The Last Shall be First: Lessons to be Learnt from the Tenth Commandment
It is easy to skip over the last item on a list or to forget significant but less memorable parts. The short, catchy phrases stick, but the longer, fuzzier, harder-to-explain elements pass us by.
If you ask anyone about the Ten Commandments, he can probably list a few: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery. But after that, the recitation can break down, get a bit hazy. Some of the commandments seem less important, repetitive, or just longer. They slip from our minds like so much sand from our fingers. What we are left with is a caricature of biblical religion, where God thunders fiery “don’ts” down from the mountain as the Israelites cower in fear. We could even fall into an inaccurate (and Protestant) reading of the situation, where the ancient Jews, as proto-Pelagians, are trying to earn their way to heaven through law-observance, one mitzvahat a time. The Ten Commandments then lose their power, for they get shelved as mere prohibitions, requirements and rules. Rule-based religion sounds terribly boring and restrictive to us.
Yet for the ancients who lived in a chaotic world of spears, chariots, warlords and famines, to articulate one’s relationship with God in legal terms would be comforting, not clunky. Our world is the opposite—so full of rules, laws, regulations, building codes, passwords, PIN numbers, and other shibboleths that we long for freedom from such restrictions. Westerners have often looked to primitive cultures, desert islands or even outer space to find psychological release from a world so crowded with rules. We have a hard time finding deeply personal spiritual meaning in stony legal constructs.
This is where having a bad memory for the details come back to haunt us. It is easy to forget that both the first commandment and the last commandment are about love. The first commandment—“you shall have no other gods before me”—calls us to put God first in our hearts. The tenth commandment—“you shall not covet”—warns us away from the false loves of this world. In fact, looking at these two commandments as bookends of the whole list shows us that the Ten Commandments have a meaningful structure, which gets at the deepest commitments of our hearts. Will we be the kinds of people who worship idols and all the representations of worldly success? Or will we put God first? The tenth commandment thus opens up the inner logic of the whole Decalogue. It holds up a spiritual mirror for us to look in. While the other commandments emphasize external behavior and action, the commandment against coveting forces us to look within.
The Hebrew term, hamad, which lies behind our archaic English term “covet,” simply means to desire or yearn for something. It describes an attitude of the heart. In fact, the commandment against coveting is the only commandment centered on our inner thoughts and desires. Now, in accord with good Catholic spiritual advice, that desire only becomes a sin properly speaking when our will consents to it, when it becomes a fixation rather than a passing whiff. The process of desire is a continuum from a momentary longing to the full grip of obsession. We need to guard against sliding down this slippery slope.
The tenth commandment warns us against coveting our neighbor’s house, wife, male slave, female slave, ox, donkey, or “anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exod 20:17). St. Augustine separated the prohibition against coveting a man’s wife as the ninth commandment in light of Matthew 5:28, though the wife is actually the second item in the list, after “house” (though Deut 5:21 reverses the order). As explained by biblical scholar, John Durham, “house” here “is used in its collective sense, in reference to the ‘neighbor’s’ entire family and his entire property.” Like this expansive definition of “house,” the last element in the list of items one might covet expands beyond the realm of real estate, family, slaves and animals to encompass anything and everything a person owns—literally “anything which belongs to your neighbor.” It is a comprehensive list of all possible possessions.
So the tenth commandment draws us back to the purpose of the commandments in general, to reveal to us God’s plan for our lives. As he reveals himself to the Israelites in fire and lightning, in deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and with dramatic miracles, he also reveals how we can live in harmony with our Creator, in his created order. Nowadays we might not covet other people’s draft animals, or even their cars, but covetousness extends to include not just physical possessions, but physical appearance, professional abilities, relationships, personalities, connections and experiences. Another person might seem more beautiful, successful or happy (and we might despise them for it). Envy can creep in around the edges. An envious heart is often betrayed by seeking to tear others down with unkind words.
Lest we think that the prohibition of covetousness is only a remnant of Old Testament spirituality, let me show you a few passages that reveal New Testament spirituality as deeply in continuity with the Old Testament on this point. For example, Jesus himself repeats the command expansively: “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”(Luke 12:15). Hebrews similarly warns us, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have”(Heb 13:5). St. Paul mentions it several times and most revealingly includes it in a sin-list with explanation: “covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5). Here the Old Testament logic of the Ten Commandments as an anti-idolatry spirituality comes full circle into an explanation of what our spiritual transformation in Christ is directed toward. Namely, as we eschew covetousness and its accompanying idolatries, we move away from the disorderly love of created realities (including ourselves) and move toward the self-giving, orderly love of the Creator of all things, which cascades downward in properly-ordered love of those created things. Fighting against covetousness in our hearts is akin to breaking down the idols of Baal and Asherah in Old Covenant times. Every time we go out of our way in generosity toward another, we are rejecting the clinging tendencies of concupiscence and allowing ourselves to be more fully conformed to Christ, who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Jesus’ self-emptying generosity for our sake impels us to follow suit, to empty ourselves of covetousness in all forms and give of ourselves to him, to throw our crowns down before his throne (Rev 4:10).
The Old Testament law shows that at its core it is about love—love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus summarized it. Covetousness is anti-love. It seeks to collect and hoard worldly goods for our own selfish advantage, to make an idol out of things, but not only things, out of oneself also. The ultimate problem with idolatry is not just the rejection of God, but the elevation of oneself in place of God, where “I” becomes the god which “I” worship. To overcome this sort of self-love, we need self-mastery, and the love of God. The Ten Commandments call us out of the wilderness of being trapped in our own personal habits, problems, idiosyncrasies, and self-contained psychological loops. They challenge us to reject the idolatries of the world and worship God not only in the performance of religious rituals, but in our daily life, our family relationships and our regular business.
To return to where we began, covetousness is also a kind of forgetfulness. As Pope Francis puts it in Gaudete et Exsultate, “we can get so caught up in ourselves that we are unable to recognize God’s gifts.” After being delivered by awesome displays of divine power in the splitting of the Red Sea and the Ten Plagues, how could an Israelite turn green with envy over a donkey? Similarly, how can we, after being delivered from death by God’s own Son on the Cross, give ourselves over to obsessive thoughts about another person’s talent, good looks, nice house or whatever? If we forget the gifts God has given to us, his infinite kindness and mercy toward us, then we might find those circular covetous thoughts plaguing our minds. The only path out of that loop is to surrender to his greater plan, to allow love to overcome envy, to let gratitude triumph, to come out of ourselves in Christ-like self-giving.
In fact, covenant fidelity in the Old Testament is regularly characterized as an act of “remembering.” When we remember his faithfulness to us, it easy to be faithful to him. To covet is to reject God’s plan, to forget his covenant, to let petty worldly concerns overwhelm his divine plan of salvation. Yet when we remember that the Ten Commandments offer us a different vision of life, not a zero-sum game of resource-grabbing that ends in death, but a self-sacrificial cycle of giving, where our loving Creator generously gives himself to us and we reciprocate in gratitude by giving ourselves back to him, then covetousness turns out to be the most unenviable position of all.