As we come to the Ninth Commandment we again arrive in disputed territory. As you will recall, the Ten Commandments can be and have been split up differently so as to yield ten and not eleven commandments. Some Protestants break apart the First Commandment (yielding what I call the 1.5 Commandment against graven images). The Catholic tradition, in contrast, leaves the First Commandment whole and breaks apart the following text:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17)
The breakage is summed up this way:
Ninth Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
Tenth Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.
We will bracket the discussion of the Tenth Commandment till next week—except to note one point. Moderns should pay attention to the fact that the Tradition shows, in a place we would hardly expect it, a curiously feminist streak. Whereas the code delivered to Bronze Age men simply tumbles the wife in with all the other property, the Catholic catechetical tradition pulled her out of the inventory and makes a rather sharp distinction between the kind of coveting that happens when you’ve got your eye on the neighbor’s Prius and the kind of coveting that happens when you’ve got your eye on the neighbor’s missus. And, of course, all this goes for coveting the neighbor’s husband too.
Before we can talk about coveting the neighbor’s spouse, we need to talk about coveting. The striking thing about the Ninth and Tenth Commandments is that they are absolutely unenforceable by any human agency in the world—except for ourselves. For covetousness is a sin we commit in our souls, not in our bodies. To be sure, we can covet our neighbor’s spouse and bed him or her, but then we are committing adultery, for which there is already a whole ‘nother commandment. Yes, we can covet our neighbor’s goods so much that we stick a .38 in his ribs and demand his wallet. But that’s called stealing and the law has that one covered too. But merely coveting—just sitting there stewing over his hot wife, his sweet ride, or his good looks—all that happens in the Holy of Holies called the human soul and is knowable ultimately only by us—and by God.
This brings us back, once again, to the fact that the Ten Commandments are deeply rooted in the language of covenant with God, not in mere civics. The lesson of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments against coveting is the same as that of the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28).
In short, sin is rooted in the heart. What we do with our bodies is merely the fruit of the evil that comes from the heart. So the real work of curing sin has to begin there too.
It is worth noting that it was the law against covetousness that was Paul’s undoing. He had the external observance thing down pat. But when it came to honestly assessing what was within in the glaring light of the law, he was dismayed:
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. (Romans 7:7-12)
Paul’s enormous insight about the law came from this experience, seen in the light of Christ. For Paul, the law is good as an x-ray machine is good. It is indispensable for the healing process, but it cannot heal us. Like the x-machine, it looks within and tells us what’s wrong with us—and that’s all. It cannot help us get better any more than repeated x-rays will mend the broken bone. For that, they that are sick needeth the Physician Paul had encountered on the Damascus Road and in the life of the Church, especially the sacraments.
When we discussed the sin of adultery, we talked about the sort of romantic sentimental rubbish our culture throws at us to justify it. Some variation on “It’s sad to belong to someone else when the right one comes along” or “If loving you is wrong I don’t wanna be right” or “How can it be wrong when it feels so right?” is typical for us cinema-besotted fools when we are trying to convince ourselves to break the sixth commandment. Popular culture most often tends to associate the sin of adultery with the sin of lust.
Nonetheless, it is also the case that one can covet the spouse of another, not out of lust, but out of pride, just as we covet their car or job. We can set our sights on defeating the competition, on treating our neighbor’s spouse as the object of our affections when, in reality, he or she is a trophy to be gained and exulted over. Not a few people in this world regard sexual relations as a competitive sport and the human beings involved as either the opposing team or the ball to be moved down the field. Such people have not even the comparatively sympathetic scent of the romance-besotted adolescent. Rather, they exudes the stench of mere conquest. Very often, such people, having won the prize and humiliated the competition, often throw the trophy wife or boy toy away and begin again on somebody else’s spouse. Their true love is themselves. Other people are simply an apparatus to be used in obtaining the thrill of victory. Such people do indeed covet their neighbor’s spouse in exactly the same way they covet their neighbor’s house or goods.
But that is grist for our final look at the Ten Commandments, next week.
Wow, this is a fantastic breakdown, Mark. I have always admired your spiritual insight and gift for words. I’ve never seen that passage from Paul before, at least not in this light and in this way. He might be one to turn to for intercession when one struggles with unchastity of the heart and imagination, or secretive, chronic envy of others. Thank you for this reflection!