The Tenth Commandment: No coveting
Today concludes our series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, with the rule against “coveting” what your neighbor has. What does it mean to “covet” something? Well, it means to desire it, to want to acquire it. We can covet not only houses and cars and livestock and money, but also good looks and popularity and talent and power all kinds of other things.
Now, I was going to use the story of Zacchaeus to talk about the commandment against coveting things – Zacchaeus the chief tax collector, whom Jesus met on his way to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus was fabulously wealthy, and he got that way by oppressing his fellow countrymen as a stooge for the hated Romans; and, of course, following his visit from Jesus, he gave away much of his wealth in repentance for how he acquired it. But the more I wrestled with what “coveting” meant – especially what coveting YOUR NEIGHBOR’S stuff meant – the less I found myself interested in Zacchaeus. And my mind began drifting over to the darker, more enigmatic figure of Judas Iscariot.
What did he want? Why did he follow Jesus? He never seems to fit in, somehow; even his name marks him out as different. Not “Judas” – that’s a very common name – but “Iscariot” means “the man from Kerioth,” a village in the southern province of Judah, near Jerusalem. All the rest of Jesus’s twelve main disciples are Galileans from up north past Samaria. Yet Judas was looking for the kingdom of heaven, too. Maybe he had even been part of the movement that formed around John the Baptist, and then when John was imprisoned and beheaded, he moved to the new group forming around Jesus of Nazareth. Lots of people did that.
At any rate, Jesus chose him to be one of his Twelve. He has been with him now through the greater part of three years. He’s seen the miracles, he’s received the teaching, he’s been part of the prayer group. And still, in the end, he betrays Jesus to Caiaphas the High Priest – for money, but maybe not just for money.
Dorothy Sayers, in her radio play cycle, The Man Born to be King, sees Judas as the kind of very smart, very capable man who wants to be indispensable to the right candidate, but who, in the end, comes to believe in his own rightness more than the rightness of any candidate or cause. He doesn’t think in terms of Jesus choosing HIM; he thinks HE chose Jesus. And while he very much wants to see the Messiah come, he wants Jesus to fit HIS idea of what the Messiah should be.
Oh, he gets all the stuff about suffering that Jesus says, that the other disciples are horrified by. Judas probabaly is greatly attracted to that, imaginatively speaking. And when Jesus begins to talk in a way that looks like he might still cut a deal or slide by the grand confrontation that Judas thinks is necessary, Judas turns him in, to force his hand – to make Jesus live up to what Judas think Jesus would want if only Jesus were as great and wonderful as he needs to be. I doubt that Judas thinks he’s doing Jesus a favor, but I'm pretty sure he thinks he’s doing God a favor – and he probably hides even from himself his own unethical conduct.
In the episode in the house of Simon the leper, Matthew says that “the disciples” were indignant over the waste of the valuable ointment that Mary Magdalene anointed J with. But John, in his Gospel, remembers the episode rather differently. He remembers only Judas objecting. Maybe he was the ringleader, and others joined in as a chorus, who knows? But in John’s acct, Judas objects on behalf of the poor; yet in John’s opinion, Judas really objected because he was a thief who stole from the group’s petty cash box. John implies that Judas wanted the money for himself – that he was a greedy, perhaps we should say, a “selfish” individual. No doubt Judas wouldn’t see it that way. He would see himself as very high-minded in all his doings, and if there were some [cough, cough] “irregularities” in the accounting, well, it was all in a good cause, and he probably thought everyone else entirely too suspicious. What were they hiding?
It is Matthew who remembers what happened next, though. He says,
Then one of the twelve, who called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What will you give me if I deliver him to you?" And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.Now, is Judas “selfish” – or something more? “Selfishness” is talked about a lot in both religious and political circles. A lot has been said against it over my lifetime; in fact, you wouldn’t have to search very far before you found someone – even someone in a Christian pulpit somewhere – who would tell you that “selfishness” is the very essence and fountainhead of sin, and that “selfishness” is the besetting sin of our society and of our day.
Oh, yeah, you can hear lots of sermons on how rich we are, and how we oughta feel bad about how much we have as compared to how little other people have, all implying that it is our “selfishness” that keeps the poor in their condition. Which sounds an awful lot like Judas complaining, “why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?” But the more I thought about it, the more this kind of scolding value system didn’t really work for me. It seems to me that there is a continuum of greed, of egotism, and that we have to distinguish different levels of “coveting."
