“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female slaves, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Exodus 20:17 (Big Ten Series)
Comedian Louis C.K. had a TV show a while back that dealt with the life of a struggling comic and father (write what you know, right?). There was a scene of him with one of his daughters, and she is upset, claiming something is not fair. Her sister had received a treat that she did not, and there was no more. He tried to explain to her how life isn’t fair. Sometimes you get last popsicle, and sometimes your sister does. But she wouldn’t listen. She wanted what her sister had, and she couldn’t get past how “unfair” it was.
The scene ends as Louis kneels down in front of his daughter, looks her in the eye, and says, “The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.” Isn’t that a fantastic life lesson in two little sentences? I cannot read these words without thinking about the tenth commandment against coveting.
It’s our tendency to think that coveting is simply about desiring what isn’t ours, and that is true enough, but part of the commandment not to covet is a reminder to be grateful for what you have in front of you. We can easily get caught up in a deadly circle of desire. For example, maybe you see your neighbor’s yard. The grass is greener, thicker, and prettier in every way it can be. So you work overtime to afford fertilizer and the extra watering. You do everything you can to have a yard like your neighbor’s, and when you finally get the grass the way you want it, you look over at your neighbor’s yard and notice how well-trimmed their bushes are, and how beautiful their garden is. So back to the garden store you go. And then it’s the siding. And the windows. And the car. The cycle doesn’t end, and worst of all, you never come to a point where you feel like you can just breathe and enjoy what you have here and now, today. When we spend our time looking at and lusting after what others have, we forget to look at what we have and be grateful.
As with the previous commandments, the tenth is here to help us be better neighbors. When you focus on all of the blessings in your life and on being grateful for them, you have little time left for pining after what your neighbor has. In fact, when we are focused on being grateful for all the good things in our lives, it helps us to better see what it is that our neighbor lacks. Once we see their needs, instead of getting caught in the selfish cycle of more, we can begin to make sure they have enough.
The ten commandments often have us imagining a god who sits on a throne in the clouds peering down on us and waiting for us to step out of line and get zapped with a lightning bolt. We envision an angry god bent on punishment, but that simply isn’t the case.
God is more like a parent — sometimes an exasperated one at that! Our kids have rules. The vast majority of those rules are there to help keep our children safe. Some are there to help our kids learn how to treat other people. And, admittedly, some of them are there to preempt the headaches we know that behavior will cause us. But in the end, the rules we have are not there so we can catch our children doing something wrong. The rules are for their benefit, to help them learn to live well. Are there consequences? Sure. But even then the goal is to learn and grow and discover how to love one another.
Happy to be your neighbor,