"Take heed, and beware of covetousness." Luke 12:15
Additional readings: Genesis 4:1-15, Psalm 39, Psalm 40
Today, because of conditions of unrest, instability, and fear, many reforms are being advocated. This effort extends to education. And indeed the most potent and desirable reform would be a reform in education, for a better education would make us better and humbler men and women. But what is most needed at every educational level from the kindergarten to the university is an adequate religious education; otherwise we may fill our minds with many knowledges and not know to what end we are studying.
Men need a knowledge of God and of spiritual things. Ignorance concerning the Lord and spiritual truths prevents a right valuation of human motives and therefore makes impossible a sound understanding of history, of sociology, of human behavior in general. It interferes with the appreciation of the arts and with the building of a sound social structure. Every subject ought to be taught against a background of religion.
Because of the confusion in religious thought, particularly in the western world, there is suspicion of religious teaching, and we are told that the creeds of the churches are obstacles in the way of Christianity and that if only creeds were taken away, people would flock to the churches and they would be filled to overflowing. In not a few churches creeds have been discarded, but the expectations were not fulfilled. As a matter of fact no creedless church can come into its kingdom, for there must be common beliefs as a basis of common understanding and action.
It is necessary that men recognize a power outside of themselves, which is the Lord, and come to know Him, to learn His laws, and to live according to them. One of these laws is that given in our text. "Take heed, and beware of covetousness." This is generally accepted, as it is generally understood, by people of all religions, and certainly among Christians. People may be in doubt about some of the precepts urged upon us by the Church as necessary to the Christian way of life, but our right attitude toward the property of others is not one of them. We might mention several subjects on which Christian people are divided in their opinions, but a debate for and against the right to be covetous would fail for lack of argument because, whether or not most people actually avoid covetousness, all are quite agreed that it is a sin.
But what does it mean to covet? To covet is eagerly to desire anything not possessed by us at the moment. The thing desired may be in the possession of someone else, but not necessarily. Thus we may break the obvious sense of the ninth commandment simply by desiring our neighbor's house. But we may also fall into the sin of being covetous of more wealth than we possess, not the wealth of anyone in particular, but just wealth in the abstract. And this latter use of the word, is surely its true Christian use.
The sin of coveting is really a certain wrong attitude to the things we do not happen to possess, whether they belong to other people or not. Covetousness in this sense is another name for greed. Everyone knows that greed is a sin. And the fact that everyone falls into it in one way or another and the fact that theft is the commonest item in the criminal calendar in no way disproves that people really do know it to be a sin. It only goes to show that something more than a knowledge of sin is required in order to shun it.
It should be noted especially that the sin of covetousness is not a sin of action but of desire. The man who covets his neighbor's goods in direct contradiction of the ninth and tenth commandments is not actually stealing his neighbor's goods and no court of law could make him chargeable, although of course the implication is that if there were no risk of discovery involving punishment or less to himself, he would steal when the opportunity offered. No doubt the coveters of this life are the thieves of the next. Still it is noticeable that the other sins listed in the ten commandments are concerned with some evil activity of the outward life. The murderer, the adulterer, the thief, the man who bears false witness are guilty of actual evil activities directed against the wellbeing of the neighbor, whereas coveting is a sinful desire which is still a sin whether it finds expression in activity or not. Of course this is equally true of all sins. Sin of every kind has its root in the heart or will of man where it may be found prompting, suggesting, urging to some evil course of action. From the will it grows up to the understanding, where the desired evil becomes a conscious thought and where it either receives the check of conscience or else passes out into the life as a deliberate action.
It is the will of man that sins, not his body. Hence all sin is perpetrated first in our desires. In the eyes of the law the murderer is a murderer because of the life he has willfully taken; in the eyes of the Lord he is a murderer because of the life he has willfully desired to take. And the same applies to every other kind of sin. The Lord Himself expressed this truth when He said, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment." The Lord was showing that the sin of which heaven takes account in any murder is not the action of the hands but the hate in the heart; for there, and there only, the sin had its inception.
The final commandments point to the inwardness of sin; they unmask the corrupt will of man in which greed has set up its powerful rule and from which it invariably tries to govern the life according to the order of hell. Covetousness is greed. Greed is self-love. Self-love is the root of all sin, and hence the prime cause of all those sins against which the commandments warn so sternly.
But is covetousness such an evil? People say, "I can quite understand that if I steal my neighbor's goods in actual fact, I am injuring my neighbor and consequently I have sinned. But if I merely covet his goods without actually taking them, I have injured no one. In what then does my sin consist? I have not stolen anything, I have not sinned against my neighbor, for he remains entirely unaffected by my coveting—he may even be quite ignorant of it. Why should the Lord be concerned when no one else is?"
People who talk in this way admit the full force of the distinction between the legal code which the law administers and the moral code which the law cannot touch. And at the same time their question raises the whole issue of the authority of that moral code.
First let it be recognized that sins are in every case and without exception fundamentally sins against the Lord and no one else. They do of course involve our fellow beings, as in the obvious instances of murder and theft, and the law takes action and exacts penalties to protect us and our fellows against such things, but this is really a secondary consideration, seen from the spiritual standpoint. The real fact that matters is that when anyone sins, he has sinned first against the Lord. The Lord gives the Law. He it is who stands behind all laws which are in conformity with Divine revelation. He alone sanctions the moral code and gives validity to its laws. He alone declares what is to be done and what is to be avoided. Therefore whatever is done in disobedience to the Divine Law, whether in thought, word, or deed and whether or not it has a noticeable effect on others, is a sin—a sin against God. And while it may go unpunished in this life because it is beyond the reach of the legal code, it cannot possibly be without effect upon the inner life of the sinner and possibly of others too.
"Against whom have I sinned?" asks the coveter of his neighbor's goods. "Against God" is the answer. "But whom have I injured?" he inquires. "Certainly yourself," he may be told, for no one can encourage desires that are contrary to the Lord's revealed will without injury to his soul. The soul is formed to receive love and wisdom from its Creator and ordained to respond by a life of heavenly obedience. If instead the soul in its freedom chooses to reject the law of love and wisdom and to prefer its own law, then the effect is that the soul is injured, whether we realize it or not.
But this is not all the answer to the problem. When we are living in obedience to Divine Law and doing our best to check covetousness and greed, then we become instruments of the Lord for His operation in the world about us. When our life is orderly, the life of heaven flows down into us and passes out to bless other lives in our deeds and words and probably in our thoughts and desires too. But when we create disorder in our lives, whether we are found out or not. heaven’s inflowing life is stopped; it cannot get through us, and we are therefore responsible for withholding the heavenly influences from other people. We cannot help being in some degree our brother's keeper. We cannot shirk our individual responsibility for the world's happiness or unhappiness. The spiritual rectitude of our lives is intimately bound up with the world about us, and if we are to be the means of bringing the Divine blessings into our environment, then obedience to the Laws of the Lord and the shunning of evils as sins against Him are absolutely necessary.
It is in the internal effect on the individual that evil most clearly manifests itself. The covetous person is dissatisfied with his lot and is unhappy. Covetousness blinds him to his opportunities for use. His attitude toward the world is that it owes him a living, and he blames others instead of himself for his condition.
And we know what such a person is in his social group. He is not a pleasant and helpful acquaintance. He does not see his opportunities for use and service to the community. He is thinking of what he ought to have instead of thinking of what he can do with what he has. It is because of its effect on our souls and on others that we are commanded, "Take heed, and beware of covetousness."