Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Final Commandment

Exodus 20:17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Chances are you haven't heard many sermons preached on this*, nor had it show up in structured Bible studies, or Christian video series. It may show up in devotionals, but I seldom read those, so I can't say. Actually, perhaps there has been a run on it on radio, CCM, retreats, and I just haven't heard. My knowledge of evangelical culture spiked briefly at Veggietales, and then fizzled out. But I'm betting it's still an underused commandment these days. We are more likely, in fact, to self-righteously engage in it, Christians openly resenting the wealth of others. We don't even disguise this especially well. It leaks out all over social and political discussions denouncing materialism or making environmentalism a central portion of our practical faith.

I originally thought to say how much human beings everywhere resent seeing others get wealth, but I think that is going too fast. When someone who we perceive as being part of our peer group gets more of anything of value - money, attention, prestige, mates - our feelings about ourselves take a dip. The happiness research is pretty solid on this, that much of our experience of wealth or poverty is relative. We feel bad if we think we aren't measuring up. By stereotype, this is more true of men than of women, but I don't know if that is true. We have a wealth of patched-up defenses against these bad feelings. We increase our estimate of luck or unfairness to the success of others or (perhaps imaginary) failures of ourselves; we resolve to be less attached to worldly status and material things; we strive harder; we undermine the successful. As with our attempts to banish pride, lust, or sloth, these attempts to eliminate envy have only mixed success.

Also by stereotype, conservatives imagine they can get ahead under the current system and want everyone to do well, excepting that they do better - almost, but not really, a generous sentiment; liberals want to bring down the wealth of others while keeping their own the same, with the same result. (I have actually heard people say this quite explicitly, wanting Groups X and Y to not make so much, so that in the more equitable wealth distribution "society" will be more appreciative of higher values - not coincidentally, the things that they just happen to be good at. It would be a Better World, doncha know. Usually, it's not so explicit, but just leaks out all over the place. I'm thinking of Bill McKibben here, because he's in the news again.)

Coveting is about thoughts, and is something of a transition, a come-deeper version of the other commandments. When Jesus makes his supposedly alarming statements about thoughts of murder or adultery being the spiritual equivalent of the act, He wasn't bringing out anything new. Jews had long earlier figured out that the Commandments forbade more than what is seen at first glance - that kissing your neighbor's wife was not quite in the spirit of things, and heavy petting was right out, even if there was no adultery. They knew that defrauding and cheating were a kind of stealing, and had picked up that worshiping other gods didn't necessarily involve altars and dead animals. Jesus pushes this to the extreme, partly because it's ultimately true, but partly to create a contrast with Pharisaical well, technically, we're still keeping the law because of how we define "work"...

But it wasn't all that new. People were horrified at taking things that far, but they got the idea right away. They weren't stupid. I think the expansive, even vague 10th C was part of what led them on to the deeper understanding.

Coveting seems universal, and worms its way into our thoughts without our even noticing. It destabilises cultures and makes us less happy, and subjectively less prosperous. Buddhism, and to a lesser extent Hinduism, attempt to address this via the strategy of wanting less, and ultimately wanting nothing. Some Christians use this approach as well, and there is certainly a good deal of scripture to support the idea. Yet somehow that wanting-for-nothing, that satisfied-with-little solution rings hollow if it is combined with a resentment for others who don't do that - and I think that is often what leaks out, though the speaker denies it. I think it is always the danger, that the person who makes 5 Giddles a week believes he is righteously limiting himself by not seeking one of those fields where people make 50 Giddles a week. That was I, years ago, and I am not entirely clear of it. Given Luther's description of humanity as a drunkard on a horse, falling off one side and then the other, or CS Lewis's description of leaning so far away from one side of the boat that we fall out the other, coveting may be an uncommon sermon precisely because it is the one we don't want to hear.

*You probably haven't heard much on 9C either: v.16 You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. Sometimes you can get a thoughtful discussion going reminding us that this includes a lot of things that we aren't fully sure are true, such as gossip, people's motives, using adversarial law arguments (entirely appropriate in their real context) in persuasive or political discussion, and most fun conversation at all, really. Another day


james said...

I liked the Anchoress' observation that politics was bad for her soul, because watching it made her detest politicians. Another aspect of the commandments we overlook sometimes...

bilpu said...

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote in one of his books that the tenth commandment was odd because, unlike the others,it could not be enforced. Also, he said, it may be a promise instead of a commandment. If one were able to obey the first nine, then one's relationship with God would be so fulfilling that one would find nothing to covet. I would covet that state of Grace.

Texan99 said...

Our sermon last Sunday was Matthew 15, about Jesus's warning against getting caught up in elaborate food purity rituals. The Pharisees had started with an excellent notion of "building fences around the law," meaning to adopt extra cautions to keep the faithful away from outright sin by outlawing even the nearby areas. Inevitably, people respond to this kind of system by fetishizing the detailed rabbinical rituals, which leads to "loophole thinking."

So much of Jesus's ministry seemed to be to remind everyone to keep their eyes on the ball: quit obsessing over finicky laws and loopholes and concentrate on your duty to God. Think less about what comes out of your heart through your mouth, and less about what goes into your mouth and out into the sewer. If we have to justify ourselves with arguments about how we're not "technically" doing anything wrong because of some tortured point of logic, we're missing the point.

That's not to say that we can't do more harm by actually engaging in adultery than by merely coveting someone else's spouse, but coveting is already well on the road to danger. This is where "building fences around the law" can be very helpful -- as long as you don't forget what they're for and start building up a whole industry of fence-construction codes and fence-painting rituals.

Texan99 said...

I meant, of course, "think MORE about what comes out of your heart."