I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a funny biblical word. A word that sounds positively quaint to our ears, so little does anyone use it these days. In fact, I suspect the only time most of us ever hear it is when we’re actually reading the Ten Commandments as we’ve done this morning. There it is, in #10. “You shall not… covet.” To covet meaning simply to desire, to wish for something enviously.
On one hand the old fashioned language lends it a certain weight – the sin of covetousness – but I wonder how many of us actually take this commandment seriously?
Sure, my husband Ken and I tease each other at times – when he’s pining over the latest, greatest techno-gadget; my own weakness is watching those shows about people’s homes being updated and remodeled. “Hey,” we say to each other, “No coveting, remember? Flag on the play!”
But even when we make the connection, it’s hard not to be dismissive – after all, we’re bombarded with hundreds if not thousands of messages every single day designed (let’s face it) to encourage coveting! If not our neighbors’ slave or ox or donkey, then certainly his home theater system, her smartphone, or their car.
Not all of the Ten Commandments seem equally to inspire us to brag about breaking them – though the Sabbath one certainly does, in this fast-paced, 24/7 culture. (Rest? Who has time to rest? We’re all so busy!) I think this one, about coveting, is considered to be decidedly outdated too. In a culture so driven by advertising, in an economy that relies so heavily on convincing us we must have things we don’t really need, is it even possible to take the 10th commandment seriously?
And just how serious is it, anyway? I mean, sitting in a list alongside murder, theft, and adultery, why does coveting even rate a mention? How could simply wanting something (not taking it, mind you – that’s commandment # 8… or distorting the truth to get it, which would have us in #9) why would just plain wanting it be so bad? What’s the big deal?
Maybe the big deal is what coveting isn’t.
For coveting is the opposite of contentment.
And “I want what he’s got” prevents us from recognizing God’s amazing gifts that already surround us.
Just listen for a moment and try to guess what this next quote refers to: “You want it. You want it bad. Sometimes so much it hurts. You can taste it. You feel like you would do anything to get it. Go further than they’d suspect. Twist your soul and crush what’s in your way. Then you get it. And something happens. You become the object of your desire. And it feels incredible.” Would you believe you’ve been listening to an actual perfume ad?
I ask you, how in this day and age could anyone not covet? How do we protect ourselves from internalizing messages like these? It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a Mercedes or the latest mouthwash; the message is the same. We hear it so often most times we don’t even notice it anymore: You want it. You need it. You’ve just gotta have it. (So even though you walked into the store for a few pairs of socks for the kids, they’re going to do their level best to convince you that you need to walk out with a flat screen TV!)
If you were with us a couple of months ago you’ll remember reading Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he reminded us that it isn’t just what we do, but what’s in our hearts that counts? So that not just murder, but hatred, is a problem; not just adultery, but lustful thoughts? I’m reminded of that gospel teaching when I read this tenth commandment. Because apparently, it’s not just lying and stealing that can be destructive. It’s also our desire for more.
OK, so coveting is really bad – it made the top ten list of things we oughtn’t do, even –yet we live in a society designed precisely to make us covet. The advertising industry isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon. So it sounds like a Catch-22 to me. It makes me wonder if there’s any way out.
There is, but it turns out we need to revisit that other most neglected commandment to find it. Would you believe we already have in our hands a secret antidote formula to help us avoid the sin of coveting, of wanting more? And it sits right there disguised as… Sabbath.
What’s the connection? Sabbath, one day each week to step away from the rat race, to step away from keeping up with the Jones’s, to take a break from working and rushing and shopping till we drop.
I’m sure many of my teenage daughters’ friends would be dismayed to hear me say this, but a day at the mall probably isn’t the best way to spend a Sabbath, in order to take full advantage of its life-giving benefits. The purpose of Sabbath, after all, is to step away from the pressures of the world in order to reconnect with ourselves, with our loved ones, and with God. One of those worldly pressures is the pressure to acquire the newest and best, the latest and greatest.
This isn’t a guilt trip, honest – it’s an invitation. And I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to anyone else. But to regain our sense of perspective and our priorities, we do need to step away once in awhile.
