The Gift of the Tenth Commandment

The Tenth Commandment is, You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet. your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Ex 20:17). It is one of more rarely quoted commandments in conversation, and frankly is often confessed than most of the other Commandments. Yet in a way it may be one of the most commonly breached of the commandments since it directly addresses our desire to possess things unreasonably. This is a very deep and disordered drive that gives way to many other sins as well.

Fundamentally to covet means to be possessed of a strong and unreasonable and inordinate desire to possess the things of another. It’s Latin root is cupere, meaning simply “to desire.” But in the Biblical usage, coveting is more than mere desire. It is a nurtured desire that is excessive, unreasonable and thus sinful.

Let’s begin with a little background on desire itself. There exists within each of us a whole range of appetites or desires. We desire everything from food, security, and temporal goods, to affection, friendship, sexual union, and a sense of being loved and respected. In themselves these desires are good and they help protect and foster important aspects of ourselves. However, since the human race labors under the effects of original sin, our desires tend also to have an unruly dimension. Frequently we desire things beyond what we know is reasonable or just. And this is where coveting enters. Coveting does not include momentary desires that occur to us and which we dismiss as being unreasonable or inappropriate. Rather, coveting involves the willful entertaining or eliciting of inappropriate or excessive desires.

Thus, the Tenth Commandment points to the gift that God can give us, the gift of self control. For, a significant truth about our desires and passions is that if we overindulge them they become more and more demanding and powerful in their influences over our conduct. Self control becomes increasingly difficult to those who are self indulgent. The Catechism teaches,

If we do not learn to temper our desires we quickly become dominated by them. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy..Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice…and not by blind impulses in himself…Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself from all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good…. (Catechism 2339).

The Tenth Commandment reminds us of our freedom and dignity and solemnly instructs us in the importance of self control in terms of our desires. The significance of this issue for our well-being and happiness is emphasized by the fact that two commandments the 9th and 10th) are devoted to matters of covetousness.

Self control may seem difficult since our desires do not usually change in an instant. Just because we know that our heart desires things or persons in ways that are excessive or inappropriate, does not make these desires disappear. Yet through consistent self discipline, custody of the eyes and the other senses, recourse to prayer and sacraments, all with the help of God’s grace, the desires of our heart change. We begin to love what God loves. What is sinful becomes less tempting and the thought of sin eventually becomes even abhorrent to us. By God’s grace our hearts change.

The command not to covet is not merely a rule to follow, it is a gift to be sought.

The Tenth Commandment itself: Since it is the last of the Ten Commandments, it is fitting that the tenth commandment flow from and complete many of the other commandments.

  1. It forbids coveting the goods of another, which is at the root of theft, robbery, and fraud, which the seventh commandment forbids.
  2. Coveting, or “lust of the eyes” as scripture calls it (1 Jn 2:16), many times leads to the violence and injustice forbidden by the Fifth and Seventh Commandments.
  3. Likewise, covetousness tends to originate in the idolatry prohibited by the first three commandments. This is because of the way that covetousness frequently leads to a kind of worship of material goods.
  4. The tenth commandment also completes the ninth since coveting involves far more than sexual matters.

The scriptures specify the wide scope of coveting: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet. your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Ex 20:17).

A Distinction – We should recall that coveting by definition involves the willful entertaining of excessive or inappropriate desires. Thus, it is not wrong to desire the things we reasonably need. Clearly it is essential for our survival that we desire food, water, warmth and shelter. Love, affection, family, and work are also essential for us and it is proper that we desire and seek fulfillment in these areas.

Even seemingly non-essential things like recreation and entertainment are in fact necessary ingredients in life and our desire for such things is an important aspect of every healthy person.

So long as our desires for any of these things is not unreasonable and we do not seek to fulfill them in inappropriate ways we can say that they are good, even holy aspects of the human person.

The Catechism goes on to elaborate on coveting:

The tenth commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit. It forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power. It also forbids the desire to commit injustice by harming our neighbor in his temporal goods (Catechism 2536).

Greed is the insatiable desire for more and, as we have already noted, excessive desires once indulged grow very insatiable and become increasingly difficult to control. The Book of Ecclesiastes says, The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing (Eccl 1:8). And Again, Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income (Eccl 5:10). St Augustine says, For my will was perverse and lust had grown from it, and when I gave in to lust, habit was born, and when I did not resist the habit, it became a necessity (Conf., Book 10). Thus, again we see the Tenth Commandment’s summons to freedom from lusts, excessive desires and many bad habits and addictive or compulsive behaviors.

The Catechism also connects the Tenth Commandment to Envy:

The tenth commandment requires that envy be banished from the human heart…Envy refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s good…When it wishes grave harm to a neighbor it is a mortal sin. St. Augustine saw envy as “the diabolical sin: “From envy are born hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbor, and displeasure caused by his prosperity.” (Catechism 2538-2539).

What then are some antidotes to Covetousness?

  1. Gratitude – In the first place there must be gratitude for what we do have, an abiding and deep gratitude for the things and people in my life.
  2. Contentment and Satisfaction – Another gift to be sought is contentment and an abiding sense of satisfaction. Satisfaction is the ability to say to God, “It is enough O Lord!” Contentment is the capacity to hold gratefully to what one has, rather than to constantly reach for more.
  3. Appreciation – Yet another related gift is appreciation which is the gift to regard as precious what one has received.
  4. Moderation should be sought also from God. Moderation is the capacity to observe the “mode” or middle range of something so that we do it neither to excess or defect. Since severe asceticism is rare in our culture, most of us know that moderation will mean recognizing our tendency to excess and the need by God’s grace to curb it.
  5. Trust – Another gift to be sought is trust. For is often happens that we excessively desire, grasp at, and hoard out of fear that we will not have enough. But if we trust that God can provide for our basic needs, fear diminishes and inordinate desires diminish too.
  6. Generosity is still another gift to seek. Once our basic needs are met we are essentially dealing with surplus. Generosity is a freedom that recognizes surplus and gladly shares.

Thus as we see, the Tenth Commandment points to gifts and calls us higher. It calls us to recognize the freedom and the healing which God offers us through his grace. For in terms of our passions and desires we can easily become enslaved. How easily we become inebriated with the things of this world and become trapped by the seemingly insatiable desire for more.

One look at the credit card balances of many Americans reveals that we live beyond our means and have difficulty controlling our desires. In some cases individuals are unable or unwilling to delay gratifications. Others consider as essential, things which they could do without.

The tenth commandment calls us away from the illusions of necessity and immediacy. We are summoned to a freedom which recognizes that we can discipline our desires and master our passions so that we make sound, wise, and just decisions in acquiring and using the goods of this world.

Finally, the Tenth Commandment calls us to remember something very important about our desires. As we master our passions and desires we also learn more clearly what they are truly saying to us. Fundamentally every desire represents a deeper longing for God who is the giver of every good gift. In the deepest part of our heart there is a song, I’d rather have Jesus, than silver or gold.

The tragedy is that many become lost searching for happiness in the things of this world. This ends in frustration and emptiness for our deepest longings are infinite. The finite things of the world cannot fulfill the infinite longings of our heart. The Catechism concludes,

Jesus enjoins his disciples to prefer him to everything and everyone, and bids them “renounce all that [they have]” for his sake and that of the Gospel [Lk 14:33]. The precept of detachment from riches is obligatory for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven…The Lord grieves over the rich, because they find their consolation in the abundance of goods.[Lk 6:24] But blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”[Mat 5:2] (Catechism 2544, 2547).

This song says, You may have all this world. Just give me Jesus.’