“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). Once again, God condemns the sin of coveting – a desire to do what is wrong. While the Ninth Commandment has to do with justice and legal rights, the Tenth Commandment deals with people – spouses, children, workers, animals – that "belong" to your neighbor. God forbids you to wish or to plan to take these people from your neighbor, to possess them for yourself.
A BASIC HUMAN NEED
In his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (Small Catechism), Luther explains what is meant by “daily bread”: “Everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body.” Luther goes on to list the things you need for your physical well-being, a list that includes “cattle…a devout spouse, devout children, devout employees, devout and faithful rulers…good friends, faithful neighbors and other things like these.”
God has placed each of us in a special relationship to other people, and even to animals! In fact, every Christian has a sacred calling, or vocation, that includes the work we do, our position in the community, and the various duties that we owe to our spouses, our parents and children, our employers and employees, our rulers and neighbors, even our pets and cattle. In the same way, God has appointed all of them to serve us in the way fitting to their position.
This is how God provides for our needs. He delivers what we need through other people. And He uses us to serve the needs of others. Honest businessmen supply us with goods and services. Dutiful policemen protect us from crime. Skilled workmen create safe buildings for us to live in. Farms, factories, schools, and offices provide us with food, materials, and knowledge. And the church supplies us with God's saving Word and Sacrament.
In the Tenth Commandment, God desires us to serve our neighbors in Christian love, each according to his calling. So God forbids us to take a calling that does not rightfully belong to us. In the most basic, direct way, this goes against the law of love: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). To love your neighbor means to want him to have what he needs – not to take it away from him. And that includes the basic human need to belong where God has put you!
To love God and our neighbor means, as Luther says, “that we will not release his cattle, take his employees from him or seduce his wife, but urge them to stay and do what they ought to do” (Small Catechism). So loving our neighbors – willingly serving them from the heart – does not seem like a realistic possibility. In our hearts, we break this commandment every day.
Even King David, “the man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22), broke this commandment. David seduced the wife of his friend Uriah (see 2 Samuel 11), and treacherously schemed to take her as his own wife. The picture shows David looking at Uriah’s wife from the roof of his palace, coveting her. “And from the roof he saw a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful to behold” (2 Samuel 11:2). In very little time, this sinful desire turned David’s friendship with Uriah into murder.
Nevertheless, “vocational” love for one’s neighbor is possible. John 13:1 says that “when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” Jesus was arrested, tried, tortured, and put to death - for the sins of the world. That was Jesus' calling, and He fulfilled it perfectly.
Jesus carried out His calling to the very end: His painful death on the cross. He died to pay for our broken covenants, our twisted desires, our selfishness in stepping on others and putting our wants ahead of theirs. Because of Jesus’ death, our sins of coveting are forgiven. When we hear His Word and receive His Holy Supper, Jesus implants purer desires in our hearts and teaches us to love our neighbor better.
IMAGE: Solimena, Francesco (1657-1747). Bathseba in her bath. Canvas, 103 x 128 cm. Location: Residenzgalerie, Salzburg, Austria. Photo Credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY