Thou Shalt Not . . .
God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized
The Ninth & Tenth Commandments
We have all heard the story about the young puppy prancing to and fro with his precious bone when he happens upon a pond. He sees his reflection in the water, but doesn’t realize that the “other dog” is actually himself. Seeing the bone in the mouth of the other dog, the puppy decides it would be better to have two bones instead of one. When he opens out his mouth to try to take the second bone, the bone he already had tumbles into the water, and slowly fades from visibility as it sinks to the murky bottom of the pond. The poor puppy is forced to trek sadly back home with nothing.
Such a story illustrates the reality embedded in the 9th and 10th Commandments. These commandments forbid coveting the possessions (9th) or lifestyle (10th) of others; not only are we forbidden to covet another person’s house or car or private jet, we also are forbidden to covet their wife, family, relationships, etc.
Why does our Lord condemn coveting? Luther comments that because acts of theft and adultery have already been addressed by previous commandments, these last two commandments are addressed to those people “who wish to be commended as honest and virtuous because they have not offended the previous commandments” [LC.I.300].
While Luther’s words are true, there is more to be said. As this whole series on the 10 Commandments has tried to show, there is more at play in the Moral Law than simply making sure every sinner is accused of something. While the Law after the Fall always accuses sin, the Moral Law itself existed before sin, and it will continue to exist after. Because the accusatory nature of the Moral Law will pass away in the New Heavens and the New Earth while the Law itself remains, accusation is secondary to what these Commandments teach us about how God designed creation to work.
These commandments acknowledge that coveting always leaves people enslaved to anxiety, uncertainty, and a lack of perspective. Coveting, at its root, is rejecting and despising the gifts of God. Any basketball coach knows the frustration of a tall player who wants to shoot only 3-pointers rather than using his or her height to play by the basket. Many of us go through life ignoring the unique talents and abilities God has blessed us with personally. Instead, we covetously focus on the talents and abilities of others: thinkers wish they were more artistic, musicians wish they were more athletic, and so on.
But what does such coveting get us except depressed at what we cannot do? The great gift of God is that he has created a world filled with a variety of gifts and abilities. “Woe to him who struggles against his Maker. Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles.’?” [Isaiah 45:9]. To take such a view of God’s gifts robs us of the opportunity to use those gifts in faith toward him and in service to others. The body of Christ, though one, has many diverse members. The foot is not useless simply because it is not a hand, and the eye is not useless due to the fact that it’s not a kidney [1 Corinthians 12]. The 10th Commandment expresses the reality that coveting or obsessing over the abilities and life of others while despising my own ends in anxiety as I try in futility to obtain something that was not given to me.
The 9th Commandment expresses the futility of coveting money or earthly objects. If your goal in life is simply to get more, then you will never have enough. Because there will always be one more thing to chase after and acquire, it is a life that must always end in failure. But our Lord did not create us to live lives perpetual failure. He created us to experience the joy of fulfillment, which comes through using our unique talents and abilities in service of others.
When considering coveting and finding fulfillment in the life God has given, we have to recognize that some lives include physical or mental handicaps, others have relationships are hurt by abuse, while still others struggle under the weight of poverty. But this is not the place to explore the sad ways that sin has corrupted God’s design for this once perfect creation. Rather, this is the place to recognize the original intent of God’s design as we see it through the Moral Law. For the Baptized child of God, the life, talents, interests, and very existence we enjoy are gifts from a God who loves us. To covet and obsess over someone else’s gifts and circumstances ignores the personal gifts each of us has been given and blinds us to the joy to be found in embracing those gifts by using them in service to others.