(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
This morning we come to the end of our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments by looking at the last two instructions – “two”, if we use the traditional numbering, or “last one”, if we used the Anglican.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
Neither shall you desire your neighbour’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ (Deuteronomy 5:21)
These last two commandments are precisely the reason behind my preference for the traditional numbering over the Anglican one, which tends to lump together people, animals, personal belongings, and everything else under the Sun in the same precept.
In truth, there is a strong similarity between the two commandments, because both tell us not to unhealthily long after someone or something not available to us. But the Old Testament expressed this idea by using two distinct words in order to highlight the difference between the sense of desire we might experience towards someone else’s wife or husband, and the craving we might feel for something. Because, at the end of the day, a person (such as a wife) and a thing (such as a house or a field) do not belong in the same category and neither should the commandments controlling how we relate to them. The last commandment does mentions people, ‘you shall not desire your neighbour’s …male or female slave’ but only insofar as these servants – especially if numerous and capable – were seen as expressions of their master’s social status.
So, the ninth commandment is primarily a call to refrain from lusting after a person not available to us; whilst the tenth commandment forbids us from wrongly desiring anything whatsoever another person might possess. By keeping them both we would go a long way in keeping also the preceding eight rules because healthy, or orderly desires, lead to sound actions as well.
Conversely, failure to keep these two commandments can be understood in terms of the surreptitious vice of envy, or jealousy, which sooner or later will lead us to break the other commandments as well... But, if we were honest with ourselves, we would see that giving in to envy is a daily temptation for many of us – especially since we are surrounded by a culture where we are continually told that to be the object of envy is a great thing, a where envy of other people’s prosperity is the driving forces behind our consumerism, or at least behind most advertising campaigns.
But we would do well to resist this temptation. Envy is unbecoming to a Christian, ‘for just as rust destroys iron, so too does envy destroy the soul that has it’ (St Basil, Homily on Envy). It is a dangerous spiritual illness that makes our greed to grow exponentially. Under its effects we come to desire inappropriate relationships with people not available to us, and to crave the possession of things that do not belong to us. Envy can also drive us to feel distress at the prosperity of others, resentful towards those people that this disease has wrongly made out to be our rivals, and even to feel cheerful at their misfurtunes.
So what is the remedy against envy? And how can we keep the last two commandments? Sheer will-power can do only so much, but there are other two complementary ways to be immunised against envy. The first one is to take love as our yardstick once again. Loving our neighbours as ourselves will necessarily prevent us from coveting their fortunes in an attempt of making these our own. Furthermore, by loving our neighbours we will learn to exercise kindness, which is the habit diametrically opposed to envy. Instead of being distressed at the prosperity of others or happy at their demise, we will learn to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep [and to] live in harmony with one another’ (Rom 12:15-16)
The second way to root out envy and to keep the commandments is learning to depend on God’s Providence. I spoke about this a few weeks back, but putting our ultimate trust in Providence is truly an essential tool for overcoming envy – if we really make God’s love for us the foundation of our existence, then no-one else’s wealth, husband, wife, or social status will ever cause us to be envious. And eventually we will be able to genuinely say with St Paul,
‘we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these’ (1Tim 6:7-8).