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If I were to ask you how many commandments there are in the “10 Commandments,” you would of course say… “10.” And that would be the correct answer. Sounds silly I know, but truth is, the only reason we’re sure there are 10 commandments is because Moses specifically says so. Three times in Exodus and Deuteronomy we read “And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone.” (Deut.4:13, 10:4, Ex.34:28)
Unfortunately, Moses didn’t number them, so there’s always been a bit of confusion over how to number these things. It’s confusing because there’s actually 14 separate imperatives, “you shall’s” or “you shall not’s” in the 10 Commandments. And no one’s exactly sure how these 14 imperatives are supposed to be grouped into 10 Commandments. Jews group them together one way, Lutherans and Roman Catholics another, and the Greek Orthodox and Reformed another.
This is not a problem really, because in every case, all 14 of the imperatives are included. It just means that if you are not from a Lutheran / Roman Catholic background you may have learned to number the Commandments differently than we do here.
Frankly, I’m glad that Moses specifically told us that there are 10 Commandments. If he hadn’t, we would probably have 14 Commandments which would make Confirmation Class even longer than it is, and extend this “Summer Sermon Series” clear into the Fall.
One of the places where the numbering differs is in the imperatives regarding ‘coveting.’ The Greek Orthodox and Reformed follow the older Jewish system and lump everything together into one Commandment. In the 5th century, St. Augustine suggested that since there were two separate imperatives here they should be two separate Commandments. And this is the approach that Catholics and Lutherans have taken ever since.
Having said all of this, for no other reason than it seems interesting and you have to start a sermon somehow, with the exception of Luther’s Small Catechism, everyone including Augustine and Luther treat these two Commandments as though they were one. And that’s what we are going to do this morning too.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.” “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Immediately here, we realize that we have a cultural problem connecting the original text from Exodus and Deuteronomy to our day. I doubt that many of us have a problem with covetous desires for our neighbor’s ox or donkey. But if we substituted a John Deere riding lawnmower or a BMW Z4 Roadster with deluxe sound system for ox and donkey, we’d make that cultural leap just fine.
Manservants and maidservants may not be coveted today like there were in Moses’ day, but the brightest and best employees of one company are coveted by their competitors. If “anything that belongs to your neighbor” includes his home on the lake, or well behaved, over-achieving children, or financial security, then we’ve made the transition successfully.
The key word here of course is the word “covet.”
In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the word is ‘lo tachamode.’ The verb is “amode” which refers to the longing of the inner man, the desires of the heart. Literally, “Do not let your heart desire what belongs to your neighbor.” In the Greek of the New Testament it’s “epithumia.” “Thumia” has to do with ‘desire,’ and “epi” before it intensifies the verb. “Do not have an intense desire for what belongs to your neighbor.”
“Desire,” whether it be pure or impure, is located in the human heart. So these Commandments do not deal with the actual doing of the deed itself. That’s the 6th Commandment, “you shall not commit adultery” – the actual doing of the ‘coveting’ of someone else’s spouse. And the 7th Commandment, “you shall not steal” – the actual doing of the ‘coveting’ of something that belongs to your neighbor. These commandments deal with the sinful desires of the heart that lead to the doing of the sinful deed.
Jesus puts it like this, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts…” And among those “evil thoughts” Jesus lists, ‘coveting.’ ‘All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ (Mark 7:20-23).
James makes it clear that it is these “sinful desires” that bring about our sinful actions and that lead to our separation from God and ultimately to death. James writes, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own DESIRE. Then DESIRE when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15).
Let’s be clear about what these last two Commandments address and what the do not. “Coveting” is not about the desire to have things or people. The desire to have a John Deere tractor or a spouse is not sinful, anymore than is the desire to have a house, or an ox or donkey if that’s what you’re into.
It is the desire to have these things when they already belong to someone else that is the sin.
In 1st Kings, we read about how King Ahab wanted a vineyard. There is nothing wrong with that. But the fact that the vineyard that he wanted already belonged to a man named Naboth made it all wrong. “The desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin.” Ahab and his wife Jezebel made some behind the scenes arrangements and poor Naboth was falsely accused of treason and executed. His vineyard was taken over by the government, and the king got what he coveted. “Sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (1 Kings 21:1-16).
In 2nd Samuel, we read about another king, this one named David, who wanted a wife. There’s nothing wrong with that. (As long as you ignore the fact that he already had several wives.) But in this particular case, the wife that he wanted was already married to another man. In his desire to have what belonged to someone else David arranged for Bathsheba’s husband to be killed in battle. And David took Bathsheba to be his wife. “The desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin. Sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (2 Sam. 15:1-6)
In his Large Catechism, Luther is once again brutally honest about our sinful nature. “Such is human nature that no on wants another to have as much as he himself has.”