For each of us I imagine it could look a bit different, what any one of us would most benefit from stepping away from. When it comes to allowing the Sabbath to help us avoid the sin of coveting, we might hear an invitation like: Put down the catalogs. Step away from the home shopping network. Or just plain unplug – literally, as well as metaphorically. Step away for an hour or two. Better yet, the Scriptures tell us, step away for a whole day. Leave the whole advertising-dependent economy behind, stop comparing your life to others’ lives on social media, and do something else entirely. Then sit back and watch your priorities begin to fall back into place. The promise is that when we claim that time away, we’ll discover ourselves wanting less, because we’ll remember how much we’ve already been given.
Not that our priorities will magically stay in place – that’s why we’re invited to do this every single week. Otherwise even Sabbath couldn’t compete with the other messages we hear.
And remember that society will exert its every influence to tell us we’re nuts when we do sit back and appreciate what we’ve got, instead of grasping and striving for get more. Rather than earn money, Henry David Thoreau sought to reduce his wants so he wouldn’t need to buy anything. “As he went around preaching his ingenious idea, the shopkeepers of Concord hoped he would drop dead.”
Bottom line: coveting has been an issue for God’s human creatures from day one. Adam and Eve wanted more fruit than was good for them. The children of Israel, wandering through the wilderness, wanted to hoard more manna than they really needed. The fact that coveting made it into the Ten Commandments only further emphasizes that it has been an issue all along. But –here’s the good news – our tendency to violate that pesky tenth commandment can at least begin to be countered by the gift of the fourth. Remember the Sabbath Day. Step away from the rat race. Step away from consumerism. Regain your perspective. Reclaim your life.
Obviously the danger is we’ll continue to ignore both commandments and become entirely swallowed up by the culture – we’re exposed to vastly more “buy me” messages than any prior generation. It’ll take some doing not to be brainwashed into believing what we’re told about what we must have. Interestingly we are also, in this culture, very likely to forget to slow down, rest, step away and regain our perspective through the gift of Sabbath.
But when we see the connection, and pair the two, what could be a lose/lose situation quickly turns into a win/win. I know, God says, how hard it will be for you to resist wanting more. That’s why I’ve given you the gift of holy time. Embrace it. Twenty-four hours each week to remember, as any good Mr. Rogers’ fan knows, that “the best things in life aren’t things.”
Think of the most memorable, amazing moments in your life. How many of them required a shopping trip? How many of them were affected by anything a neighbor had or wore or drove? I’ll wager not a one. The best things in life are unattached to anything the advertisers can sell us. Because as hard as they try, they can’t package love. For that matter they also can’t sell awe, or mystery, or holiness, or peace. But these things are already there, absolutely free, if we’ll just stop long enough to notice them. Grace upon grace upon grace.
“Thou shalt not covet.” It’s a hard word. But God in his infinite wisdom also offers us this complementary commandment that helps us keep it. Thank God one of the things we most need to avoid breaking the tenth commandment is already given us in the fourth. Let’s claim the antidote formula! Step away, for a time, from all that’s out there trying to convince us the key to the good life is more stuff. Step away, and watch the transformation in our hearts from coveting to appreciating, from wanting to celebrating.
Sabbath can be hard to come by in our go-go-go culture, where as often as not when we ask each other “How are you?” we get answers about being so busy we can’t keep up. Sabbath rest, for some of you, may at this moment feel utterly out of reach.
But how might it transform your life to remember that God not only invites you, but commands you, to stop, catch your breath, and rest? What small changes could you make– even this week – to make it possible for you to keep this commandment in some way, rather than assuming it’s utterly impossible, and ignoring it completely?
I imagine summer’s as good a time as any to give it a try.
Maybe you haven’t been thinking about that funny old biblical word, specifically. But if, like me, it concerns you that our society encourages us to covet, I urge you over the next few months to step away for a Sabbath, as long as you can, as often as you can. And watch your “I want’s” begin to morph into “thank you’s” and your “I need’s” into stories of amazing grace. Amen.
 Advertisement for perfume in Macy’s window, as cited by Wayne Muller, in Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives, p. 129
 Mary Pipher, quoting Richard Armour in Shelter of Each Other, p. 94)