The last of the ten commandments is not just about actions. It says, ‘Don’t desire to have something that belongs to another person.’ That is, don’t covet it. It may be someone else’s wife, or their servant (or the services they can access) or their property.
Sometimes, we ask ‘What made me do that?’ We have not been aware of our motive until something brings it to light. So, am I jealous of someone, or for something?
Are we envious of people with many friends? Do we wish we had their abilities or opportunities, their strength, connections, health or money? Envy can be a motive for many things we do. We become restless and driven rather than happily engaged in life.
Coveting can also lead to not doing things we should do. It shows up as resentment over not having something we want, and then, withdrawal from giving the help we could.
So, envy is included with adultery, murder and theft in the damage we can do to other people (Romans 13:8-10). Anyone not loving their neighbour is effectively doing them harm.
Envy doesn’t stay hidden. Finally, it needs to come out and assert itself.
Think of the Jewish leaders who oppose Jesus. They come up with reasons for their complaint, but Pilate can see they want Jesus dead because of envy (Mark 15:10). Jesus can command large crowds and the leaders are losing influence. Coveting the position held by Jesus leads them to murder him.
When God tells us not to covet, he is giving us the chance to see what our problem really is. Something has become more important to us than him. In other words, covetousness is idolatry’ (Colossians 3:5). We are saying, ‘I don’t need God. I need this’—whatever this is. It becomes our passion and nothing else matters except getting what we want.
Jesus shows how coveting works and what we need to do about it.
Two of Jesus’ disciples ask him for top spots in the coming kingdom (Mark 10:35-45). When the rest hear about this, they get angry. Clearly, chasing something that isn’t given to us leads to all kinds of hostility. Jesus tells the disciples to get on with following him and leave the matter of honours to their Father in heaven. What is given to someone else is none of our business. This is what Jesus tells Peter later on (John 21:20-22).
On another occasion, Jesus is asked to intervene in a family dispute over an inheritance. He points out that this is not his job, but also tells them to be ‘on your guard against all kinds of greed [covetousness]; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’ (Luke 12:15).
The world says that our life does consist in what we are able to possess. So, it breaks the tenth commandment. It becomes preoccupied with having things, and status and power.
You may have noticed that the more we get our hands on, the more our appetite grows—that is, if we don’t have God as our Father. It’s happening to our whole culture. Governments can’t keep up with the insatiable desire for more and more protections and provisions.
So, God calls us to live without envy. This is another way of saying that he wants us to live with him as our God, and with what he is giving to us.
There’s an African saying, ‘God is good. God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.’ I’ve listened to this being said, often, by people who had little of this world’s goods and many problems to deal with. This is the way to deal with coveting!
Coveting seems to play a role in Paul coming to faith. He says, ‘I would not have known what coveting really is if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’ (Romans 7:7). He may be referring to his own experience.
We know that he is present when Stephen is stoned to death because of his effective preaching about Jesus (Acts 8:1-3). Perhaps he sees Stephen as a rival in being zealous for God—and he becomes ‘as angry as hell’.
But then, Jesus speaks to Paul. He says, ‘It’s hard for you to kick against me’ (Acts 26:14). Coveting is hard work!
But now Paul comes to know that the crucified Messiah is alive and is Lord. His God is being kind to him, saving him from his sins.
All the covetousness drains away and he is, forever, a servant of others. He learns, whatever his situation, to be content (Philippians 4:11).
Our life does not consist in what we may accumulate for ourselves but in knowing God. In finding God, we find that he gives to us all that he has—his Son—so that we may belong to him. We are content then to trust him with all the other needs and circumstances of our life.