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The Living Commandments by John Shelby Spong


John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This book was published by Seabury Press, New York, in 1977.


Chapter 13: Coveting—The All-Embracing Word


According to the twentieth chapter of the Book of Exodus, the tenth Word of the Lord to the people of the Covenant has to do with the sin of coveting. That Commandment reads quite simply "You shall not covet." In a sense the Commandments have now run full circle, for this tenth Commandment is but a call to act out on the level of human behavior all of the implications of the first Commandment. "You shall not covet" is the behavioral application of "You shall have no other gods but me."

In many ways this Word on coveting is the most profound Word, the all-embracing Commandment; for it turns us away from the level of external deeds and it rivets our attention on the heart of the human being. This Commandment speaks to the deepest level of human motivation. I suspect that it was no accident that this Commandment was placed last, for that is the memorable position. For the same reason, the back cover of Time or Newsweek is the most important and expensive advertising space in the entire magazine. The cover and the back page are always the best remembered. So it is with the Commandments: the first and the last are the ones that everyone can recall.

I suspect that this Commandment, on a literal level, is also the most difficult to keep. The other Commandments deal with actions, and we might be able to refrain from the overt act of killing, committing adultery, or stealing, but this Commandment deals with the inner attitudes, and obviously it is far more difficult to prohibit attitudes than it is to prohibit actions. The other Commandments, at least until Jesus reinterpreted them in the Sermon on the Mount, focus on the external level of human life somewhat like a photograph. But Commandment number ten focuses, without any reinterpretation, on the internal level. It is like a penetrating X-ray of the human heart.

First the typical block to misunderstanding that shallow and insensitive minds seem always ready to resurrect and place upon the Scriptures must be removed. There is, in the minds of some people, a simplistic identification of the Commandment against coveting with an injunction against desire. I do not believe the text will support that identification. For if human desire is to be prohibited, so also will human growth, human progress, human stature, and wider human vision be prohibited.

The abolition of desire from the human spirit would produce a static life where human differences would not be allowed or noticed. Buddhism suggests that the way to peace is to kill the desire; but Christianity does not. Communism teaches that the way to peace is to make everything so equal that no one would have any reason to envy anyone else, and the perfect classless society would result, but Christianity does not concur in that assessment.

Desire is not wrong or evil. However the object of our ultimate desire will determine whether the desires of the human heart give us life or give us death. Both Buddhism and communism are systems which greatly diminish the human spirit. A just society will be built, I believe, on equality of opportunity, equality of education, equality of essence and value in every human being, equality of every child of God in the sight of God; but equality of being or equality of talents is not the human right to bestow, for it belongs to the God of creation alone. Part of the Creator’s call to his creature is to rise to the maximum level of his or her potential, to be all that he or she is capable of being. For some that is more than for others. God’s call to us is to be so at one with the self we are, so complete in our own being, so satisfied to accept ourselves as we are, that we do not envy or resent the self that someone else is. That is the Judeo-Christian vision of creation. Desire is a good part of life, when it is rightly understood. It is not evil.

In the public arena, I have always favored an absolutely free and open society, but I would resist the imposition of an egalitarian society. By this I mean that society should have within it all of the accoutrements of wealth and success. There should be exclusive neighborhoods, private schools for those who want them and can afford them. There should be private clubs where membership is conferred as a sign of success and of recognition. To me these things are important, for if they become desirable enough in the society as a whole, they serve to inspire creativity, industry, and hard work throughout the whole population in order to achieve these desirable goals.

My quarrel with the guardians of the establishment is not that these things are bad, but rather that the establishment leaders use artificial barriers, such as race and religion and ethnic origin, to exclude certain segments of the population from ever having the opportunity to enjoy these fruits of the good life. Consequently, some people are not allowed to enjoy the symbols of their own success. Everyone who achieves should be welcomed into those arenas where the symbols of success are enjoyed. Blacks and Jews should be eligible to live in any neighborhood or to be members of any club on the same basis as anyone else. I wish I believed that Christians across this nation were working to bring these things about.

