Monday, November 30, 2015
November 29, Advent 1, You Can Do This #10: Coveting and Desiring
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
“Don’t covet your neighbor’s house, your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
We come to the conclusion of my series on the Ten Commandments. I was hoping to end on a rousing finish. But I’ve had to wrestle with this one, and I told Melody that I was not finding much inspiration. And she said, “Yeah, especially since God made the last commandment the hardest.”
That feels right. Certainly on the face of it. It’s about desire, and how can you prevent your desires? The four commandments before it are about actions, and you can prevent bad actions. We all have desires we know better than to act on. We know which of our desires to cultivate and which ones not, but aren’t desires the kind of thing you can’t help having, whether you act on them or not? Feelings, impulses, attractions. So this tenth commandment seems to set us up for constant guilt.
Another thing that makes it hard is how culturally specific it is. First, unlike the other nine, it’s addressed to men. A man’s wife was considered his property, like his house and his servants and his livestock. To covet your neighbor’s wife was to offend against the husband whose property she was.
Second, the commandment mentions the kinds of property that were the basic core necessities of life. But property functions differently for us today. They did not use money. You do, and so you don’t depend on your property in the same way. For you, your property is your stuff, and you have great amounts of stuff way beyond your core necessities. You depend for your core necessities not on your property but on a whole complex of social structures and institutions, money included.
Third, we don’t relate to our neighbors in the same way. Your neighbors are not essential to your life and neither is their property. Most of us barely know our neighbors, except to say hello. When you come down to it, you don’t much occasion to covet anything that is your neighbor’s.
So we’re going to have to take this commandment symbolically and psychologically. Yes, it’s more about motivations than actions. This is apparent when you compare the tenth commandment to the ones before it. Commandments six through nine are discernible actions which can be tested in a court of law: “don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness,” but to covet is not actionable by law. It’s a motivation. Indeed, it’s the motivation for committing adultery and stealing. And at one remove it’s even a motivation for killing and bearing false witness. So the tenth commandment is not an addition but an intensification and a summation.
It’s the summary in negative form because the prior commandments are in negative form. But if we put it in positive form, this is what we get: You shall desire your neighbor to have what you want for yourself, even instead of yourself. That’s really “loving your neighbor as yourself.” That’s tough.
Does this require a restoration of the neighborliness we do not have anymore? Should you be knowing what your neighbor wants? Should you be involved more in your neighbor’s life, and even sharing your stuff with your neighbor? How about if what your neighbor wants is different from what you want, and there’s little you neighbor wants that you might have, and vice versa? Or is your mutual wanting what’s best for each other only going to end up with both of you desiring each other to just keep your own stuff anyway?
How about if you want very little for yourself? That’s the approach of the Buddha. He believed that the suffering in the world was basically caused by desire, so therefore stop desiring. Even stop possessing. Of course with that civilization becomes impossible, so Buddhism developed the vocation of the monk, who is the living expression of the Buddhist ideal: no possessions, no desiring, no suffering. To give alms to the monk is to honor the ideal when you yourself can’t live the ideal.
Christian monasticism appeared much later. Christian monks developed the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The ideal of these vows was to give room to cultivate alternate desires, like the desire for prayer, the desire for study, the desire for solitude, the enjoyment of silence, the habit of gratitude, and the habit of hospitality. Monasticism was rejected by the Protestants, but they advanced a similar ideal that every ordinary Christian should cultivate those alternate desires as habits, so habitual as to be second nature, such habits strong enough to satisfy you better that the other desires and feelings and compulsions and attractions that you cannot fully silence in yourself.
You can do it. My parents did it. I am grateful to have grown up in one of those traditional Protestant families which cultivated such habits and desires and to have known such satisfactions. We did not feel the Christian disciplines as burdens. We kids sometime complained, and we could envy other kids who had possessions and freedoms we did not have. But even then we understood the alternate satisfactions and we recognized the gracious hospitality of life within our house. You know it’s true: it is disciplines that make room for hospitality.
You practice Christian disciplines because of your godly mission of obligation to your neighbors. So this commandment is both about your neighbors and yourselves. What do you desire for your neighbors, and what do you desire for yourself? With what shall you be satisfied? Now, you cannot be responsible for your neighbors’ satisfaction. That is up to them. And the good that you desire for your neighbors may differ from what they desire for themselves. So you have to measure your obligation to their good according to what you desire for yourself. What do you owe your neighbor? What you desire for yourself. So even though your neighbor is the target of the commandment, what propels it is your own sense of satisfaction in your life.
Of course we Christians are not ever supposed to be satisfied. This is where the scripture lessons for Advent speak to us. From the gospel lesson we sense that we should not be satisfied with the world as it is, and that the great Day of the Lord is still ahead of us. With the epistle lesson we can acknowledge that our faith is lacking, and that our love for each other needs to increase, and that our hearts could be strengthened more in holiness. We are not yet finished, we are incomplete, we should be unsatisfied, we should desire more. From the Old Testament we read of promises of God that are not yet fulfilled, and of justice and righteousness that are still not truly executed in the land, and that some greater measure of salvation is still to come. You’re not suppose to be satisfied.
And yet at the same time, at the same time, you can be satisfied with God. That’s the feeling I get from the Psalm. “Lord to you my soul is lifted.” You are one of these strange creatures on the planet with a soul, and the purpose of your soul is to connect you to God, and your soul will be unsatisfied until you traffic in your desire for God. It’s the coveting you’re allowed to do.
It’s not easy to be satisfied with God. There are so many distractions. And God seems so passive. God seems to let so much bad go on. God is that famous underachiever. Or else God refuses to be judged by us. Like it or not, God never proves God’s self to us, God only ever invites us. Can I really lift my soul to you, O God? To be satisfied with God takes faith, and the habits of hope, and the disciplines of love.
So this is how it works, I think: If you lift your soul to God, if you desire to love God as the proper target of your soul, then that helps you very much to love your neighbor as yourself. Lift up your soul to God as your proper dwelling place, and then love your neighbor’s house for your neighbor’s sake without coveting it. Lift your soul to God as the lover of your soul and then love your neighbor’s wife without coveting her, and the same with the husband of your neighbor. Lift your soul to God who is the servant of your weak and faltering faith, and discover that just as God submits to your faltering love, you can likewise love your neighbor as yourself.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.