Greed and envy, despite the devastating havoc they wreak within life, get little ink. Too rarely do we examine what covetousness does in our lives.
This was not the case for past generations. We used have a list of what we called “the seven deadly sins”. On the top of that compilation sat the sin of pride, as well it should. Somewhere down the list, however, there appeared a vice called greed. This was not an incidental addition. In the moral mind of the time, the prohibition on greed, the commandment to not covet our neighbour’s goods, was an important injunction.
Usually, however, greed was understood rather one dimensionally. We thought of greed mainly as a disordered desire to accumulate more and more material things. Hence, our image of a greedy person was that of a fat, rich, hoarding figure that, despite already having everything in excess, still wanted more.
Whatever the merit of that image, it is, as has been just suggested, very one-dimensional. Greed is considerably more universal than this and most of us are too impoverished in any case to emulate this kind of hoarding. Yet all of us suffer from greed, even if we are so poor that we can only look with hungry eyes at those who own enough goods to make us envious. Greed is about much more than owning and hoarding things. Real greed is a greed for experience itself. Deep inside of each of us there is an insatiable gnawing, an ache to experience everything, to drink in the whole world. It is this aching that makes so pathologically restless, so bent on travelling everywhere, on seeing every movie, on reading every book, on having more and more friends, and on being everywhere and knowing everything. Greed is the desire to not be excluded, from anything.
Partly, of course, this is good. It comes from what is best in us, the fire of infinity, the Imago Dei, and is God’s way of assuring that we will not be satisfied with anything other than everything. In its best sense, greed assures us that our hearts will be restless until they rest in God. Thus, at one level, greed is sign of health, a sign that we are not clinically depressed. When we no longer lust and yearn after things, we are in trouble.
On the other hand, there is an aspect to this, greed and restlessness, that is very unhealthy. Desire to have what we do not have is unhealthy when, precisely, it leads to a restlessness that makes us curse the inadequacy of our own lives and curse others for having more (or, at least, what seems to us to be more) than we have. Restless desire, greed for experience, becomes a vice when it leads to envy and covetousness. It is this unhealthy yearning, envy that is forbidden by the tenth commandment: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.
But from this description of greed it is evident that I covet my neighbour’s goods not just when I envy another person’s material property – his house, his boat, his car, his clothes, his bank account. I also covet my neighbour’s goods, and covet in a way that is very hurtful, when I envy his or her achievements, success, good looks, straight teeth, intelligence, athletic abilities, health, friends, family background, youth, calmness of spirit, or even his or her innocence and humility.
There is, of course, a healthy envy, called admiration, which blesses and draws forth life. It looks at a beautiful quality in another and, in attitude, gesture, or word, says: “In you, in your beauty, in your successes, I take delight!” Such healthy jealousy draws forth another’s gifts. But there is also an unhealthy envy, a murderous jealousy, which, rather than admiration and blessing, triggers in us the itch for slander, gossip, and various subtle kinds of fratricide. Such jealousy kills and kills especially the spirit of the man or woman within whom it dwells. It also helps crucify the life of the person to whom it is directed. This is the covetousness that is forbidden by the tenth commandment.
Recently a comedian suggested that the scriptural ban on coveting be lifted. His suggestion was that we allow people to covet, and then charge “a small covet charge”! All humour aside, this is a most important commandment. To covet is to give in to a greed and an envy which poisons the spirit, poisons relationships, poisons our gratitude, and leaves us too jealous, angry, and restless to enjoy our own lives.