My dream for America is not a dreary level of mediocrity where everyone is reduced to a common denominator. No, my dream for America is for an aristocracy based on achievement, rather than an aristocracy based on the accident of birth, or the color of skin, or whether you are a Wasp or a southern European in ancestry.

I see nothing wrong with honest ambition, drive, excellence, and hard work. Those who exhibit these qualities should be rewarded with all of the success symbols a society has to confer. However those qualities need to be employed for their own sake because they are good. They stretch the potential of every human being to do the best that he or she can with his or her talent. The qualities I have listed become destructive only when they are employed in order to defeat another person or to take something away from another rather than to stretch one’s own being. The person who wants to do well enough to win is covetous. The person who acts so that all of his or her powers, talents, and gifts might be stretched to their limits is in the arena of what I would call legitimate desire.

There is a tremendous public responsibility that goes with creating a truly open and just society. The failure of the leaders of that society to take seriously that tremendous responsibility, or not to fulfill it adequately, literally invites the alienated people of the society to overturn it and impose an egalitarian principle upon it. Insensitive establishment people feed the desires that communism represents. The masses will not be exploited by any system forever. Exploitation always creates its own pay day, and the more the exploitation, the more violent that pay day is. If we could have seen the exploitation of the peasants in czarist Russia, we would have understood the frenzy of the Marxist revolution.

An open society must be truly open. History has taught us that everyone within the society must have an opportunity or it will become so fragile it will collapse in revolution. The barriers to openness have to be removed in order to preserve the society. The sources of exploitation have to be done away with, and there must be a commitment on the part of the society to right the wrongs of the past.

Vast public funds must be spent to overcome the inequities of opportunity. An open society must inject hope anew into every generation, no matter how hopeless the environment has been in the past. If I were running the government, I would see to it that school districts that serve the poor would have a larger share of the tax revenue than school districts that serve the affluent, for in the poor districts there is far more ground to be made up to provide the open equality of opportunity, and equality of opportunity must be a part of every just society.

I am convinced that tax structures need to be overhauled. The inequitable tax burden that falls on the poor and the middle class must be redressed; the loopholes available to the wealthy must be closed so that our society can be preserved. In an open society complete mobility based on ability alone can be accomplished. The citizenry might then be able to meet opportunity with real hope. The legitimate desire that resides in every person might be stretched to the limit of that person’s capacity.

We must separate, with the sharp scalpel of theological clarity, the legitimate human desire from the human sickness that plagues our souls, the sickness called "covetousness." Desire is good. I applaud those people who are greedy for life, who seek its meaning openly and honestly, who are willing to taste its sweetness, who luxuriate in its beauty, experience its depths, and scale its heights. Life is the primary place in which the biblical God makes himself known. The full and even the infinite capacity of Jesus of Nazareth to be alive is one of the incontrovertible signs of his divinity, his oneness with God, his revelation of God in human history. His call, "I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly," is the essential call of the Christian Gospel. Christian ministry must open other lives to this transcendent dimension so that all of us are called to a new level and a new quality of being, a new meaning, a new capacity to live. I see the restlessness within us human beings, the sense of discontent with what we are and who we are, to be no less than the grip of God’s grace upon us, echoing St. Augustine’s cry in his Confessions: "Thou, o God, hast made us for thyself alone, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee."

This is the level of legitimate desire, the seeking, the searching, the yearning for the ineffable and ultimately real, the holy God, a desire, a seeking, a searching, and a yearning that is not separate from our call to live fully, to love completely, to exist courageously. That is good.

