Thou Shalt not Covet.
William Shakespeare described it as “the green sickness” in Anthony and Cleopatra. Elsewhere in Othello he called it the green-eyed monster.
Today we examine last of the 10th commandments which reads - ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’
Perhaps the first thing to note in this commandment is the status of the wife, who is listed as part of the belongings or property of the man or the husband, alongside his house, his servants his ox and his donkey. This has understandably not gone down very well with many women in more recent decades. The status of women as the property of men rather than as equal adult partners in a marriage quite accurately reflects the culture of the ancient Israelites and indeed many cultures still today. Judging from levels of violence against women and domestic abuse, there are still a certain percentage of men even in the UK who would regard their wives and girlfriends more like a possession than a free thinking human being in their own right. This might be an aspect of the 10 Commandments that deserves our critique.
Furthermore, the 10th Commandment overlooks completely the possibility of a woman who might desire her neighbours husband. Apparently women get out of this commandment scott-free. It seems it only applies to men. Maybe they thought women don’t have such desires of their own.
The second interesting thing to note is that some scholars suggest that the 10th commandment was not so much intended to prevent what we would understand as the admiring of another’s possessions. Rather the 10th commandment was more specifically to avoid the evil consequences of what is called ‘the evil eye’, a belief held by a variety of cultures all over the world from highlands of Scotland, the green fields of Ireland, to the West Indies, ancient Assyria, Turkey, Ethiopia, Senegal, Pakistan, Italy, Brazil and India to name but a few.
According to these various cultures, the evil eye represents jealousy in human beings which can cast a spell of bad luck and destructive influence on the well-being of those around them. Such a malevolent spell could affect people’s wealth and health and also that of livestock and crops. And so coveting was not just the desire to possess someone else’s property, but in a dark magical sense was believed to be able to actually cause harm towards other people.
Ancient Hebrew belief in the evil eye can be seen in two ancient Hebrew words. The Hebrew word keshep, that is translated as coveting, can mean ‘a thing done in secret’. It can also convey the meaning ‘to cast a spell’ as well as ‘to poison’. Another Hebrew word kishif, can mean both coveter or sorcerer.
Even putting the magical concept of the evil eye aside, jealousy and envy, two emotions associated with coveting can so easily destroy and undermine relationships.
The Bible is full of stories of the dangers of how coveting jealousy and envy can disrupt and break relationships:
Joseph with his multi-coloured coat was envied by his brothers which led to them conspiring against him and selling him into slavery.
In the New Testament, the Jews of Thessalonica were ‘jealous’ of Paul and Silas and so formed a mob, setting the city into uproar and attacking a house.
According to Matthew 27:18 the Jewish authorities delivered Jesus to Pilate because they envied him and his popularity. Their envy had turned to resentment and hatred, finally leading to the desire to see him killed and eliminated. This jealousy and envy comes through in Luke’s retelling of the Palm Sunday story. Out of jealousy, the Pharisees in the crowd instruct Jesus to rebuke his disciples and to tell them to be quiet.
It is clear that you don’t need to believe in the magical power of the evil eye to see how destructive and dangerous envy, jealousy and coveting can be.
What is in fact interesting is that even Jesus refers to coveting using language that echoes that of the evil eye. Whether Jesus believed in the concept in a magical sense or whether he knew how destructive envy and jealousy can be in a more ordinary sense, we find Jesus referring to it in Matthew 6:22-23 where he says the eye is the lamp of the body.
He does so in the context of speaking about storing up treasures and money. He says that if your eye is healthy, in other words, generous and loving, your whole body will be filled with light. But if your eye is unhealthy, in other words, ungenerous, stingy, envious and jealous, your whole body will be filled with darkness. He ends by saying that no-one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money.
Envy, jealousy and coveting for Jesus brings a darkness to the soul, and while this darkness of the soul will surely cast it’s shadow on those around it, the first victim of envy and jealousy is always the person who harbours the jealousy and envy in the first place casting a shadow of darkness over the human soul. It is not for nothing that we say that a person is green with envy. It has the power to discolour the soul of a person.