What we used to call “keeping up with the Jones’,” all too easily turns into resentment for the Jones. It’s one thing to want something that someone else has. But how easily we slip from wanting something for ourselves to resenting the fact that our neighbor already has it? We slide from lamenting our bad fortune to despising our neighbor because of his good fortune.
There is another side to this too. When I ‘covet’ what someone else has, and feelings of envy and jealousy turn into feelings ill-will towards my neighbor take over in me. I become blinded to all that God HAS given to me, and instead of being thankful, I become resentful about the things that He has not given to me but has given to someone else.
And so what we find in these last two Commandments is that they bring us face to face with both tables of the Law, I neither love neither my neighbor nor my Lord.
Here are two Commandments that are darn near impossible to talk about outside of the Christian community. In the world that we live in, ‘coveting’ is a good thing. To business and marketing ‘coveting’ is what makes the world go round and drives the economy. A big part of the reason that we buy so much stuff that we don’t really need is because we are cleverly encouraged to ‘covet’ what ‘everyone’ else has but we do not.
But here, in the Christian community, ‘coveting’ is clearly a ‘thou shall not!’ Maybe this is just what Jesus was thinking of when He said to His disciples, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but… you are not of the world.” (John 15:19).
If there is an opposite to ‘coveting,’ I suppose it would be ‘contentment.’ St. Paul writes to Timothy saying, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment… If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (1 Tim. 6:6,8). To the Philippians, Paul writes, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” (Phil.4:6). But even this assumes that a change of our sinful heart has already taken place.
So I suppose that if there were something like a ‘good coveting’ it would be to ‘covet’ a change of heart; the kind of thing that David prayed for after his coveting which led to adultery which led to death. “Create in me a clean HEART, O Lord. Renew in me a RIGHT SPIRIT.” (Ps.51).
It is just that kind of renewal of our heart that Jesus Christ has sent the Holy Spirit to work in us. In our baptism, we are forgiven all of our sins against the 9th and 10th Commandments, as well as 1 through 8. And in the same baptism, we are given a new heart, unstained, pure, a “clean heart.” And a new spirit, not like the old spirit that’s all tied up in knots, terribly confused about what is true and real. A spirit where the truth and reality are clear, a “right spirit.”
With our ‘clean heart’ and ‘right spirit,’ we are thankful that God has given us all that we need for this body and life. His Word teaches us that those things that the sinful desires of our old, former life, were so focused on, “are not worth comparing with the glory,” of those “imperishable” things that await us.
Rather than stewing with envy and jealousy over what our neighbor has that we don’t and how we might get even or ahead of him, we think about ways that we may “help and be of service to him in keeping” what belongs to him, and “urging his spouse and works to stay and do their duty.”
For in the end, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
And so with that, we come to the end of our ‘Summer Sermon Series” on the 10 Commandments. How shall we conclude?
We must certainly say, in conclusion, that if we were to be judged by God on our performance according to His Law, we would all fall short. We must certainly conclude that the 10 Commandments are not there so that we may be reconciled before God and saved by keeping them.
But we must also conclude that the 10 Commandments are not ‘bad’ just because we cannot keep them and because they expose our true self before God; a self that is no where near as law abiding and loving as we think that we are, and say that are.
We conclude that these Commandments are “good”, in that they show us just how sinful we are, and how hopeless we are before the almighty God whose Laws these are and who is our judge. And in showing us our hopelessness to stand before God the basis of our own obedience and integrity, we are driven to fall to our knees and plead for mercy; not justice, but mercy. The 10 Commandments show us that the only chance we have with God is if He is a merciful God.
And as it turns out, it is at that point, and ONLY at that point, that we discover the great discovery of the Christian faith. We discover that ‘mercy’ is what God is really all about. That all along from the very beginning, God was out to show us that He “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Ex.34:6).
But sadly, unless we are convicted by the Law, we will always live on the hope that we are basically good people and that God will save us because we’re not so bad. Unless we are convicted by the Law, we will never know what it means to be set free from the Law and live under His mercy, and strive to keep the 10 Commandments, not to be saved, but because we are saved – apart from the Law.
By the cross of Jesus Christ, God has shown us His mercy and steadfast love for law breakers like you and me. The blood of Christ has turned everything upside down, or right side up, so that now we may hear these 10 Commandments not primarily as ‘imperatives’ that we must keep, but as “promises” of God that He has both already has and will keep for us, for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ.
“You shall have no other gods.”
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”
“You shall keep the Sabbath Day holy.”
“You shall honor your father and mother.”
“You shall not murder.”
“You shall not commit adultery.”
“You shall not steal.”
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.”
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”