Danger – Beware of Covetousness
If someone were to accuse you of being of a covetous disposition, you would probably deny it. I know I should! Yet Jesus referred so often to covetousness, envy, jealousy, that we are bound to conclude it was a common failing among the people with whom He came into contact in those days, and presumably with us also. We gather that He regarded it as a cardinal sin which effectively blocks a a person’s spiritual growth and development. Covetousness is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, as you know, and Swedenborg tells us that Covetousness lies behind and within almost every other evil. We should try very hard, therefore, to see what covetousness is, and whether or not we are actually guilty of it.
Let us examine some of the instances of covetousness referred to in the gospels. First, Luke 12:15, from which my title is taken: “Beware of Covetousness.” One of the company said to Jesus, “Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.” (Even in those days, apparently, families quarreled over wills!) And Jesus replied, “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you? Take heed of covetousness, for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” There is nothing said here against the just and fair distribution of an inheritance among the heirs. But this man was evidently making too much of it altogether, actually taking it to Jesus for a settlement! The reply is: “Don’t take this matter of worldly possessions so seriously! You are letting it eat you up! Surely there are more important things for you to worry about than a mere legacy! Try to see things in their proper perspective!”
Then there is the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20). Here we find a clear case of jealousy. The laborers who began work at sunrise had been quite content with the terms offered: one denarius as wages for a day’s work. But when they saw that others who had worked for only one hour as against their twelve were given one denarius, they expected to receive more; and when they did not get it, they were indignant. But the Master rebuked them and said: “Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius? What is it to you if someone else gets better terms than you? Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own?”
Next comes the incident of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). This has given offence to a great number of people, because indeed it undermines our whole value system. Our culture is “Martha-oriented,” and we place our hope of salvation in doing good works. Literally dozens of women have told me during my ministry that they sympathize with Martha, and that Jesus was mistaken in saying what He said. Well, I am not prepared to discuss whether or not Jesus was mistaken. All I can do is to try to put the little incident in its true setting. Martha, you will remember, was “cumbered about much serving,” doing her best to make a delicious meal for Jesus as a way of expressing her love for Him. Normally, I suppose, Jesus and His disciples subsisted on a handful of salted olives, some dry bread from a bin, a few dried fish perhaps, and a basket of figs, none of which needed much preparation. Mary, on the other hand, was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening raptly to His wonderful conversation. A delightful scene from every point of view, except for one thing: Martha’s jealousy! Martha was jealous of Mary and said to Jesus: “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.” And, because of that note of complaint, Jesus took Mary’s part and rebuked Martha. If she could not serve Him joyfully, He would rather she did not serve Him at all. Her sour word destroyed all the good she was doing. Now, suppose it had been the other way around, and Mary had complained of Martha? I can well imagine her saying: “Lord, stop my sister from fussing around like this! I can’t concentrate on what you are saying, with her coming and going and moving things around! Is eating so important?” If Mary had spoken like that, I am sure Jesus would have rebuked her! “Mary, Mary! You are sitting at my feet, listening to what I have to say concerning the Kingdom. But Martha is expressing her love in a different way. What right have you to say that your way is superior to hers?”
We get the same teaching in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Here the jealousy was on the part of the elder brother, who saw no reason why his Father should roll out the red carpet for the wastrel who had squandered his inheritance with riotous living in a far country. “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandments; and yet thou never gayest me even a kid that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this thy son was come, who hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.” And wasn’t there some justice in his complaint? Surely. But you cannot apply man’s principles of justice to God’s ways with man. God is not motivated by justice but by love. And of course, the rather loved both his sons equally, as God loves us all. His rebuke of his elder son was due entirely to that one’s jealousy towards his younger brother. The elder son was jealous because the prodigal got more than he deserved; and jealousy closes us up, alienates us, separates us from our heavenly Father, makes it impossible for Him to bless us as he is longing to do. It is a cardinal sin, much worse than the sin of wantonness and profligacy of which the younger son was guilty.
There are several other incidents and parables in the gospels teaching the same hard lesson, but I think I have quoted enough to make the point. Maybe I will just mention one more conversation, which Jesus had with Peter and John after the Resurrection. He foretells that Peter will glorify God by suffering some terrible death in his old age (crucifixion upside down, as it turned out). Then Peter, turning about, saw John standing there, and asked Jesus, “What shall this man do?” Jesus replied, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me” – which is the last thing Jesus said, as recorded in the gospels.
What is that to thee! What does it matter to you if other people prosper or get better treatment than you do, or better than they deserve, or than you think they deserve? Yet how common, almost universal, is this demand for one’s rights, this pushing forward of oneself in the name of justice, this elbowing of one’s way to the front to get one’s share of the good things, and this agonizing cry of dismay if someone else gets favorable treatment! Most of the wars of history, and in our contemporary world, can be traced to jealousy, envy or covetousness, each nation wanting to be one better than the others. The same evil is ruining America at the present time: strikes for better pay, picketing, riots, trouble on the campuses, even doctors and nurses demanding easier conditions of work and bigger remunerations, to say nothing of congressmen and senators, and the President himself having his salary raised! Now let us pause a moment and see what we mean, or we shall be getting jealous of the President, which is the very thing we must beware of doing! If somebody can get his salary increased, good luck to him! It doesn’t hurt you or me. And how about better terms for taxi drivers and law students? Fine! Social justice, and improvement of conditions of labor for all. It is an expression of one’s love of one’s fellow man, to do all in one’s power to better the lot of others. And one’s own lot too, by any reasonable means. But to make so much of it that one would go to Jesus with one’s complaints, and say, “Lord, speak to my brother that he divide the inheritance with me” – as if it were a matter of life and death to get the biggest possible share of the loot … that is ridiculous! It is when one gets emotional about it, and consumed with indignation on one’s own behalf, that Jesus replies, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”
A lady once told me how she and her sister had been estranged for twenty or thirty years because, when their parents died, the sister had taken a silver tea service which my friend said should have come to her. And then, all those years later, they had met somewhere, and the sister had said: “I am sorry about that silver tea service. It had meant so much to me when mother died, but we have never used it; and now I am wondering why I let it cause this rift between your family and ours. Would you like to have it?” And her sister replied, “I don’t think I would have any use for it either. We have been silly, haven’t we?” Years of love and companionship sacrificed for a piece of property which nobody needed.
