You shall not covet. This is a very personal command, so I’m going to ask a very personal question: Do you remember a time you committed the sin of coveting? I do. For several years it happened almost annually when that little treasure called the Sears Catalog showed up in the mail box. Consisting of nearly a thousand pages of every toy and trinket ever conceived, I remember sitting at the kitchen table paging through the Sears Catalog, thinking: “Wow, there are so many things in here I didn’t even know I wanted!” The problem wasn’t necessarily the wanting – if Sears was willing to sell it, I was free to beg my parents to buy it. No, the real problem was that it made me ungrateful for what I already had and awakened the ugly head of greed – the constant desire for more. I don’t think Sears prints those catalogs anymore, but the world still specializes in tempting us to want the new, shiny things parked at the dealership or hanging on the rack or available on Amazon.com. Every day Satan leads us to believe that we don’t have everything we need to be happy. The question is: what does God think of these feelings of dissatisfaction, our lack of contentment, our constant desire for more, newer, better? The last two commandments make God’s judgment clear: You shall not covet. God guards his gift of contentment; a gift the world cannot give, a gift found only in Christ.
The Hebrew word for covet (hamad) is a neutral word, meaning that context must determine whether it is being used positively or negatively. It is used both ways in the beginning of Genesis. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing (hamad) to the eye and good for food. (Genesis 2:9) Adam and Eve’s desire to enjoy and eat from these trees was a good thing – because God created them for this very purpose. On the other hand, God put another tree in the Garden, one which he commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from. And yet, when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing (hamad) to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. (Genesis 3:6) God created us in his image with a truly free will and good and holy desires, so that we would only want what he wants. But sin ruined everything. It corrupted our hearts, distorted our desires, and enslaved our will. Sin leads us to want what God doesn’t want us to have and to be indifferent towards the things God really wants to give us. Only when God the Holy Spirit creates new hearts in us through the power of the Gospel can we again desire – or covet – the right things. We’ll come back to that later.
The fact that God gives this command – do not covet – twice confirms what we learned in Mark and James: the most devious and persistent enemy we face is not something out there, it’s in here, beating away in our chests. Jeremiah wrote the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. (Jeremiah 17:9) Coveting, even if we never act on it, is wrong. It is the sinful desire to have what God hasn’t given us or doesn’t want us to have. We see three general categories of coveting in Scripture. 1) Wanting something you can’t or shouldn’t want to have. King David had more wives and concubines than any man should want or need (2 Samuel 5:13), yet his heart was filled with lust for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a woman he could not have and should not have wanted. Secondly, 2) wanting something so badly we are willing to sin to get it. Think of the story of Naboth’s vineyard. (1 Kings 21) Ahab wanted Naboth’s property so badly that he allowed Jezebel to have him publicly executed to get it. 3) The third way coveting rears its ugly head is when it leads us to get mad at God. Think of Job’s wife, who urged him to curse God for taking away his home, health and family. (Job 2:9) Has God taken something away from you? Do you feel like God is holding out on you? Is your plan for your life different from God’s plan? How do you react? As James explained, anything less than humble submission to God’s will is sin. (James 4:1-10)
The great challenge we face is that our world sees nothing wrong with coveting. It encourages it, even praises it. (How many people do you think fantasized about what they would do with last week’s $758 million PowerBall jackpot? Did you? Or, why do you think virtual reality and video games are so popular? Because people want to live out their fantasies without facing any consequences.) Because God’s will is at odds with the ways of the world, it feels oppressive when he comes along and tells us that our very thoughts, dreams and fantasies are sinful. Why does he do that? Why does God care so much about our hidden desires, our wants and wishes that no one else can see and we may never act on? James explains: after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15) Coveting is dangerous because it rarely stays penned up in our hearts. Like an infectious disease it spreads from our hearts to our hands and lips and lives. Coveting is the gateway to every other sin. Disrespect for authority leads to anarchy and rebellion. Hatred leads to murder. Lust leads to adultery. Greed leads to theft. Envy leads to slander. By cutting those sins off at the root, God safeguards us from ever merging onto that dire road that leads to death.
But there’s another danger contained in the “little” sin of coveting. A covetous heart is incompatible with faith. Satan and the world want us to believe that they can offer us someone or something that will lead us to be truly happy, truly content. This is perhaps the greatest and most devious lie ever told. It was at the root of Eve’s desire for the forbidden fruit, David’s adultery, Ahab’s treachery, and Judas’ betrayal – and we know how those stories ended, don’t we? Whenever we are tempted to whine or complain about God’s design for our lives, we need to make a connection that very few people ever make: coveting and unbelief go hand in hand. It is saying that God is not good, or at least not to me, or at least not as good as he is to others. Coveting stands in direct contradiction to the Bible’s definitive assertion that every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. (James 1:17) Or recall Job’s response to his wife: you are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? (Job 2:10) Let’s trace that path from coveting to unbelief. When we covet something God does not want us to have, we are saying that God doesn’t know what is best for us and we will stop looking to him in times of need and stop praising him for his blessings. When we stop looking to God for all good things we stop hearing his Word, stop receiving his Sacrament, stop living in his baptismal grace. When we stop receiving the grace God dispenses only in Word and Sacrament our faith shrivels up and dies. And dead faith cannot, will not look to Jesus for salvation. And there’s only one place for people who do not trust God’s goodness, do not receive his grace, and do not look to Jesus. Coveting may seem like a minor sin, but traced to its inevitable conclusion, coveting leads to hell. And there’s nothing harmless about hell.