Coveting is misplaced desire. Coveting is the act of placing a thing or the momentary fulfillment of a need into that ultimate place of worship and thus allowing that thing or that need fulfillment to color and distort our lives. Covetousness is, on the level of human behavior, the acting out of an idolatry. It is pretending that something other than God can finally give us life and make us full. It is the failure to see the fullness of God. It is not to comprehend the oneness, the holiness, the centrality of Yahweh, who is, for the Judeo-Christian tradition, the God of life, the ruler of history, the source of love, the ground of being, the height and depth of life. Covetousness is ignorance of the God who is over and under and around and through all that there is. Yet this God is wholly other, for this is the God we meet in the biblical drama. This is the God who is known and seen in creation, met in the Exodus, confronted at Mount Sinai—the God who now makes a Covenant with his people and speaks these Ten Words. This God we can desire legitimately, with an eternal restlessness that ever seeks and never fully finds. This desire always calls and drives us beyond ourselves, beyond contentment, beyond peace of mind, toward both the fullness of life and the fullness of God.

But when my desire fastens on anything less than God, it immediately becomes destructive, for that is where desire turns into covetousness, and covetousness will rob my life of its potential because it will narrow my vision, depress my limits, bring me to the edge of death, violate my purpose in creation, and starve my life to death. To covet is to fill the empty spaces of my God-directed desire with things. To covet is to believe that something less than God will satisfy the deepest human hunger in my heart. To covet is to think that something less than God will make me feel adequate or secure. To covet is to respond to things as if they somehow are ultimate or eternal or saving. To covet is to create idols, to be blasphemous. To covet is to be unaware that God is God. It is to be unaware of life’s deepest meaning. It is to be insensitive to the gentle nudgings of the Spirit.

The proof of the destructiveness of coveting is that it is a disease that is not cured when the objects of one covetous desire are finally achieved, for to achieve a thing is never to satisfy the human heart. We only raise the ante. We yearn for more of the same, or we seek a new frontier that perhaps will fill us full, make us whole, and give us life and fulfillment. Unfortunately, things will never do that. All of this world’s goods cannot fill the empty spaces of one human heart. All of this world’s status, honor, and prestige cannot overcome the insecurity of one human life, for we all have deep within us that God-shaped hole, and nothing else will ever fit there. When we seek to fill that hole with anything less than God, we initiate a process of self-destruction.

The only cure for covetousness is prevention. If there is a vacuum in our life where God ought to be, we will fill that vacuum with something; for the human heart, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum. To be in a Covenant relationship with the holy God is to know the infinite, precious quality of your self, and the infinite precious quality of everyone else’s self. It is to be aware of the wholeness and the holiness of life. It is to allow the natural desire within us to call us into the fullness of life as people embraced by the love of God. That and that alone is what allows us to refrain from coveting.

"You shall not covet" thus concludes the holiest Ten Words of the Jewish Law. Purposefully, this is the final Word, for it is a summation of all the other Commandments. For when our life expresses the image of God and is in touch with the infinite, life-giving, self-fulfilling love of God, when God is the source and goal of our deepest desire, then and only then do we children of God live out creation’s purpose. Only then do we know that god is one, and there can be no other gods than this.

In fulfilling the final Commandment, there would be no need to take the holy name of God in vain. Then, there would be no reason to violate the holy day when rest kindles the holy spark of God within us. We would honor the maleness and the femaleness of creation, aware that in this union is a sacrament of life itself and that in this vision is life-giving wholeness. We would do honor to all of life, preserving it, nurturing it, and letting it grow in every individual expression without being threatened and wanting to annihilate someone who hurts or who is different. We would honor personhood, expressed in the sacred bodies that we each possess, through which the self is manifested—the holy and precious self; for our wholeness would be such that we would never need to use another person in any relationship, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual. We could be free of the grasping quality that drives us to cheat and steal, to organize our world to our advantage and to another’s disadvantage. We could be aware of our own subjectivity, our partial vision, our distorted ignorance that causes us to bear false witness.

