to covet, or not

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Gospels / Lectionary / New Testament / Old Testament

The following is a reflection on Luke 12:13-21, the Gospel lesson appointed to Proper 13C according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

9commandments Nearly a decade ago I read the late Dr. David Noel Freedman’s wonderful, and sadly lost in the shuffle, book, “The Nine Commandments.” In the book Dr. Freedman illustrates a pattern that through all his years of scholarly study he discovered in the first ten books of the Bible: a pattern of Israel publicly and systematically breaking each of the first nine commandments, of the Ten Commandments.

The pattern ends with the destruction of Jerusalem along with the murder and subjugation of its inhabitants. The pattern is so compelling, as even small sections of narrative concerning the breaking of these commandments interrupt sections of scripture which aren’t narrative in character, like Leviticus and Numbers. In other words non-narrative sections of scripture are broken so that the story of another commandment being broken can be told.Of course, the startling thing is that it’s the Nine Commandments, and not the Ten Commandments.

What happened? Where’s the Tenth?

Dr. Freedman’s analysis on this point is illuminating. The tenth commandment is “though shall not covet.” It’s the only commandment that deals with an interior predisposition. You can’t murder someone without there being a body. You can’t commit adultery, without another person’s involvement. You can’t profane the sabbath day without someone noticing. The first nine commandments aren’t things that happen just inside the mind or soul of a person – they are actions that happen.

But, coveting is something that only happens within a person. You can’t prove that someone has coveted anything. It’s unprovable.

Until they act on it.

Dr. Freeman’s insight is that coveting is at the heart of every broken commandment. David coveting Bathsheba. The men of Sodom coveting Lot’s visitors. Adam and Eve coveting the fruit – and the promise that went with it’s ingestion.

Coveting is at the heart of sin. We want. We desire.

And sometimes we want and desire the right things. God. Our spouse. Goodness.

And sometimes we covet that which isn’t right. Money. Stuff. Our neighbor’s spouse.

The story we have from Luke’s Gospel today deals with coveting. A man covets ‘stuff’ and builds larger and larger barns to hold all the stuff he’s acquired.

But, this isn’t a simple parable meant to ward us off of greed. It’s a story to demonstrate two different interior predispositions. Do we live with a predisposition towards God, or to something else?

That’s what this passage is about.

And Jesus’ point is the point of the Old Testament (according to Dr. Freedman): living a life predisposed to coveting anything is the road that leads to sin. And it’s a well worn path. And it’s a path that leads no where good.

Seeking out a ‘holy grail’ in the scriptures – a Grand Unified Theory of the Bible is a task that has kept many busy. And Dr. Freedman’s answer is one such theory and answer. And, if you look at this pericope through his prism, I think it is illuminating. And haunting.

The kind of faith that Jesus intends us to have is the kind that goes beyond going to church for an hour a week, or even doing a good deed from time to time. It’s a faith that springs up from within us. It’s an interior way of living, being, and interacting with the world and everything in it.

And, if we have this faith that Jesus compels us towards, then we don’t need anyone to arbitrate a dispute over our inheritance. We don’t build larger and larger barns to hold more and more stuff.

It’s the path of the fool, in Jesus’ language.

But, to live predisposed to seeking God, is being rich towards God.


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