Vol. 9, No. 2
~ Page 15 ~
Has there ever been a time when the Lord's teaching on covetousness is more needed than today? Before you finish reading this article some wealthy financier will count his profits from illegal or ill-gotten gain, some young woman will sell her body for a few dollars and some preacher will have decided to sell his soul and the souls of his hearers for a paycheck.
The tenth commandment of the Decalogue states, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's" (Exodus 20:17). The previous nine commandments deal with outward actions. The tenth deals with the inward thoughts. Covetousness is a sin of the heart.
Covetousness is from the Greek word pleonexia, meaning, "to fix the desire upon...whether things good or bad; hence, to long for, lust after, covet" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words , Volume 1, p. 266). In ancient Greek culture it was a common word basically meaning "arrogant greediness." In sacred history it was the first sin in the Garden of Eden with Adam; it was the first sin of Israelite occupied Canaan with Achan; it was the first in the Jerusalem church with Ananias, and it crept by stealth into the circle of Jesus' own disciples with Judas Iscariot.
Covetousness is the common, but "respectable" sin of our age. It is common, but rare indeed is the person who will ever admit to being covetousness. It is respectable in that covetous men are sometimes found in positions of leadership and authority in the Lord's church, contrary to the qualifications for elders (1 Timothy 3:3).
Covetousness is an older word that occurs more often in the King James Version of the Bible than in other translations (Mark 7:22; Luke 12:15; Romans 1:29; et al). In the Hebrew language it basically means "dishonest gain" (Exodus 18:21). To covet is to desire something that belongs to someone else. It is also to desire something or someone to which one has no right (Exodus 20:17; Joshua 7:21).
By way of contrast to the sin implied in the word, it is sometimes used in a good sense as when Paul told the Corinthian church to "covet earnestly the best gifts" (1 Corinthians 12:31), and to covet prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:39). We sometimes say to our brethren, "I covet your prayers."
There are different kinds of covetousness. First, there is covetousness for material things, money and for the things that money can buy (1 Timothy 6:10). Second, there is covetousness of status or position (Luke 22:24). Third, there is the benefit that false teachers receive in promoting their own covetous schemes (2 Peter 2:3). Paul was not of that stripe (1 Thessalonians 2:5). Fourth, there is covetousness for persons (Matthew 5:28). The very essence of covetousness is the desire to have what is forbidden. It is the giving of rein to desires that violate the laws of God and man (Ephesians 4:19; 5:3; Colossians 3:5). Fifth, there is covetousness for power (Acts 8:18-19).
For the purposes of this article I will refer to covetousness as a criminal. The work of a criminal is well known. Jesus said, "The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). What are the crimes of covetousness?
Paul twice names covetousness as equal to idolatry (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5). Idolatry is putting something else in the position that God alone should occupy (Exodus 20:3; 1 John 5:21). If one's sole desire is to obey God he will not replace him with things. If God is given his proper place, things will have their proper place. In the words of Augustine, "Let not these occupy my soul; let God rather occupy it" (Confessions, x.51).
A dime is a small coin, but if it is held close to the eye it will block out one's vision of the sun. When one is covetous he loses sight of God in his desire to get more.
The rich young ruler found a roadblock on his path to eternal life that robbed him of the Savior (Matthew 19:16-22). Even though the word covetousness is not used in this passage, its effect is clearly seen. Jesus taught the power of the "care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches" to choke the word from our lives (Matthew 13:22).
The word choke has many definitions, but in this parable it means to suffocate. The thorns that kill one's desire for Christ ["the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches" (Matthew 13:22); "the lusts of other things" (Mark 4:19), and "pleasures of this life" (Luke 8:140] represent those individuals with divided loyalties toward Christ (Matthew 6:24).
The rich farmer in Jesus' parable lost all sense of priority in his life (Luke 12:16-21). His crops went from being his living to being his life. He traded real gold for fool's gold. Thus, Jesus introduced this parable with the warning, "Take heed and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (vs. 15).
It should be noted that the acquiring of things is necessary for life. It is by the wise acquiring of things that we support our dependents and ourselves. Without acquisitiveness we become lazy and shiftless creatures (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10). But, when acquisitiveness gets out of proportion it becomes covetousness (Luke 12:21). Covetousness is the sin of thinking more of getting than of giving (Acts 20:35).
Solomon wrote, "He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; not he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity" (Ecclesiastes 5:10). At the heart of covetousness is the idea that things bring happiness. It says, "If I had this thing, I would be happy." Epicurus once said, "If you want to make a man happy, add not to his possessions, but take away his desires." If possession of things brought happiness this would be the happiest age in history.
This is not so say that things do not matter. To have enough to eat, a good home and reasonable comforts are the things for which we all strive (1 Timothy 5:8). If we don't have we can't help others (Luke 19:8; Ephesians 4:28). It is to say, however, that happiness is not wrapped up in these things (Philippians 4:11; 1 Timothy 6:8; Hebrews 13:5).
There are two kinds of relationships in this world: First, there is the "I-it" relationship that we have with things. This is where covetousness thrives. Second, there is the "I-thou" relationship that we have with God, others and ourselves. Contentment is not found in the "I-it" relationship. It can only be found in the "I-thou" relationship. If these things are what they ought to be we will covet nothing; there will be nothing to desire that we do not already possess.