Coveting Other People’s Stuff Exodus 20:17

Most of the Ten Commandments are concerned with actions – the things people should and should not do or say. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus extended the scope of holiness to include what people think as well. But that principle was already there in the Tenth Commandment. Sinful actions and sinful words arise from sinful thoughts. The eighth commandment says, “Do not steal.” But the act of stealing comes from the longing for what is stolen. So the Tenth Commandment is there: “Do not covet.” Coveting, craving, hankering after, longing for, simply means an illegitimate desire for something which belongs to somebody else. Coveting other people’s stuff.
Exodus 20:17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
The Message: “No lusting after your neighbor’s house—or wife or servant or maid or ox or donkey. Don’t set your heart on anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Sinful actions and sinful words spring from sinful thoughts. We see this right from the very beginning when sin entered the world when the devil tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Genesis 3 6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.
Eve took something she was not allowed to have. The disobedient action began with the sinful thought. In the Book of Joshua chapter 7, Achan committed the sin of stealing some of the plunder from the cities the Israelites were capturing. Achan confessed his sin to Joshua like this.
Joshua 7 20 Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
He saw the stuff. He coveted the stuff. And so he stole the stuff. The sinful action began with the sinful thought. And covetous thoughts can lead people to break other commandments as well. Coveting another man’s wife can lead to adultery – it did for King David with Bathsheba. And coveting can even lead to murder.
James 4:1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.
Not just stealing, but quarreling and fighting and even killing. All arising from sinful desires. Starting from coveting other people’s stuff. Sinful actions and sinful words come from evil desires. The apostle Peter gives a similar warning.
1 Peter 1 13 Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
The battle to live a holy life begins with holy thoughts.
1 Peter 2 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.
Abstain from sinful desires. This tells us that evil desires are something we can choose to abstain from, just as some people choose to abstain from alcohol, or indeed others might need to abstain from chocolate cake. The problem is that abstaining from coveting other people’s stuff is much, much, much harder than abstaining from chocolate cake.
Exodus 20:17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
The challenge we all face is that we live in a society which is driven by materialism and consumerism. The world around us tells us we are “born to shop.” As somebody has put it, “Tesco, ergo sum.” “I shop, therefore I am.” From the moment we are born we are told that we don’t only need money and possessions to survive, but we also need lots of money and lots of possessions to have any possibility of being happy. Success is measured by how much stuff a person has. And popularity rests on having lots and lots and lots of stuff.
This materialism is driven by the false god of Consumerism with its twin mantras of freedom of choice and satisfaction guaranteed. And once again the media has its part to play. Films and television fill our heads with images of wealth and prosperity which are out of the reach of most ordinary people. The plots of so many stories are built around people stealing things and too often the heroes we are meant to admire are the ones who get away with their crimes. At the same time the lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous keep people worshipping the false gods of Celebrity. Above all we are surrounded everywhere on screens and billboards and shop windows with the hidden persuaders of the advertising industry. With the possible exception of charity appeals and public information clips, every single advertisement is an encouragement to break the Tenth Commandment. The whole purpose of advertising is to lead us to covet other people’s stuff, specifically the stuff the advert is trying to sell to us. Countless images and slogans and soundbites and jingles every day persuading us to want all kinds of things we don’t need: to covet other people’s stuff.
This was all summed up very nicely in a promotional slogan the Freeport Shopping Centre in Braintree used a few years ago.
“Ours is a shallow meaningless consumer society where we are defined by our possessions. Enjoy!”
That is so profound and revealing I am going to read it again.
“Ours is a shallow meaningless consumer society where we are defined by our possessions. Enjoy!”
That is the world we live in. A world which teaches us and indoctrinates us to covet other people’s stuff. A world which teaches us that greed is not a sin. On the contrary, the world tells us, greed is good. Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street put it like this.
“Greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind.
30 years on from that film, the Western world has fallen for its gigantic lie that Greed is Good. The truth is entirely the opposite. As we recognised when we thought about the First and Second Commandments, Greed is not good. Greed is idol worship. Money, like Celebrity, is one of the false gods of this generation. And Greed is just another word for coveting other people’s stuff. Longing after things and possessions distracts people from longing after God. Jesus warned about the dangers of greed.
Luke 12 15 Then (Jesus) said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
The Message: “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”
‘Beware! Don’t be greedy for what you don’t have. Real life is not measured by how much we own. A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.’
Jesus went on to tell this parable: 16 …”The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
Greed is not good! Coveting other people’s stuff leads to all kinds of problems. The Bible does not say, “Money is the root of all evil.” But it does say this.
1 Timothy 6 9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
It is the love of money which causes the problems. Coveting other people’s stuff. As Hebrews 13:5 says, Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.
Do not covet. The Tenth Commandment is concerned with wealth and possessions. The sinful action starts with the sinful thoughts. And of course this is true of all kinds of other sins as well. In our sermons on murder and adultery I deliberately did not move to what Jesus taught because it is important that we understand what the Old Testament teaches in its own terms and don’t jump immediately to the New Testament. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that evil thoughts are as sinful as evil words and actions.
The Sixth Commandment says, do not murder. But we can break that in our hearts with attitudes of anger.
Matthew 5 21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.
Sinful thoughts are as serious as sinful actions. The Seventh Commandment says do not commit adultery, but we can break that commandment in our heart by dwelling on lustful thoughts.
Matthew 5 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Sin is that serious. And sinful thoughts are as serious as sinful actions. The sixth Commandment – murder. The seventh Commandment – adultery. And the eighth Commandment, “you shall not steal”, which prompts the Tenth, “Do not Covet”.
The Letter of James explains how temptation works like this.
James 1 13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
So temptation begins with evil desires and sinful thoughts. If we want to live holy lives, the challenge is not to give in to those evil desires or sinful thoughts. The first impulse is not necessarily a sin. But dwelling on a sinful thought so that it becomes a sinful desire is asking for trouble. Martin Luther once said, “You can’t stop a bird from landing on your head, but you can stop him from building a nest in your hair.”
The old saying is true. “Sow a thought, you reap an action. Sow an action, you reap a habit. Sow a habit, you reap a character. Sow a character, you reap a destiny.”

