To covet is to fix all of one’s attention, action and desire onto something that doesn’t lawfully belong to you.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s ( Exodus 20:17)
The word ‘covet’ includes both the desire of the heart and the unlawful actions that follow. And so, Achan didn’t just like the look of Canaan’s idols, he stole them ( Joshua 7:21). Ahab, obsessed with desire, was covetous when he had Naboth unlawfully (though legally) killed in order to get his vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-19).
A man’s house is anything that belongs to him, and so the initial commandment is followed by some common examples. The guy who fixes his lusts on some girl in a porn video is coveting his neighbours’ daughter, and the government that uses its own immoral legislation to unlawfully take away a widow’s home so it can build a townhouse for the homeless is guilty of the same sin.
This last example is important. We often think of covetousness being confined to individual lusts and actions. But, as the case of Ahab cited above makes clear, governments and even legitimate law can also be employed to satisfy our little piggy hearts. Wealth redistribution or modern marriage legislation, disguised as compassion and enforced by law, is just covetousness by another name.
Someone else wants what you’ve got and they are fixed on getting it by almost any means. And, says Paul, all such coveting is idolatry.
In modern times we have reduced covetousness to only matters of the heart. We think of it only in terms of ungodly feelings. But this is pagan in origin and built on the idea that our actions and the material world are somehow disconnected or inferior from my inner or spiritual life.
But Jesus, in Mark 10:19, clearly has actions in mind when he uses the Greek word for covet, ‘aposteresis’ (translated, defraud) in Mark 10:19.
And so, to covet includes, not just the desire, but any under-handed, deceitful or dishonest means used to get our hands on other people’s stuff or to gain power over other people and their things.
The 10th commandment is all-encompassing and we should be cautious about applying it to every little girl who wants a pony. Nevertheless, covetousness runs deep in the veins, which may explain our shallow interest in this important commandment.
Coveting in and of itself is not bad. In fact, the Bible tells us that there are things that we should covet.
But earnestly desire (covet) the higher gifts…. (1 Corinthians 12:31)
Earnestly pursue love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1)
It is good and right to earnestly chase after God and to desire His blessings. It is right to pursue Jesus Christ and His righteousness above all else. This is why Paul can say that all other forms of covetousness are idolatry and must be put to death (Colossians 3:5).
One of the ways to test our hearts in this is given to us in the parable of the vineyard workers.
Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own? Is your evil because I am good? (Matthew 20:15)
Are we able to rejoice in the blessings God bestows on others, our do we covet and despise their lawful gain?
The remedy for our covetousness is new eyes. Eyes that prize mercy over humanistic forms of equity. Eyes that see the true value of Christ as our source of joy and contentment. And to view those material gifts He bestows on us as tokens of His love and not tokens to be worshipped.