Sermon for October 20th, 2013
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. 16 Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 17 You shall not murder. 18 Neither shall you commit adultery. 19 Neither shall you steal. 20 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor. 21 Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Ten Laws, One Love: You Shall Not Covet
Once upon a time, a long time ago when I was just getting started as a preacher (you know, last year) I did a six-part sermon series on the elements of worship. By the time I reached the end of the series, I decided that six weeks in a row on any subject was too many. I promised myself I would never do that again. I promised I would only do sermon series' that were four parts, or maybe five maximum.
So...here we are today on the last sermon of our TEN part series on the ten commandments. That promise worked out well, didn't it? Somehow it just wouldn't have seemed right to do a five part series on the ten commandments--I guess we could have just done the even numbered ones, or maybe left out all the ones that begin with "you shall not..."
Today we're going to look at the tenth commandment, you shall not covet, but first we're going to review. The Ten Commandments are:
- Not about rules, about relationships (love God, love neighbor, love self)
- God visibly and tangibly among us (an example, not a sentence)
- A challenge to turn away from the powerful empires or our time.
- I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
- Don't bow down to other gods (of your own making).
- Don't carry the name of Yahweh lightly.
- Observe the Sabbath day, keep it set apart for rest (for everyone).
- Honor your father and your mother (that means a relationship).
- Don't take life (give love).
- Don't adulterize (put first things first).
- Don't steal (generosity keeps things in balance).
- Don't answer your neighbor with empty testimony.
And that brings us to number 10: You shall not covet. A literal translation of this commandment from the ancient Hebrew is actually...You shall not covet. By now you know just how much I love to squeeze out new and alternate meanings from the biblical words, but this time, it really means exactly what it says. Don't covet. So what does it mean to covet?
Just about any English dictionary will tell you that to covet is to desire something...but it's not just any kind of desire: It's a strong desire for something that belongs to someone else. It's desire at the crossroads of "I want that" and "I'm actively plotting how I can take that away from you."
But this is precisely what makes the 10th commandment different than all the others: So far, all of the commandments have been about outwardly visible actions. Worshiping, resting, killing, stealing, careless speech. Here, with "you shall not covet," we move from the outside to the inside. This commandment is about the intentions of your heart, not the actions of your hands.
On a side note, I've said that the ten commandments were never intended to be a legal code, hung in a courtroom, applied to all people and enforced by civil government. This commandment is a perfect example of why: It's unenforceable. The government may already read my email, but I'm thankful they don't (yet) try to read my mind and my heart, and hold me legally responsible for my innermost thoughts. Besides, if it were illegal in America to covet our neighbor's possessions...the entire advertising industry and most of capitalism would be in trouble.
By moving from our actions to our intentions, the 10th commandment anticipates and prefigures the direction that Jesus will ultimately take the commandments in the New Testament. When asked about the commandment not to kill (outward action) Jesus says don't even hate (inward emotion). When Jesus is asked about adultery (outward action) he says don't even look at someone with lust (inward emotion). When Jesus is asked about the commandments in general, he says we should love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Love, of course, is internal. Jesus recognized that long before we act out against God or neighbor, the seed of those actions begins in our thoughts, our hearts, our attitudes.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
This is perhaps the most difficult of all the commandments to keep. If we break it--assuming we are able to keep our thoughts from turning into actions--who will know? I have said that the ten commandments are a challenge to turn away from the great empires of our time and follow God into an unknown future. Empires--all empires, not just our own, although our own certainly qualifies--all empires are built on the principle of acquiring more and more and more. More territory, more people, more labor, more resources, more capital, more wealth.
John D. Rockefeller Sr., America's first billionaire, was once asked by a reporter "How much money does it take to satisfy a person?" His answer: "Always a little more!"
Always a little more. I am limited in how much I steal by how much I can carry. I'm limited in how much I can kill by my strength. I'm limited in how many false gods I can make and worship by time and what I can afford. But when it comes to desiring what other people have...there are no boundaries on my imagination. My capacity to covet is unlimited. That's what makes this commandment more difficult than all the others.
I believe there's a reason we have unlimited desires. I believe God created us with an unlimited capacity for desire. Our problem is not that we have unfulfilled desires. It's that the things we desire so strongly...are, at the end of the day, unfulfilling things. All those things that belong to our neighbor, all those material possessions--they are limited, finite things, and even if we piled them up to the highest heavens (and some people try!) their limited number would still run into our unlimited desire, leaving us still wanting a little more.
There is only one thing that can meet and match our infinite desire, and that is God's infinite love for us. We were created to desire God and to desire his love. When those two things meet, there is finally enough. Incidentally, remember that quote about how much money it takes to satisfy a person? John D. Rockefeller Sr. said, "Always a little more." His son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., who grew up around more money, more wealth, who had more material possessions than any of us will ever see in a lifetime--after experiencing all that, his son said "There is nothing in this world that can compare with the Christian fellowship; nothing that can satisfy but Christ."
Ok, there is one Hebrew word I want to teach you today. It's דַּיֵּנוּ (dayenu) and it means "enough for us." In Jewish culture, this word, this concept comes with a song that is sung at passover. The words go something like this:
If God had only brought us out of Egypt and nothing else...dayenu. It would have been enough for us. But he split open the sea for us, too. If God had only split open the sea for us and nothing else...dayenu. It would have been enough for us. But he fed us manna in the wilderness, too. If God had only fed us manna in the wilderness and nothing else...dayenu. It would have been enough for us. But he gave us the Torah (the ten commandments), too. If God had only given us the Torah and nothing else...dayenu. It would have been enough for us. But he brought us into the promised land, too.
The song actually goes on for quite awhile after that, each verse ending with "dayenu. It would have been enough for us."
I think the solution to our problem of covetousness, of always desiring more, is to acknowledge God's presence in our lives, to acknowledge how much we are loved, how much we have been given, and to say that it is "dayenu." It is enough for us. In fact, if we can keep this one idea fixed in our hearts, all of the commandments fall into place:
- The Lord is my God. Dayenu. His love is enough for me.
- The Lord my God is one. Dayenu. One lord is enough for me, and I have no need for other gods.
- His name is Yahweh. Dayenu. His name is sufficient, and I need not call on any other name.
- The sabbath day is set apart for me. Dayenu. It is enough, and I will be at rest.
- My mother and father brought me into this world. Dayenu. If that was all they had ever done, it would have been enough.
- Each day God gives me life. Dayenu. It is enough, and I will value the life he gives to others.
- My spouse is a gift from God. Dayenu. She is enough, and I have need of no other.
- God has been generous to me. Dayenu. I have enough to to share with my neighbor and not steal.
- My time is a gift from God. Dayenu. There is enough time for me to share it with my neighbor.
- God's love for me is infinite. Dayenu. It is enough to satisfy all my desires.
Well, this is it. This is the end. We've come to the last commandment; the last of God's "ten words." I hope you will keep coming back to them many times in the months and years to come, not as as laws to be obeyed or rules to be followed, but as reminders of God's love, as reminders of how we can live together in relationship, loving others as we love ourselves.
The world is busy building its empires of bricks and steel, of stocks and bonds. But God calls us to build a different kind of Kingdom: Our currency is kindness and our trade is compassion. Our king is a carpenter, a shepherd, a humble servant. His law is love, and Dayenu--it is enough for us.