Monday, October 3, 2011

Coveting: the bad and the good

The Ten Commandments (or ten words from God) are apodictic, i.e., they proscribe certain behaviors, unlimited by time and independent of circumstance. This negative formulation, prohibitive instead of permissive, expands the horizons of acceptable human behavior. People must avoid only proscribed behaviors rather than everything not explicitly permitted.[1]

Intriguingly, Christians enumerate the Ten Commandments in two different ways:

1.    The Church Fathers, Anglicans, and Reformed Churches follow Josephus and Philo in numbering the Ten Commandments thusly: (1) the unity of God; (2) the prohibition against idol worship; (3) do not misuse God's name; (4) observe the Sabbath; (5) honor parents; do not (6) murder; (7) commit adultery; (8) steal; (9) bear false witness; (10) or covet.[2]

2.    According to St. Augustine, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Lutherans, the injunction concerning the oneness of God and the worship of images are a single commandment, while the last ‘word’ (covetousness) is really two: coveting another’s house and coveting another’s wife.

Today, I want to focus on the prohibition against coveting, the tenth, or the ninth and tenth, commandment, depending upon how one enumerates the commandments. Covetousness denotes desiring that to which a person has no proper claim. With objects like money, a house, or a toy, this desire can become internet piracy, outright theft, or destructive anger toward the rightful owner. Similarly, we may desire an intangible like power or fame, e.g., taking credit for another’s work, falsely inflating our ego, or even becoming so self-centered that we hurt others. Or, we may wrongly desire another person, dreaming of an exploitative or unhealthy relationship.

Regardless of its nature, covetousness, one of the seven deadly sins, is spiritually deadly. Buddhism insightfully teaches that coveting causes much human suffering: “What, in fact, causes so much misery in the world is the universal impulse of acquisition. As power is desired, the strong always tyrannize over the weak; as wealth is coveted, the rich and poor are always crossing swords of bitter enmity. International wars rage, social unrest ever; increases, unless this impulse to get and to hold is completely uprooted.”[3]

Conversely, “wanting is everything in the spiritual life… Spiritual teachers … have long insisted, in fact, that to want is to have. The desiring of God is itself the end, not simply the beginning of the process by which one is joined to the Divine…. As Bernard of Clairvaux once exclaimed, ‘The one who seeks for God, has already found him.’”[4] Do you want, do you covet, God?

In 1625, a French Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Vincent de Paul, established the Congregation of the Mission, a community of priests who undertook to renounce all ecclesiastical advancement, devoting themselves to work in the impoverished small towns and villages of France. In an age not noted for "interdenominational courtesy," he instructed his missioners to treat Protestants as fellow Christians, with respect and love, without patronage or condescension or contentiousness. Wealthy men and women came to him, expressing a wish to amend their lives. He organized them into a Confraternity of Charity and set them to work caring for the poor and sick in hospitals and home visits. In 1633, the Archbishop or Paris gave Vincent the Priory of St Lazare as a headquarters. There, Vincent offered two-week retreats six times a year, each for about eighty students preparing for the ministry. He then began to offer similar retreats for laypersons of all classes and widely varying backgrounds. He said, identifying Lazarus of the Parable with Lazarus of Bethany:

This house was formerly used as a retreat for lepers, and not one of them was cured. Now it is used to receive sinners, who are sick men covered with spiritual leprosy, but are cured by the grace of God. Nay, rather, they are dead men brought back to life. What a joy it is to think that the house of St Lazare is a house of resurrection! Lazarus, after he had been four days in the tomb, came out alive, and our Lord who raised him up still gives the same grace to many who, after staying here some days as in the grave of Lazarus, come out with a new life.

Out of Vincent’s Confraternity of Charity arose an order of nuns called the Daughters (or Sisters) of Charity, devoted to nursing those who were sick and poor. Vincent said of them, "Their convent is the sick-room, their chapel the parish church, their cloister the streets of the city." Parents abandoned many babies in Paris every year. When Vincent saw some of them, he established an orphanage for foundlings, and thereafter often wandered through the slums, looking in corners for abandoned babies, which he carried to the orphanage.[5]

The legacy of Vincent de Paul lives on today, in not only the commemoration of his life and ministry as a saint of God, but in the religious orders that he founded and the St. Vincent de Paul Societies, dedicated to caring for the spiritual and material needs of the disadvantaged. In Vincent and with Vincent’s cooperation, God transformed coveting ecclesial advancement into coveting a closer walk with God.

What (or who) do you covet?

[1] G. Ernest Wright and Reginald H. Fuller, The Book of the Acts of God (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), p. 90.
[2] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Book III, Chapter V, 5), and Philo, On the Decalogue (50-51).
[3] D.T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism: An Introduction (New York: Grove Press, 1964), p. 120.
[4] Belden C. Lane, “Thomas Traherne and the Awakening of Want,” Anglican Theological Review Vol. 81:4 (Fall 1999), p. 651.
[5] James Kiefer, “Vincent de Paul, Helper of the Poor,” accessed September 27, 2011 at

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