So we come full circle. We discover that the tenth Commandment is but a reiteration of the first. It drives home the reality that God is God, that there is no other truth separate from that truth, and that that truth permeates every crack and crevice of life. These Ten Commandments illuminate every human emotion. They baptize every human relationship, and capture time. They invest time with a quality of timelessness, making every now a moment to share in eternity.

These Ten Words, these Ten Commandments, are thus as ancient as Sinai and, at the same time, as modern as tomorrow. Every generation must hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. Every generation must then interpret them anew in the light of the new occasions of the new day, for that is the eternal task of the people of the Covenant, whether it be the Old Covenant or the New Covenant, the Old Testament or the New Testament.

Jesus, our Christ himself, did this. A man went to him on one occasion, urging him to delineate which of the Commandments was the greatest. It was a kind of reductionist approach. "If I cannot keep them all, Lord, which one should I concentrate on?" is the burden of that question.

Jesus paused momentarily. Then he declined to respond to the specific content. "These Ten Words cannot be separated," he said in effect, "for they are but separate parts of an interlocking whole. They cannot be pitted against each other in some priority list. But they can be summarized," and this summary Jesus proceeded to give us.

"If you would keep the Commandments," he said, "you would love God with all of your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength, with all your being. And you would love your neighbor with the same love with which you love yourself. You are to love God; you are to love your neighbor; you are to love yourself. On these things hangs all of God’s Law," Jesus said.

The Covenant people received the Law. Their narrative history portrays it as being first given at the foot of Mount Sinai some twelve hundred fifty years before the birth of Jesus. That Law and that Covenant are renewed every time a new life enters the life of the people of God.

The Ten Commandments are now complete, but the full body of the Jewish Law is still to come in all of its cultic detail. That Law dominates the balance of the Book of Exodus. It covers every facet of human relationships; it spells out punishment for crime; it states the way children, servants, and animals are to be treated; it gives directions in intimate detail for worship, sacrifice, burnt offering, dressing the altar, and a thousand other details. It stretches past the Book of Exodus into Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.

The remainder of the Book of Exodus has only a few narrative sections. On one of Moses’ trips up the mountain, he stays too long with God, and the people ask Aaron to make them golden calves to worship. Aaron complies. Moses returns, and there is a vindictive moment of judgment. This is where Moses smashes the two tablets of stone on which, presumably, the Ten Commandments are written.

The Book of Exodus constantly builds Moses up. He alone speaks face to face with God. God’s pillar of cloud rests upon Moses’ tent each day. Moses returns to the mountain, and God rewrites the Ten Commandments on new stone, presumably to replace the previous ones that were broken. In this way, the later editors of the Torah harmonize the fact that there was more than one version of the Ten Commandments.

The Book of Exodus closes with the people of Israel busily engaged in building a proper sanctuary for the Lord. It is a portable sanctuary, for they are still a pilgrim people destined to wander for some forty years as nomads in the wilderness, learning, worshiping, preparing for the day when they claim the Land of the Promise and make it their holy land forever.

I hope that the message of the Bible once again is fresh and relevant to the complex life of our twentieth century. I hope~ that underneath its words, which are culturally conditioned words, filled with a vocabulary and with the concepts of a world that is no longer, the truth of God is revealed. The Bible is the Word of God, but the words of the Bible are not the words of God, and that is a crucial difference. The Word of God is still heard beneath the words of Scripture, and that Word of God still gives life wherever it is spoken. In the case of our Lord, who was the Word of God incarnate speaking to human history, that Word gives life wherever it is lived.

Hear the Word beneath the words, and enter the experience of worship. Respond to the God of the Covenant not with pious activity but by living to the limit of your capability, by loving to the deepest capacity of your life, by being all that you are capable of being. It is in our commitment to live that we worship the God of life. It is in our commitment to love that we worship the God of love. It is in our commitment to be that we worship the God who is the infinite ground and ultimate source of all being. That is the call of God, the call of God’s Word. That is the call of him who said, "I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly."

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