The tenth commandment is the only one of the ten which is on our thoughts. Though the last of the commandments, it is the most powerful for it is our thoughts which determine our actions. The other commandments tend to deal with our actions. Hence, if we can follow the tenth commandment, it is much easier to follow the other nine. Perhaps that is the reason God put it as the last.
A major Christian tradition splits the tenth into two parts:
1. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house.
2. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
So important are our thoughts that the tenth commandment can indeed be split into two, for there are two different sets of thoughts we tend to have which can lead us to go against God.
To covet means to “to want something very much” according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary. This implies that we do not have much of it in the first place but this also indicates that it is something which we think we need. This is where we often go against God, for very often our thoughts wrongly categorises what we need. We think we need this or that, whereas the truth is that we need God and we need to know ourselves as God sees us.
An illustration of this arises when we distinguish between what we need and what we want. We need water, but yet advertisements say we need “Sprite” or “Coke” which make us buy them. Water is often free so why do we need to buy Sprite or Coke?
The answer is that there are businesses which make “Sprite”
or “Coke” and so we are urged to spend on what is not necessary and even bad for our teeth! What is it then when we are commanded not to covet our neighbour’s house?
A house is a building or an apartment but more important, it stands for a person whose identity revolves around that physical structure. To covet a neighbour’s house is to desire to be some other person. We grow up imitating others, like our parents or relatives or friends or bosses or office mates. It is not wrong to imitate but where we go wrong is when we feel insecure, and want to be that other person completely.
To hero-worship can lead to a sense of low self-worth. An important lesson I learnt in the Boys’ Brigade is the importance of self-respect. This is in fact part of the Object of the BB which is the promotion of habits of obedience, reverence, discipline and self-respect and all that tends towards Christian manliness. During my BB days, I learnt to respect myself in the attention I must pay to my uniform, the way I stand and march and so on.
Much as I imitated my NCOs and officers, I learnt to respect myself so much when I did become an NCO and officer, I chose to be myself, so that I turned out to be a different NCO and officer than all the others whom I imitated. In turn there were boys who imitated me, but never became the exact replica of myself as an NCO or officer. To obey the tenth commandment is to acknowledge that God has made us unique and that we are not to be somebody else.
We are not to be the somebody else who is rich, or clever or strong or young or whatever it is that makes us insecure. The fault does not lie in the possession of wealth, or strength or youth, but in our own insecurity as to who we are. I am thankful that in the BB, I learnt to imitate but was always reminded that it is God whom I must imitate, and God is unique. So I too must be unique, a unique NCO or officer, and so too in my other endeavours as a scholar, as a church deacon or elder, as a community leader and so on.
The desire to be unique needs to be cultivated for almost everything around us compels us to think that we are being compared all the time. I am reminded of a mother who was urged to put her baby into a baby competition. Her reply was “my child is incomparable”. She had a pretty baby but her baby was beyond comparison even if she won the competition, so what? She did not cherish the idea of winning so it did not matter whether her child won or lost in the competition. So too this must be our attitude in our studies, in our work and recreation and in our worship of God.
We are not even to covet being a good Christian for only God can judge. We are to be holy but that is to be measured by God not others. Jesus reserved his strongest condemnation for those who wanted to be admired for their religiosity. We are not to display our sacrifice or fasting or whatever it is that God tells us to do. We have an audience of one, and that single audience is God himself.
And so the tenth commandment tells us to be a unique person, satisfied with our uniqueness and not comparability. In my life, I have met short persons envious of those who are tall, tall persons who wish they were shorter, and I have also met the rich who were envious of those who are poor, as those with riches have much to worry about! I have met the young who wish they were old and the old who wish they were young! Paul wrote to the young Timothy “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment” (1 Timothy 6:6).
The second part of the tenth commandment deals with relational and physical possessions. “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” means that we must not covet a relationship we do not have. Perhaps you are unhappy with your spouse and you begin to think that others are more happily married. There are many who are married who wish they were single, and many who are single who wish they were married! Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “let each of you lead the life that the Lord has called you... In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God” (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). Let us not covet a relationship we do not have but let God lead us into the relationships He shows us. Then there is the covetousness of material possessions.
“You shall not covet your neighbour’s male or female slave, or ox, or donkey ot anything that belongs to your neighbor”. Again there is the underlying insecurity that if you do not have this or that, then you must have it, whether it be an i-Phone or car or dress. The business world expands by making us feel insecure if we do not buy this or that. Yet the truth of the matter is that after buying, we lose interest after a while. In the economics which I teach, this is described as diminishing marginal utility. This is why new models and product have to be produced continually, i.e. “planned obsolescence”, resulting in you and I being the slaves of fashion and taste.
One thing leads to another, and so we end up coveting money or position or relationships. If we are indeed unique, we only desire what we need and not what others tell us that we want. The time when we are most unique is when we are a baby. We all started life as a baby and yet there is nothing which a baby possesses. Yet a baby is showered with love and the baby is content with that.
So too when we are born again in Christ, we are again babies in God’s eyes. We only need God’s love, and that we have, otherwise we are not born again. Let us continue to abide in the love of God for God views us as naked and poor and weak. It is true that many of us do have money and shelter and a job and an NRIC. But as Paul wrote to Timothy, “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these” (1 Timothy 6:8).
We need to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), i.e. a life free of covetousness, whether it be of wanting to be somebody else or wanting a relationship others seemingly have, or possessions which others are seen to have.
Let us therefore fill our minds with positive thoughts and our life will start to change. God gave the ten commandments after He led them out of slavery in Egypt. God did not want his chosen people to be slaves again in the Promised Land that He was leading them to. The chosen people could become slaves again unless they control their thoughts, and so God gave them the tenth commandment. Let us not be slaves but make every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5).