“Take heed, and beware of covetousness.” – Luke 12:15
The commandments are a summary of the Divine laws for angels and for men. They were given by the voice of the Lord from Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai rises abruptly from a large plain about twelve miles long, large enough for the encampment of all the children of Israel, so they could both see and hear.
The commandments were written on two tables of stone, the first table defining our relation to God and the second our relation to each other. The first table teaches us the necessity of worshiping the true God, and Him alone. We are not to set up false gods of our own imagining. The second table gives the laws necessary to any secure social or civic life, which flow from those on the first table. All of the commandments are necessary to the acquiring and perfecting of a Christian character. For this two things are necessary: a clear and distinct knowledge of what is right, and a conscientious practice of this knowledge. We can have knowledge without practice, and the world is full of examples of this, but we cannot have practice without knowledge.
The command to avoid covetousness is the last of the commandments. To covet means to have an inordinate desire. It does not mean a proper desire for the things we need and do not have, or those things which we do not have which would enable us to perform greater service to others.
If we do not keep this last commandment, we will not keep any of the others. For the only way to keep men from committing sin is to keep them from desiring it in their hearts. We recall that one of Swedenborg’s rules of life was “To be always resigned and content under the dispensation of the Divine Providence.” Man is in very truth judged from his deeds, but no further than insofar and in such a manner as his deeds have proceeded from his will.
The writings tell us that to covet is “to will from an evil love.” The thing desired may be in the possession of someone else, but not necessarily. We do break the obvious sense of this commandment when we covet our neighbor’s house, but we may also fall into the sin of coveting by coveting more wealth than we have – not the wealth of anyone in particular. The sin of coveting is a wrong attitude toward the things we do not happen to possess, whether they belong to other people or not. Covetousness in this sense is another name for greed, and everyone knows that greed is a sin. And the fact that everyone falls into this sin in one form or another, and the fact that the sin of theft is the commonest item in the criminal calendar in no way disproves that people really do know it to be a sin. It only goes to show that something more than a knowledge of sin is needed in order to shun it.
It should be carefully noted that the sin of coveting is a sin not of action but of desire. The man who covets his neighbor’s goods is not necessarily actually stealing them. No court of law could make him chargeable even though there is always the implication that if there were no risk of discovery, involving punishment or loss or disgrace to himself, he would actually steal if the opportunity offered. No doubt the coveters of this life are the thieves of the next. Still it is noticeable that the other sins listed in the commandments are in their letter concerned with some evil activity in the outward life. The murderer, the adulterer, the thief, the liar, for instance, are guilty of actual evils directed against the well-being of the neighbor, whereas coveting is a simple desire, which is still declared to be a sin whether it finds expression in act or not. We know, of course, that this is really equally true of all the sins. Sin of every kind has its root in the heart or will of man, where it may be found prompting and urging to some wrong course of action. From the will it enters the understanding and becomes a conscious thought, and there it either receives the check of conscience or passes out into the life as a deliberate action.
It is the will of man that sins, not his body. All sin is perpetrated first in our desires. In the eyes of the law a murderer is a murderer because of the life that he has deliberately taken; in the eyes of heaven he is a murderer because of the life that he has willfully desired to take. And the same applies to every other kind of sin. The Lord Himself expressed this truth when He said, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” Here Jesus was showing that the sin of which heaven takes account in any murder is not the action of the hands, but the hatred in the heart; for there, and there only, the sin had its inception. The final commandments point to the inwardness of sin. They unmask the corrupt will of man in which greed has set up its rule and from which it invariably tries to govern his life. Covetousness is greed, greed is self-love, and self-love is the root of all sin and the prime cause of all the sins against which the commandments warn us. The last commandment applies to all.
A point about sins of the heart which troubles some people is this: they say, “I can quite understand that if I steal my neighbor’s goods in actual fact, I am injuring my neighbor, and consequently I have committed a sin. But if I merely covet his goods without actually taking them, I have injured no one. In what then does my sin consist? I have not stolen anything; I have not sinned against my neighbor, for he remains entirely unaffected by my coveting – may even be quite ignorant of it. In that case, against whom have I sinned? Why should God be concerned when no one else is?” Those who talk like this admit the full force of the distinction between the legal code which the law administers and the moral code which the law cannot touch. And at the same time their problem raises the whole issue of the authority of that moral code.
We need first to recognize that in every case without exception sins are fundamentally sins against God and against no one else. So we are admonished in the Scriptures to shun sins as sins against God. The laws of life are His laws. Our sins do, of course, involve our fellows, as in the obvious cases of murder and theft, and the law takes action and exacts penalties to protect us and our fellows against such things. But from the spiritual standpoint of the sinner this is really a secondary consideration. The real fact that matters is that when anyone commits a sin, he has sinned first against God. God gives the law. He alone sanctions the moral code and gives validity to its laws. He alone declares what is to be done and what is to be avoided. Therefore whatever is done in disobedience to the Divine law, whether in thought, word, or deed, and whether it has a noticeable effect on others or not, is a sin, a sin against God. And while it may go unpunished in this life, because beyond the reach of our legal code, it cannot be without effect on the inner life of the sinner, and possibly of others, too,
“Against whom have I sinned?” asks the coveter of his neighbor’s goods. “Against God” is the answer. “But whom have I injured?” he inquires. “Certainly yourself,” he may be told, for no one can encourage wrong desires without injury to his soul. The soul is fashioned to receive love and wisdom from its Creator, and ordained to respond by a life of heavenly obedience. If, instead, the soul in its freedom chooses to reject the law of love and wisdom, and to prefer its own law, then the effect is worse than any outward injuries.
But this is not all the answer to the question. When we are living in obedience to the Divine law and doing our best to check our selfish desires, then we become receiving centers for the operation of heaven in the world about us. When our life is brought into its true order, the life of heaven flows down into us and passes out to bless others in our words and deeds, and in our thoughts and desires too. But when we create disorder in our lives by breaking the commandments, whether we are found out or not, heaven’s inflowing life is stopped: it cannot get through us, and we are therefore responsible for withholding heavenly influences from other people. We cannot help being our brother’s keeper in some degree. We should not shirk our measure of responsibility for the world’s happiness or misery. Our lives are continually bound up with the world about us, and if we are to be channels through which the Lord can work, it can be only as we keep the commandments, shunning the evils they forbid as sins against God. They are for all time and for all people. To picture this they were given from Sinai to the people assembled on the plain where they all could see and hear.