If we are serious about living holy lives and resisting temptation we need to unlearn everything the world has taught us. We need to get rid of any ideas that greed is good or that we need more and more stuff in order to be happy. We need to stop coveting other people’s stuff. We need a complete change of mind. Somebody wrote this.
“The mind is a garden that could be cultivated to produce the harvest that we desire.
The mind is a workshop where the important decisions of life and eternity are made.
The mind is an armoury where we forge the weapons for our victory or our destruction.
The mind is a battlefield where all the decisive battles of life are won or lost.”
Romans 12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Your mind matters! Our minds need to be renewed.
“Don’t let the world around squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.” (Romans 12:2 in J.B.Phillips)
There’s an old saying full of wisdom. “You aren’t what you think you are, but what you think – you are!” Our minds need to be renewed.
Last week I introduced you to a term from the world of computing. WYSIWYG. What you see is what you get. God wants us to be WYSIWYG Christians, transparently honest. Let me bring you another word from that world which I used time and time again when students brought me the computer programs they had written. GIGO. GIGO stands for Garbage In – Garbage Out. If you put nonsense into a computer, you get nonsense out. And the same is true of our minds. Garbage In – Garbage Out. If we are serious about resisting temptations and sinful desires we need to be very vigilant about what we allow into our minds. There are two sides to this.
We need to “unlearn” so many of the things society has taught us from a very young age.
Ephesians 4 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
If we want to avoid falling into sin we need to get rid of the deceitful desires of our old self: desires fed by the pressures of television and advertising and celebrity culture. Our Christian standards can so easily be eroded by rubbish we read and watch and listen to. In particular, most people treat their televisions a bit like some people treat a pet cat – you pay it attention when you want to and ignore it for the rest of the time. Except a television costs more than a pet cat of course. Perhaps we should treat our television more like a pet poisonous snake, or a pet crocodile! Handle carefully, keep at arm’s length and always stay vigilant in case it strikes out and delivers a fatal bite. Garbage In – Garbage Out. Keep the rubbish out. And,
Philippians 4 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
We need to fill our minds with God’s truth instead of the lies of the media. Sinful actions begin with sinful desires. Keep the rubbish out. Think on good things. We need to take the Tenth Commandment seriously. Don’t covet other people’s stuff!

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