Coveting: America’s Favorite Deadly Sin
I attended a Lutheran elementary school, grades one through eight, back during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. It was a traditional education with a lot of memorization—presidents, state capitals, books of the Bible and so forth. I still can recite those lists but it gets tougher with each passing year.
The key to our memory work, as we called it back then, was the Small Catechism written by Martin Luther as an aid for fathers to teach their children. It was organized around what are called the chief parts of the faith such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments. In addition to the historic text of these doctrinal statements, Luther wrote simple explanations that could be memorized . . . of course . . . and recited upon request. And trust me, we were requested to daily.
What gave me the most problems back then were the two commandments on coveting. We Lutherans split coveting into two commandments for some reason I never knew. Graven images were out; coveting was doubled down. I didn’t even know what coveting was and I had to memorize two separate commandments and their explanations.
These days I am a volunteer at the Lutheran school my grandchildren attend and memory work is still emphasized, so much so that it is part of daily chapel. Last week it was the Ninth and Tenth commandments, the coveting ones, so as I sat in chapel I recited them and their meanings with 100 plus children.
I got some of the words wrong but, in my defense, the vocabulary has been modernized. For example we now are instructed not to covet our neighbor’s donkey rather than his ass. Not all modernization is bad.
One aspect of Luther’s theological genius is that he taught the commandments as more than “thou shalt nots,” interpreting the commandments through the positive actions God demands. So with the donkey in question, we are told not to entice it away from our neighbor but urge it to stay and do its duty. Be assured; if my neighbor ever gets a donkey, I definitely will urge it to stay and do its duty.
Maybe I didn’t understand coveting during my formative years, but I certainly do now. Just follow the news. The underlying motivation for the “tax the rich” political agenda is based on covetousness. They have something they don’t deserve and we want it. Rather than be joyful about my neighbor’s good fortune, I am told that it rightfully belongs to me.
It is no longer a simple matter of keeping up with the Joneses; it has devolved to resenting what the Joneses have and believing that you are more deserving of it. In a word: coveting.
Having sat in chapel reciting with the school children, I could not help but reflect on how covetousness has become the invidious foundation of our culture. My thoughts then went from there to our political environment.
Why is it that one of our major political parties has built an economic agenda with coveting as the underlying principlel? Is it to motivate the voters by appealing to their baser instincts? And why does the other major political party have such difficulty in explaining its economic agenda in simple terms and supporting it with all the objective data that make its case? Must emotion trump data?
It is easy to blame the career politicians for our dysfunctional system but we need to remember that we voted for them, at least a majority of us did in each individual case. We can blame the national media for its deliberate distortions and lack of journalistic professionalism but then we keep tuning in, increasing their ratings and their ability to sell advertising.
They appeal to our covetous natures because it works for them, to get elected or to sell merchandise. The Ten Commandments and the church’s seven deadly sins included covetousness because it is an all too prevalent part of human nature. That lesson is not lost on our political and media elites.
Even Aesop understood this. Recall his fable of the dog with the bone in its mouth which saw its reflection in the stream and thought it was another dog with a bigger bone.
Coveting did not lead to happy endings in Aesop’s day nor will it in ours. Yet we as a nation seem unwilling or incapable of being led by the better part of our nature.
I am being unfair, in at least one respect. God did not ordain the commandments just so we could judge others. He meant them to be personal for each of us. So I better look inwardly at my propensity to covet that which is not mine.
Fortunately for me, another of the deadly sins is sloth. My defense is that I am too lazy to covet. Do you think St. Peter will buy that excuse at the pearly gates?
Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.