The first level of greed is mere gluttony: I only know that I WANT. I want money, I want food, I want thrills, I want attention, I want the latest toys and clothes and what-all. This is an ugly kind of personality, but it’s mostly just immature. Greedy people like this are like babies who only know that they are empty and want to be filled. As far as neighbors go, they’re not really aware of other people at all, so what one’s neighbor has is of little importance to the self-absorbed person.
But the next level is those who are suddenly aware that there are other people in the world – some of whom have more, and some of whom have less, than I do. These look at those who have less, and perhaps they pity them. But they will not share what they have, even if they have plenty. Perhaps they fear running out of their own supply of goods, maybe they are just possessive; in any case, like Ebenezer Scrooge, they just want the poor to go away and not bother them.
Then there are others who look at those who have more than they do, and who want as much as other people have. These are the people obsessed with “keeping up with the Joneses.” They want to earn as much as Mr. Jones; they want a car like Mrs. Jones; they want to be able to send their kids to a college as high-class and expensive as the Jones kids go to. They see themselves in some kind of competition with the Joneses of the world, though they may not in fact feel badly toward the Joneses themselves. In other words, they are “jealous”: they want to be as well off, as popular, or as sophisticated as the Joneses, but they don’t necessarily want to take FROM the Joneses what the Joneses have; they just want to have as much as (or more than) anybody else.
Well, between the possessive who will not share and the jealous who want to keep up with everybody else, I’m not sure which represents a deeper descent into hell. It seems kind of a tossup to me. But then we come to the truly covetous: those for whom it is not the amount of goods they desire – but the fact that someone else is in possession of them – that matters. These often speak on behalf of the poor – as Judas did – but somehow, it always matters more to them that the “rich” or "powerful" should be punished than that the “poor” or "downtrodden" should be helped. Me, I don’t care how rich anybody gets, so long as the poor have enough; but some folks don’t care how much the poor suffer so long as the rich are made to suffer, too.
In other words, for the truly covetous, it is not just about having enough for oneself – whatever “enough” is; nor is it about not sharing what you have with others or about having more than somebody else. For the truly covetous, it is the fact that YOU have SOMETHING. And for me to truly hurt you, I want to take away from you the very thing you have – not because I want it or need it or can give it so somebody else -- but because it is YOURS and not mine.
I meet this kind of ugly idea all the time. I hear it expressed in big, religious words at church meetings, and I read it lots of political screeds of a certain type. And when I look at Judas, this is what I see. Yeah, the guy’s a thief, but it’s not really money he wants.
What Judas wants is to control the Messiah, to pull the strings, to be the one who makes the kingdom come, who does God a favor (so that God owes him), the one who masterminds the whole thing. He looks at Jesus and he wants to be loved by Jesus, but he despises both himself and Jesus for that weakness. And at bottom – in the end – when all secrets are exposed – we see that what he really wants is to be the Messiah-maker. He covets his Master’s place in the scheme of salvation.
Oh, he doesn’t want to be a Savior. That would require him have to be better than he wants to be. And he certainly doesn’t want to suffer himself, no matter how much he might talk about the necessity of sacrifice. But he wants the good to triumph and the evil to be punished and for JUDAS to make it happen. In the end, of course, he finds that he’s just been a tool of others – esp of Caiaphas, who has nothing but contempt for him – and so he hangs himself because he can’t face the fact that all his brilliance was abysmal folly.
And what I want you to hear from me today is not about Judas, or about preachers or politicians or even the poor. What I want you to understand is that mere greed is not the worst condition you can come to. And I think that the Tenth Commandment is very carefully phrased: “You shall not covet YOUR NEIGHBOR’S house; you shall not covet YOUR NEIGHBOR’s wife, or … anything that is YOUR NEIGHBOR’s.” It’s not just about what you want, and whether that’s a good or healthy desire. It’s about YOUR NEIGHBOR, and how much you value him.
We should be glad for the victories that others win, for the good things that come their way, for the prayers they have answered, for their success and their joy. You may have more than they do, or less than they do, but their gain is not your loss; indeed, their gain can be your gain, too. Beware of the green-eyed monster that makes you want to make others smaller so that you can feel bigger, for that is the same spirit that entered into Judas and paid him out with false riches and cheated him in the end.
The commandments are not arbitrary, not merely a bunch of "don'ts." God gave them to us for our good. And all through them, God keeps telling us, “it’s not about you.” You must love something other than yourself: God first of all, but then also parents and neighbors. It is how you value these others outside yourself that ultimately determines your own happiness. Which is why Paul said, “He who loves has fulfilled the law.” So, love - desire the best for others -- and you will keep all the commandments.
And may it be so. Amen.