We had a rather similar case in our family, between two sisters-in-law, who lived for three years as near neighbors in a small town in England, back in the forties, but never made any contacts; and years later, after one had been overseas and come back again, they met, and, on talking over the past, discovered that each had thought the other snobbish and “superior,” and so, because of stupid feelings of mutual jealousy, they had lost three years of what might have been very happy and fruitful fellowship. Each had thought the other poised and mature in comparison with herself, whereas in fact both had been desperately insecure, timid and afraid; each had been merely “putting on an act” to conceal her own feelings of inadequacy. What a tragic situation!
Most of these troubles arise from the ingrained habit of assessing, valuing, comparing oneself with other people. This is a very dangerous pastime and almost always causes trouble. For suppose you find yourself inferior to the other person in some respect? This arouses feelings of envy and puts you in a demeaning position, unworthy of your high estate as a child of God. On the other hand, suppose you find yourself superior? That makes you conceited and condescending. The only way to avoid feelings of inferiority or superiority, both of which are damning, is to accept yourself for what you are, with all your limitations and your gifts, and try to improve yourself in your own eyes and in the sight of God, without comparing yourself with other people at all. We used to have a saying when I was young: “comparisons are odious,” and how true that is! The critical assessment and evaluation of human qualities and rights, and the making of comparisons between one person and another, this should be avoided at all cost. God has expressly forbidden us to judge others. “Judge not,” He says, “that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged”; and insofar as you condemn others, you will be condemned. It is an inexorable law.
Do you want the Lord to assess and evaluate and judge you? God forbid! As Hamlet said in Shakespeare’s play, “Use every man after his desert, and who should escape whipping?” Fortunately for us, God does not use us after our desert; it does not work out that way. God maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. Heaven is free for all who want it; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Therefore, if God loves His children in this way, without discrimination, seeking the welfare of all with equal solicitude, so ought we to love one another, icing in our neighbor’s good fortune when he is fortunate and doing all in our power to alleviate his condition if things go wrong. And we should do this, not with the idea of earning a high place in God’s favor, which cannot be earned anyway, but from pure outgoing love.
How hard some of us try to be good! We feel we must earn heaven with the sweat of our brow. If we are estranged from God, we think we can win back His favor by working extra hard for Him. But it is not like that at all! Take the illustration of a husband and wife who are estranged, and perhaps have not spoken to each other for days. The wife thinks she will try to win back her husband’s love by cooking him a delicious meal; but, if she serves it in a sullen way and sits eating it in silence, he also will be sullen and silent and will scarcely notice what he is eating. Nothing done by either party will have any effect upon the situation, except one thing only: a show of love. Love alone, not strain and struggle and hard work, restore broken human relationships; and love alone can restore our broken relationships with God. There are only two Great Commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with heart, soul, mind and strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Martha doubtless thought she was “earning” merit in her Master’s eyes by slaving in the kitchen, but she was not. The elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son claimed a high place in his Father’s affections because “These many years have I served thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment.” To which the Father replied, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” There was no need for him to struggle to get and enjoy it; it was there all the time! So with the parable of the vineyard. Those who had labored all day, believed they had earned more than those who had worked for only one hour; and by worldly standards they were right. But in spiritual matters, the only law to operate is the law of retaliation. If we love God and the neighbor, we are filled with love, from God and from the neighbor: that is our reward. But if we criticize and condemn others, we are criticized and condemned. It is as simple as that: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again.”
I seem to have got a long way from the Danger of Covetousness, but in fact I have not, for we shall be in no danger of covetousness if we can stop applying to spiritual things the competitive attitudes of the capitalist society in which we have been brought up. Competition may pay off in the production of consumer goods, things like automobiles, tooth paste and hair spray. But in the eyes of the Lord there is no competition whatsoever. Each man is given what he needs for his spiritual development, according to his capacities at any particular moment. As he opens himself and expands his capacities, so he receives more; if he closes his capacities, he receives less. Sowe get the law of spiritual economics enunciated by Jesus Himself, which has been such a stumbling-block because it seems so unjust, unfair: “Whosoever hath, to him shall be given and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away, even that he hath” (Matthew 13:12). Jesus called this one of the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, which could only be understood by those who have ears to hear. May He enlighten our minds so that we can understand and receive it, looking not for justice but for love, pouring out our own love without reservation, neither envying anyone nor coveting anything, but being satisfied with our situation as sons and daughters of God, heirs to His glorious Kingdom.