Thou shalt not covet
Exodus 20:12; Matthew 5:21-37
What do we make of a regime that has “thought crime” on the statute books?
Well then, what do we think of God the Father? Because on Mount Sinai here is His concluding word of the ten:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
“Covet” is actually a rare word in the King James translation. It comes to us (through French), from the latin cupiditas, meaning desire. And that’s certainly how the Authorized Version translates it most often: to desire or delight in.
It’s a heart word. It’s about where we set our affections. And here it is, inscribed on stone by the finger of God and given to the people. The concluding commandment of the ten is about my heart’s desires! What kind of law is this?
How do you legislate desires?
Well actually, this is what the law has pointed towards all along. The first and last words are book-ends to show us the intention. We begin with “thou shalt have no other gods before My Presence” and we finish with “thou shalt not covet.” That’s because the question throughout is: ‘Where will you look for life? Will you look to the Presence of the unseen LORD, the Son of the Most High God? Or will you look to the things of this world, your neighbour’s house, wife, job, car, things?’ The Good Life is about setting our hearts upon the LORD before everything else.
Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, gives a brilliant exposition of the law’s expectation for our hearts. He’s commenting on the first commandment and says:
“What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart… That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.
“Therefore it is the intent of this commandment to require true faith and trust of the heart which settles upon the only true God, and clings to Him alone. That is as much as to say: “See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another,” i.e.: Whatever you lack of good things, expect it of Me, and look to Me for it, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, creep and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need; only let not your heart cleave to or rest in any other.”
As Luther will go on to say, every breaking of the other commandments is first a breaking of this one. First, our hearts stray from Christ. However we travel from there, it will end badly. The tenth commandment is simply the flip-side of this truth. It describes the “other gods” which we’re tempted to love.
And in between 1 and 10 we are continually dealing with heart issues. It’s never been about surface level moral action. Even when it tells us “thou shalt not kill or commit adultery” (Exodus 20:13-14), its meaning goes far beyond actual homicide and sexual activity. As Jesus shows, the law highlights more than my behaviour, it highlights my heart – my anger and my lust (Matthew 5:21-30).
But the law can’t change my heart. In fact, when the law comes into my heart, it doesn’t just highlight sinful desires, it provokes them.
The Apostle Paul describes this process in Romans 7. He considers our verse for today “thou shalt not covet” and confesses:
the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence (i.e. lust).
It’s the old truism – nothing makes me want to walk on the grass more than the sign: “Do not walk on the grass.”
What are we like? A good law comes with right and proper expectations for my heart and soul. But not only does this law expose my sin, it multiplies it. That’s how sinful I am.
Many people want to draw a distinction between law and grace as follows: law deals with externals, grace deals with internals. This is a dangerous mistake. The law also deals with internals. The law has all sorts of expectations for my inner life.
The difference between law and grace is not external versus internal: it’s me versus Him. Under the law I consider myself as the Faithful One with a heart set on God. Under grace I look to Christ as the Faithful One who accomplished the law (inside and out) on my behalf.
My hope is not in my ability to look to God alone and refrain from coveting. My true hope is Jesus Christ who resisted all temptation, set His face resolutely for the cross, and for the joy set before Him endured the cross, abandoning Himself wholeheartedly to the Father.
When I see Jesus living the Good Life for me, my heart is moved. And maybe, just maybe, my neighbour’s ass loses something of its allure!
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