Do Not Covet (Tenth Commandment)

And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Deut 5:21) [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

How many marriages and families have been destroyed over the years by the love of money? Disagreements over money are often cited as a leading cause of divorce.

Covetness is a cross between greed and envy. Greed is an extreme desire to possess something, while envy is an extreme desire that someone else not possess that which we desire. In either case, our desires lead us to treat others badly.

Both greed and envy are among the seven deadly (mortal) sins popularized by Thomas Aquinas in the twelfth century. Aquinas listed these as pride (vainglory), envy, anger, sloth (spiritual apathy), greed, gluttony, and lust [2]. He described them as capital sins because they lead to other sins and are the opposite of particular virtues (Aquinas 2003, 317–20). Just as virtue is an ongoing good character trait, a vice is an ongoing bad character trait.

Jesus coined a new word for covetness (mammon) when he said: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” [3]

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible transliterates the Greek word, mammon, which may also be translated as the god of money. The apostle Paul preferred to refer to covetness as the love of money. For example, Paul wrote:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim 6:10 NIV)

While covetness is a vice that causes relational difficulties, mammon is also idolatry. Something becomes idolatrous—becomes a god—when we love it more than God. Jesus warns us:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. (Matt 6:24)

Here we enter the realm of obsession and addiction as slaves of sin (John 8:34). We can be addicted to almost anything. Gerald May (1988, 14) writes: “addiction is a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire.” Two tests can be applied to potentially addictive behavior. Does the behavior disrupt relationships with the people closest to you? Do you experience withdrawal symptoms when you give it up? In this context, do you think covetness can rise to the level of addiction?

Henry Cloud (2008, 154) has an interesting suggestion for dealing with pain: “Look at the misery and then make a personal rule that will keep it from happening.” In this case, God has seen the pain in our lives and has given us a rule: don’t covet.

More generally, the Ten Commandments do three things: they reduce our pain, they simplify our lives, and they help us to model ourselves after the One who we claim to follow.

[1] Also: Exod 20:17; Deut 7:25; Rom 7:7; Rom 13:9.

[2] The seven deadly sin are often described using their Latin names. Those are superbia (pride), invidia (envy), ira (anger), gula (gluttony), luxuria (lust), avarita (greed), and accidia (sloth) (Fairlie, 2006, iv).

[3] Luke 16:13 KJV; Matt 6:24 KJV.


Aquinas, Thomas. 2003. On Evil (Orig Pub 1270). Translated by Richard Regan. Edited by Brian Davies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cloud, Henry. 2008. The One-Life Solution: Reclaim Your Personal Life While Achieving Greater Personal Success. New York: Harper.

Fairlie, Henry. 2006. The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Orig Pub 1978). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

May, Gerald G. 1988. Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. New York: HarperOne.


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