In Hebrew culture, the eye was therefore not understood in the scientific sense as something that took in light and converted it into images in our brains of what we see. Instead, the eye was understood to be a lamp that was meant to give out light. And there is a truth in all of this. People who are open, honest, generous and loving generally have eyes that are open and bright as though a light is shining from within them. But this light in the eyes is often what is missing or dimmed and shadowed in a person who is deceitful, manipulative, jealous and envious. It is not for nothing that eyes are spoken of as the window of the soul. Have you ever noticed for instance how in a surge of anger it is like one’s vision becomes glazed over. You can also sometimes see a shadow or a glazing coming over the eyes of others when gripped by resentment, anger and hatred.
And so according to Jesus, a sound or healthy eye is one that is generous. One that rejoices in the good fortune of others. Buddhists have a word for this. They call it Mudita. It is sympathetic or unselfish joy that finds joy in the good fortune of others. It is the positive quality of being able to share in the happiness of another and feel appreciation and joy when someone else is experiencing happiness. Buddhists regard Mudita as one of the four immeasurable s which also includes Love, regarding others with positivity and acceptance, Compassion, wanting others to be free of suffering, and Equanimity, having a clear and tranquil state of mind that is not easily shaken. These would all I believe correspond with Jesus image of the eye or the countenance that is healthy and sound.
By contrast the eye that is unhealthy, divided, or evil is one that looks greedily upon others wealth and status, wishing it was one’s own and often leading to hatred and ill-will towards the other. In such instances the lamp of the eye becomes dark inside that person and towards others. We were all made to shine. But covetous, envy and jealousy covers over that natural, God-given original state in which we were made.
How do we avoid unhealthy envy, jealousy and covetousness?
Buddhists practice what they called Metta or loving-kindess meditation as one method for over-coming the poisons of greed and hatred. Firstly one begins by wishing oneself well: May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free, may I bee at peace. Next the practice is to wish other people well starting with people who are close to us and then moving on to those who are more neutral to us, to those that we struggle to get on with. May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free, may they be at peace. Then finally the practice ends with a general wish for the well-being of all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free. May all beings be at peace. Such a practice helps to water the seeds of loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic-joy towards other people.
Within out Christian tradition praying for others is a similar means by which the Lamp of Love within us can shine more brightly. And Jesus himself suggests that our prayers should extend beyond just those we love, but also to those we struggle to love, and to our enemies, that God’s love might be made perfect within us.
A second practice within our Christian tradition is the deliberate cultivation of gratitude. Gratitude helps us to treasure what we have and so fosters a greater sense of contentment, which means that we begin to find joy from within rather than looking to external things to give us joy and happiness.
A third practice within our Christian tradition is to do acts of kindness, generosity and love which turns our energy from being inward looking to becoming outward looking.
And lastly, within our Christian tradition we have the practice of confession, admitting to ourselves and to God when dark shadows begin to fall over our soul and when our thoughts, emotions and actions have become less than loving, dimming God’s brightness within us. And with this practice of confession comes not just a growing self-awareness of the changing weather patterns of our own hearts, but also a growing awareness of the wisdom of love itself, that living in love is far more emotionally beneficial and satisfying than stewing in the dark emotions of envy, jealousy, resentment and hatred that often flow from covetousness.
Wendy asked me: Does that mean I shouldn’t fancy someone else’s shoes? I wonder if the answer is whether our envy is innocent admiration or if it has become something else, causing us to begrudge, or resent the one whose shoes they are and thus casting a shadow over our hearts and our eyes?
I close with the words of Scripture: Proverbs 14:30 – A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. And the words of Paul in 1 Cor 13:4 “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy.”
May God bless you, and may the lamp of your eye shine brightly on others with the love of Christ.