Because the sin of coveting is invisible to others, these commandments demand self-examination. What do you want that God has decided not to give you? What do you want that God has given someone else? What has God taken from (or given you) you that makes you angry, that makes you accuse him of being unfair or unloving? The 9th and 10th commandments require us to recognize coveting as a sin, to see it in our hearts and to repent. They teach us to recognize that this world cannot offer what we truly want and need and they drive us, with a broken and penitent heart, to the only one who can grant true contentment.
Which leads us back to the positive side of coveting. God gave us our ability to desire, he gave us a will – even though it is no longer free. And so there is a God-pleasing kind of coveting. C. S. Lewis wrote: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory) Why do we so often feel discontented and dissatisfied? Because we are searching for contentment in all the wrong places. Instead of desiring the true peace God promises in his absolution, we try to drown our guilt in alcohol or numb it with pills or justify it with excuses – things that can never, ever actually remove the stain of sin. Instead of coveting the spouse God has given us or praying for or patiently waiting for God to give us a spouse we try to satisfy our sexual desires outside of marriage – which only leads to broken hearts, broken marriages, and broken families. Instead of living in daily contentment with what God has given us, we break our backs, we stress and scrimp and save, we spend countless sleepless nights desiring more, better, newer – and while that may be the American Dream, it never leads to a contented heart.
Do you see how coveting, like all sin, is slavery? It’s slavery to our own self-centered desires, it’s slavery to this world’s marketing gimmicks, it’s slavery to Satan’s false promises. It’s all a deception. It’s all a shell-game. The longing we feel, the satisfaction we want is essentially a desire for freedom. Whether we know it or not, our deepest longing is to be at peace with God, to be holy like God, to be with God. And because God knew that our hearts are so terribly twisted by sin that we could never free ourselves – he did it for us. He gave us a new heart. He gave us his heart. He sent us Jesus. Look at Jesus and you will see how much God coveted you, how his greatest desire is that you might be holy like him and live with him forever. Jesus is the only one to walk this earth who always, only had pure desires in his heart. He was truly content with God’s will and God’s ways. He was King of kings, but he was content to be born in a barn in the backwoods of Israel. He was content to grow up in near-poverty in Nazareth. He was content to survive day to day trusting that the Gospel would lead people to provide for his every need. He was content to be mocked and slandered and harassed by the religious and political leaders of his day. He was content to ride into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. He was content to have nothing in his estate, nothing to leave his disciples except his body and blood. As he walked into the shadow of the cross, he pleaded with his Father to find another way to save sinners. When his Father denied his request, Jesus was perfectly willing to walk the long, lonely road through torture, crucifixion, hell and death to save us. And even in death, Jesus was content. He was content to be laid in a stranger’s tomb because he knew that his real home was at his Father’s side in heaven. Admittedly, Jesus doesn’t seem all that desirable. Isaiah confesses: he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire (hamad) him…yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer…[as] a guilt offering for our sins. (Isaiah 53:2, 10) If you want forgiveness, if you want freedom, if you want contentment, the only place to find it is in Christ and his cross.
Because Jesus was perfectly content to carry out his Father’s will and his Father’s plan, the chains of covetousness that previously bound your heart have been broken. You are forgiven. You are cleansed. You are changed. The freedom you have been longing for is yours in Christ. Now you can see the big picture: that the most desirable things, the things that contentment are made of, are not found on Amazon.com or in your neighbor’s driveway or bedroom. Take a moment today to thank God for the blessings he has already given you: spouse, family, home, car, job, health – recognize those as gifts from God, desire them, covet them because God wants you to have them. And take time to covet the greater spiritual blessings God promises: peace – right here and now through the forgiveness of sins; security – the assurance God will provide for your every need today and every day; joy – that neither poverty nor bankruptcy nor sickness nor death can separate you from your Savior’s love; and hope – the sure, certain hope that your deepest desires will finally, fully be satisfied when God calls you home to spend eternity with him in paradise.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Colossians 3:1-2) Our world thinks that finding contentment is some kind of secret. It’s no secret at all. True contentment is found only in the Gospel of Christ crucified for us. Christ has freed us from wasting our time chasing after the mud pies of this world so that we can desire the true riches of heaven. Treasure the things God has given you, desire the things God has promised you, and rejoice that God coveted you so much that he sent his dearest possession to die for you. Keep your eyes on Christ, and you will always be content. Amen.