Lesson 9: The Ninth Commandment

An amazing beach homeThou shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

If you were examining the commandments for the first time from a purely intellectual perspective, chances are you would notice that respect for personal property plays a primary role. One prohibits stealing. Depending how you number them, either two or a very lengthy one prohibits coveting your neighbor’s personal property.

In fact, if you continued, you would find a large portion of the Torah law, Old Testament prophecy, Jesus’ teachings, and New Testament guidance deals with handling personal property and money according to God’s will. A classic illustration was Jim Wallis’ taking a scissors and cutting out every passage about economics, suggesting this is how most people read the Bible. He reported he was left with very little paper.

The foundation of these teachings is respect for other people. To covet their personal property is to want to take away part of their person. Actually, it goes even deeper for the assumption is God grants everyone their property so that each has enough. Others are not to take away what they have been given. Trade should be so fair that there is not even interest on loans and after 50 years all debts are cancelled. In other words, part of God’s order is that everyone has enough. Poverty indicates that order has been broken, and the only explanation is human sin.

Obviously, this kind of thinking has to be modified in our current money based economy, modified without destroying the original meaning. A good place to begin might be reminding ourselves coveting goes beyond wanting or desiring. It refers to craving or lusting for something. If you covet some thing, you have already started thinking about how you can make another’s property your own.

Perhaps that is where we can begin to appreciate the commandment in our day. It is not talking about healthy ambition, it is not prohibiting making an honest profit from providing a needed service. However, it should warn us against using modern technology to promote coveting all sorts of things others do not need. It still bans taking advantage of the vulnerable for your own gain. And we see a great deal of that.

Focusing on the coveting forces us to acknowledge a successful life is not about amassing more and more personal property at the expense of maintaining loving personal relationships. I have always felt Isaiah 5:8 expresses this perfectly. “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” In other words, you can buy up all the houses in town but you will eventually find yourself standing alone in your fields.

Luther’s explanation brings the commandment closer to home. His 16th century commentary reads, “We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, and obtain it by a show of justice and right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.”

The best that 21st century political speech can offer is the promise to bring everyone up to the standard of living enjoyed by the wealthy. Christian teaching suggests we get real and acknowledge that is going to mean sharing what we have and sacrificing for others.

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