Narrative Lectionary Year 4
Today we have arrived at the last of the Ten Commandments. In the first sermon, we talked about the background for which God gives these commandments: how God established a relationship with the Israelites by freeing them from slavery in Egypt. God doesn’t give these commandments so that the Israelites can make God love them by following them; God gives these commandments because God loves the Israelites, and the Israelites are to follow them so that their relationships with God and with one another will run more smoothly. We then talked about the first three commandments, which deal primarily with our relationship with God: putting God above everything else, not misusing God’s name, and remembering the Sabbath day. Last week, we covered commandments four through eight: honor your father and mother; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness against another person. Even though these five commandments have to do primarily with our relationships with other people, they all flow out of the first commandment. If you look at Luther’s explanations to these commandments, they all start with, “We should fear and love God, so that. . .” We cannot have a right relationship with God unless we are willing to work on our relationships with one another. And so, this brings us to the last two commandments, or, in some traditions, it’s one commandment: the commandment against coveting other people’s things.
Covet is one of those old-fashioned words that we generally don’t use in everyday conversation. It simply means to desire or to wish for, and it generally has a negative connotation. When we use this word, we are using it to signify that we want something that someone else has. So, for example, at the Blessing of the Animals last year, a family from St. Peter’s in Highspire brought their prize, show dog malamute to be blessed. And when I saw this big, beautiful, fluffy, cuddly, friendly dog, in that instant I wanted that dog. It didn’t matter that I already have a handsome, friendly, sweet-tempered, big black dog who I love to pieces. It didn’t matter that even if I could have taken that dog, I wouldn’t have had room for it in my apartment and I would have had to pay more in rent. None of that mattered. In the face of this beautiful dog, my desire to have this dog—who wasn’t mine—flared up in me. And I think I even confessed my sin to the couple and told them that I was coveting their dog.
In this case, we laugh it off as a joke. We trust one another enough to know who we are—children of God—and we trust that the laws against stealing, as well as other laws, will prevent us, most of the time, from following through on our desires. But the reason that we have commandments against coveting is this: from our desire to have something that belongs to someone else springs violations of all of the other commandments. In fact, I’m rather surprised that the commandments against coveting don’t come before the commandments against murdering and stealing. For example, if you remember the story of David and Bathsheba in 1 Samuel, this is a prime example of how coveting can lead to other sins. King David looked down from a rooftop and saw Bathsheba bathing. He noted that she was very beautiful, and he coveted her, so he sent someone to find out who she was. When the messenger told King David who the woman was, and that she was married, that didn’t matter to him at all. His desire for her overrode everything else, and he sent for her and slept with her, violating the commandments against stealing and adultery. When David then finds out that Bathsheba is pregnant, he brings her husband home and first tries to deceive him, so that they can pass the baby off as his. When that doesn’t work, David sends Bathsheba’s husband back to the front lines and has him killed, violating the commandment against murder. And then he takes Bathsheba as his own wife. David violated all of these other commandments because he had violated this commandment first: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
In many ways, we live in a society that is based on coveting. This is how our advertising industry exists, for example. Commercials continually tell us that we are not complete unless we have the next big car, the newest model of iPhone, or the most perfect house in the neighborhood. They tell us that we are not beautiful unless we lose weight, eat right, wear the right clothes and the right makeup. In short, they create in us desires that lead us to covet what the other person has. Studies even are starting to indicate that too much time on Facebook and other social media platforms can lead to depression, because we covet the seemingly perfect lives our friends have. We don’t always realize that our friends have problems, too, because who posts stuff online that doesn’t make them look good?
Remember that these commandments that God gives us are based on the fact that God has freed God’s people from slavery in Egypt. If we covet things that do not belong to us, we become a slave to our desires, and God does not want to see us return to slavery when God has freed us from sin. Again, this commandment, this law, acts as a mirror and shows us our sin, and shows us our need for Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to free us from that sin, just as God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And here is the good news: We have already been given enough. God has given us enough so that we should have no need to covet what we don’t have.
And so I think the remedy for coveting, besides confessing the sin, is to remember what God has already given us and to be thankful for it. In my earlier story, coveting the other person’s big, fluffy malamute dog led me to forget what a beautiful dog I have already been given in Otis, who is a wonderful dog that I can actually bring to church with me during the week because he’s so calm, and who loves me very much. And I thank God for every day that I get to spend with him (and my cat, too!). When confronted with advertising gimmicks that incite us to get the latest iPhone, car, house, or whatever it is, we can look around and be thankful for the things that we already have, and realize that God has given us enough to live. And all those commercials for clothes, beauty products, and weight loss programs? This is perhaps the best news of all: no matter what you look like or what you wear, God has created you and you are beautiful in God’s sight. You are children of God, and it doesn’t matter how you look or what you wear: God loves you, all of you, for who you are.
And when I say that God loves you and that you are children of God, I don’t just mean us here in this congregation, I mean everyone in the whole world. This includes those immigrant families who are coming through our southern border and whose children are being taken away from them. This week, our attorney general cited Romans 13 as justification for this: a line where Paul talks about government being put in place by God and how we are to submit to governmental authorities. The Holy Spirit has put it upon my heart to say something about this, because, with all due respect, the line has been taken out of context. If you read the chapter immediately preceding this line, and if you read further afterwards, you will see how Paul talks about the fulfillment of the law being love. And he specifically names the commandments that we have been studying the past several weeks as being summed up by the statement that Jesus also gives us in the Gospel that we’ve been hearing for the past several weeks: Love your neighbor as yourself. And folks, what is happening at the border cannot be justified by anything. I understand that we have immigration laws. I understand that the government has to enforce those laws. But what the government does not have to do is to abandon all human decency and forcibly take a baby away who was nursing at its mother’s breast. God loves these people just as much as God loves you and me. Jesus died for that mother and baby, just as Jesus died for you and me. Jesus is weeping over what is happening at our border.
The fulfillment of these commandments is to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And our neighbor is not just the person sitting next to you today. Our neighbors are every single person on this earth. So go and love your neighbor this week. Call our senators and our representative and tell them to stop separating children from their parents. Write letters and emails. And donate money to groups who are working to help these families and advocate for them, like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. These are just a few ways that you can love your neighbor as yourself.
St. Paul writes in Romans 13, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” All of the commandments that God has given us have to do with love: love for God and love for the neighbor. As we conclude this sermon series on the commandments, I am hopeful that we have a better understanding of what it means to love God and to love neighbor. But I also know that the Law will continue to reflect our sin back on us as a mirror shows us our appearance. What I hope we see in that mirror, distorted as it is by sin, is still a glimmer of the reflection of God’s child. For we are all God’s children, wholly loved by God as a complete person. Nothing that we do or fail to do can cause God to stop loving us, and we are freed by that knowledge. So, let us use that freedom wisely. We are God’s children. It’s time that we act like it. Amen.