When You’re Greedy For More
Exodus 20:17, Philippians 2:5-11
Dr. Jim Denison
We’ve studied the Ten Commandments as rules for the game of life. We’ve looked at the games our culture plays, starting with “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?,” the top rated show in America. Remember the others: “Let’s Make A Deal,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy,” “Family Feud,” “The Gong Show,” “Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire?,” “The Price is Right,” and “Hollywood Squares.” We could close with “Greed,” the game show which offers not one, but two million dollars. What’s the theme running through them all? Money, stuff, getting more.
By contrast, the tenth commandment says, “You shall not covet.” Let’s see what this commandment means for our culture and our lives, by biblical exegesis and some biblical stories along the way.
The commandment begins as do the other nine: “You shall not.” “You” is plural, showing that the commandment applies to us all and that we are all tempted here. It is in the present tense, because it is still relevant today.
And it is a command, not a suggestion or a principle. Someone said that God gave us the Ten Commandments in stone so we could keep them or break them, but not bend them. A command for all of us, for all time.
The key word, of course, is “covet.” This word simply means to long after or desire earnestly. It is a common theme in the Bible.
Interestingly, the word itself is neutral. The question is not whether or not we will have desires, but what we desire, and at what price.
Some things we “covet” are good, as in wishing to emulate the great qualities of someone we admire. Some things we desire are natural, such as a good appearance or a nice car, or the ability to play golf well. So, what is “coveting” in the wrong sense?
The tenth commandment specifically prohibits two kinds of desires: to want something I should not possess, and to want something which belongs to someone else.
These can be material things, such as “your neighbor’s house,” ox or donkey. Here’s a principle for life: don’t love something which can’t love you back.
This can be the wrong desire for status, as in coveting your neighbor’s manservant or maidservant, ancient symbols of place and status.
This can be the wrong desire for people, as with “your neighbor’s wife.”
It is wrong to want anything I shouldn’t have, or to covet what belongs to you.
This commandment is crucial. If we keep it, we will keep the other nine.
If we don’t covet status or power above God, we will worship him, refuse idols, honor his name, and keep his day.
If we don’t covet status or power with others, we will honor our parents and refuse to hurt people. If we don’t covet people, we’ll refuse adultery. If we don’t covet things, we’ll not steal or lie.
Breaking this commandment is at the root of all our troubles. So, why do we?
First, we covet things because we have the idea that things will bring us happiness. It’s no wonder.
Thousands of people in our country spend forty hours every week designing ways to get us to buy more. They use music, slogans, sights, sounds, and colors. Their goal is to make us covet what they’re selling.
Their message is everywhere. The typical American consumer is bombarded with 3,000 advertisements daily. And they’re working. In 1967, 44% of college freshmen believed it was essential to be “very well off financially;” by 1990, that figure had jumped to 74%. By contrast, 83% in 1967 thought it was essential to have a meaningful purpose to life; by 1990, only 43% agreed.
We’re not the first people to struggle with coveting things. Do you remember the story of Ahab and the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kings 21)? Simply put, King Ahab wanted Naboths’ vineyard in ancient Samaria, but it was his father’s and he refused to sell it. Ahab became depressed and wouldn’t eat. So his wicked wife Jezebel arranged for two men to accuse poor Naboth of blasphemy; he was stoned to death, and Ahab got his field. The result was that Ahab and Jezebel died for their sin.
Three people were killed, because of one man coveting things.
From their story we learn not to want things we shouldn’t have, or things which belong to others. Why? Because such coveting will only hurt us, and hurt other people.
It’s never enough. A servant asked his rich master, “How much money is enough?” His reply: “Just a little more.”
Recently, a man on television interviewed people who had become instant lottery millionaires. He asked, “How many of you are happier today?” Not a single person raised his or her hand. One of the winners replied, “How many new suits can you buy? How many cars can you drive? Every time you get something nicer, it isn’t good enough, because you see and want something even nicer.” It’s never enough.
And we will use people to get more things. The right approach is to love people and use things, not the reverse.
Martin Buber, the Jewish poet and philosopher, suggested that only two kinds of relationships exist: I-you and I-it. We should have I-you relationships with each other, and I-it relationships with things. When we reverse them, everyone loses.
It’s possible to use things for people and God, thereby keeping the tenth commandment.
For instance, at last Monday’s Experience 2000 lunch downtown, Bo Pilgrim spoke. He wore his pilgrim hat, put Henrietta the stuffed chicken on the podium, and simply preached the gospel. Then he called attention to a gospel tract he had written—there was one at every place, for all 220 people at the lunch. Inside each one was a $20 bill, to encourage us to take the tract and read it. He said, “It’s not mine, and there’s more where that came from.” He’s right.