So far in this consideration of the 10 Commandments I have considered the first five commandments that reveal our tendency to break our relationship with God and then, even though they might still speak about our relationship with God, the next four commandments focus on our tendency to damage our relationship with others. Today I want to consider the last commandment as a commandment that expresses our tendency to damage our relationship with ourselves, or, to put it another way, to deny self.
Our prayer book summarises this commandment this way:
10. You shall not covet anything that is your neighbours.
It is a fair and all-inclusive summary of both the Exodus and Deuteronomy lists of the commandments:
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Exodus 20:17; NRSV)
Neither shall you covet your neighbour’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbour’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Deuteronomy 5:21; NRSV)
Although we might be able to note that the Historical writer of Deuteronomy is a little more of a feminist than Priestly writer of Exodus, because he places the neighbour’s wife as the first thing not to be coveted. However, the Exodus list might be a little more contextual in the light of a house rental and affordability crisis within Australia.
One of the members of our church might even remind us that we should not covet our neighbour’s wife’s ass, but we have already dealt with that in the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” if only in the heart.
Despite the biblical references that seem to be expressing that we should put ourselves last, at best, and even not at all, for example:
Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39; NRSV)
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24; NRSV)
our interpretation seems to be carrying some Victorian Puritanical interpretation that is not consistent with Jesus own teaching.
Jesus, in his summary of all the law and the prophets, as we read it in our payer book,
‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ Jesus said: ‘This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
We could stand this summary on its head. If we do not love ourselves, how can we love our neighbour? And, as we have considered over the last couple of weeks, if we do not love our neighbour, how can we say, show, reveal, that we love God?
Also note that there are no commandments that say, “You shall not be homosexual,” or “You shall not be divorced.” Yet, we make these things out to be greater sins than any of those actually listed in the Ten Commandments. Not long ago divorce seemed to be the supreme sin, and today, homosexuality seems to be second only to paedophilia. Although I could argue that paedophilia, breaking the sixth commandment in its murderous, destructiveness of the life of a child, divorce and homosexuality, perhaps, need to be analysed in respect to the tenth commandment. Too often, perhaps, the difficulty that we have receiving and returning the love of God for us is because we do not love ourselves. We covet what our neighbour has, because we want their life, rather than our own.
The reality, however, may be that we do not actually know ourselves as we really are. We have come to accept who we are on the basis of what others have led us to believe through their words and actions towards us. But they, too, are sinful, so their image of us, which we accept to be true is not who we really are anyway.
If we really believe that we are not worth loving, beneath our sinfulness, then we are breaking our relationship with God, again. For we are told that God loves us, God thinks that we are worthy of his love. If we do not love ourselves, then we are calling God a liar or an idiot; we break the sixth commandment and we crucify Jesus again.
From the reading of the gospel of John, in the story of the raising of Lazarus, we hear of Jesus interaction with Lazarus’ sister, Mary,
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26; NRSV)
Is it a coincidence that Jesus says, “lives and believes”? It is the “never die” that speaks of the eternal life, even though physical death is inevitable. To live and believe, to believe and live, is expressing something of the nature of the work of salvation through believing in Jesus.
According to Genesis 1, God created every one of us in his image likeness. Perhaps the “likeness” is our particular, and individual, expression of God’s image. The problem with sin is that it corrupts the likeness within us. We become a corrupted likeness and, therefore, salvation is not just restoring our relationship with God, it is also uncovering that true expression of who we were created to be, as Paul puts it,
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12; NRSV)
If coveting is simply to gain material things unlawfully, why would there be two commandments that relate to stealing? There must be a more spiritual, emotional and mental understanding to this commandment that leads to our loss of life.
The story of Lazarus is a story about the physical life and eternal life. Lazarus is the promise to us all who looked on concerning the work that Jesus would undertake on the cross.
The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:44; NRSV)
The things of death, his funeral clothes, the shroud, still bound him as Lazarus was called from death by Jesus. Even in resurrection, proving he is still a sinful mortal, Lazarus is still bound by the things of death. In order that he might have eternal life, his salvation, he needs to be set free of the garments of death. Jesus orders that he be unbound.
The commandment, “You shall not covet anything that is your neighbours,” warns us of our tendency to want for things that we do not have. We believe we are not good enough, not skilled enough, not learned enough, or not capable, and we look upon others and say, “If only I had what they had I would be able to do it.” I wonder if we sat down and prayerfully thought about the things that others have, which we don’t have and want, whether it would speak to us about how we are not loving who we are and putting ourselves down. Perhaps by focussing on the things others have, we are missing all the things we do have to use for God’s glory and building up of his kingdom.
To covet anything that belongs to our neighbours is much more of an emotional, mental and spiritual issue than it is a physical one. That which is not of our created identity, which causes us to seek after that which we do not have and others have, speaks of the brokenness of self and is as much the stuff of our eternal death because it gets in the way of our relationship with God. This is the command that inspires Jesus to encourage his followers to love themselves, so they can love their neighbour. By this we will show how we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.