat no bread” (1 Kings 21:4). A very foolish piece of business, we are inclined to say; but covetousness makes people foolish.
Zophar, counselor to Job, gives us a striking picture of the pass to which the covetous man finally comes:
“He hath swallowed down riches, and he shall vomit them up again… He shall suck the poison of asps, the viper’s tongue shall slay him. He shall not see the rivers, the floods, the brooks of honey and butter. That which he labored for shall he restore, and shall not swallow it down. According to his substance that he hath gotten he shall not rejoice. Because he hath oppressed and forsaken the poor, he hath violently taken away an house which he builded not; surely he shall not feel quietness within, he shall not save aught of that wherein he delighteth” (Job 20).
Covetousness, being a sin against the neighbor and oneself, must, necessarily, be a sin against God. All sin is, directly or indirectly, against him. But much more than many another fault is covetousness a sin directly against the person and majesty of God. It is not only a violation of His expressed will, it is the dethronement of God from His place of primacy in the heart. It is a putting of the creature in the place of the Creator. This is the reason it is called idolatry (Col. 3:5), a sin so heinous that God declares that no covetous person shall inherit His Kingdom (1 Cor. 6:10; Eph. 5:5).
Let us not think that the wealthier people are the only covetous people. This is a great mistake many are liable to make. A man of great wealth may not be covetous. A very poor man may be. A poor person may hoard pennies with as much lust for money as the man of thousands does his banknotes. A young woman may have a heart as full of covetousness for finery as the rich person has for a summer home at Newport and a private yacht. It is not so much the amount or nature of the things coveted — it is the coveting itself which is sin.
Not till man has been enlightened by the grace of God to understand the nature of covetousness, to recognize that the impulses of his corrupted nature are sin — the root, the fountainhead of all sin; that covetousness is really sin, and condemns, — not till he has learned this, is he in a condition to know himself as he is — a helplessly lost, unworthy, condemned creature. This is what St. Paul tells us in Romans seven. He was a Jew, who knew the Jewish law. But it did not alarm him. He had kept its requirements outwardly and justified himself on that ground. But when he came, by the grace of God, to know that lust, the evil desire within that breaks out in a thousand directions, was condemning sin, then he recognized himself as a lost, undone creature, and was led to cry out: “O wretched man that I am!”
Before we close this part of the discussion let us hear, and take with us, a few words of Christ on this important subject, and remember that they are the words of the Son of God:
“Take heed, and beware of covetousness” (Luke 12:15).
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal… No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon” (St. Matt. 6:19:24).
The Gain of Godly Contentment
Covetousness never brings lasting gain. It never brings what the covetous person fondly hopes. The covetous person loses not only heaven, if his covetousness is pronounced, but also the best things of earth which he had hoped to gain. Covetousness has ruined nations. It has brought the cup of bitterness to countless thousands. It loses a man his friends. It destroys his peace of mind. It often leads to a state of mind, and to efforts, which destroy his health. But godliness brings gain. We have the Word of God for it that it is profitable, “having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
By godliness is not here meant that which is such only in form, but that which is essentially so. It is the godliness which really knows God as a Father, loving, merciful, careful of his children; which really knows Jesus Christ as a personal Redeemer, as the one through whom, by faith in His name, we richly and daily receive the full and free forgiveness of all sins; which possesses the in dwelling Spirit of God bearing witness to our spirits that we are the children of God, and the assured heirs of eternal life; and disposes men to kindly feelings for one’s fellowmen, and willingness to help them in every need. Such godliness as this takes the sting of carking care out of our souls. It assures us that, as God is in heaven, all must be well with his children.
To be truly godly does not mean, as some of the ancient ascetics taught, that we must abjure all property. Jesus never disparaged wealth. He never spoke slightingly of the powers by which men are enabled to make it. He never indicated that it was a sin to earn money, or to take pleasure in acquiring it. Contentment does not mean that one must be careless and indifferent with respect to the good things of this world. Laziness and carelessness are not indicative of precocious piety. But contentment does mean that when we have formed our plans with care and prayer, and have put our best powers into their execution, that we take the result as God’s answer to the prayer which works, and the work which is a prayer. To this man God says:
“Be content with such things as ye have, for … I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5).
If we can honestly accumulate something beyond the daily need, and not set our hearts upon it, but be ready to use it as our good or the good of others may demand, neither God nor his saints will say nay. But if our plans do not succeed as we had hoped, the godly man does not become sour, fretful, and unbelieving; he knows God does all things for the best, and he is able to say with St. Paul:
“I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content” (Phil. 4:11).
This state of mind and heart is found only in those who have been renewed in their nature; only in those who are rich toward God, rich in their trust in God, and in their love for Him. This love casts out all fear. “Why dost thou fear?” cried Caesar to the terrified boatman, “thou earliest Caesar!” The true Christian does not fear, for he has God with him — always, everywhere. It is not in such a man to make gods of the things of this world, and thus sell his soul for a mess of pottage. He would not, if he could, accumulate a fortune by dishonest or hurtful methods; for he knows that it would profit him nothing if he should gain the whole world, and lose his soul when he came to the end of the little span of life. Nor would he sacrifice the respect, love and friendship of men for the wealth of the Indies.
Alexander the Great, the conqueror of the then known world, gave orders that when he was buried his hands should be left exposed from the coffin as a reminder to others that though he was the acknowledged master of the world he could take nothing with him when he left it. Shrouds, they say, have no pockets.
“We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (1 Tim. 6:7).
The godly man knows, and is satisfied with, the unfailing riches. He lives so that he can say with the prophet:
“Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls; yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He will make my feet like hind’s feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places” (Heb. 3:17-19).
- Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
- Title: “The Ten Commandments”
- Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
- Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
- Copyright: CC BY 4.0