In the first reading at Mass on Sunday, August 29th, from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses instructed the people of Israel to follow the commandments given to them by God. Have you ever noticed the Ten Commandments have a couple of repeats? First, there’s a commandment that says, “You shall not steal.” Then later, it says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.”
Another commandment says, “You shall not commit adultery.” Then later we read, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.”
What’s the deal here? Why does God repeat Himself? Isn’t the prohibition against doing certain behaviors good enough? Why does God then go and prohibit merely thinking about certain behaviors?
It seems that God is telling us that we are violating His law if we simply think about something, even though we don’t even lift a finger to do it. That’s weird, isn’t it? I mean, it’s almost like God is telling us that if we crave something — say, a new boat — or if we are envious of something our neighbor has — say, his new 96” flat screen TV — we have already committed a sin. That makes no sense, does it? Envy is good, isn’t it? Envy is the heart of modern advertising, and as we all know, advertising is the engine that makes the economy run, and we all want a strong economy, don’t we? If we didn’t envy a new boat or a big screen TV, then we might not take out a second mortgage or max out our credit cards or dip into the kids’ college fund so we can buy the items we crave. Which means the economy would suffer.
And what about the “covet your neighbor’s wife” thing? If I didn’t know better, I’d think God is saying that lust is bad. Huh? What’s God talking about? Lust is the second most important facet of modern advertising, right behind envy. Why do you think they use pretty women in bikinis to sell everything from power tools to pizza to Olympic beach volleyball? Simple, because it works.
With so much actual stealing and adultery and other bad behavior taking place nowadays, you would think God would be satisfied as long as we refrain from doing it. It’s the action that is sinful, right? Surely God doesn’t care what goes on in the recesses of our sneaky little minds and hearts, as long as we don’t actually do it. As long as we don’t steal something, as long as we don’t commit adultery, there’s nothing wrong with some covetous thoughts now and then, is there?
Well, Jesus seems to think so. In this week’s gospel reading He offered an important warning. “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed,” He explained. “All these evils come from within and they defile.”
It’s a funny thing with God. What He wants most of all is to be in a loving relationship with us. That is the one and only reason He created mankind in the first place — to share His love with us. When it comes to relationships, behavior is important, of course, but the mind and the heart are just as important. God does not want us to be obedient but resentful servants; He wants us to be soul mates.
God is no dummy, even if it seems He doesn’t quite understand modern advertising nor the concept of “just having a little harmless fun.” God knows us better than we know ourselves. He wants what is best for us: to be in loving relationships, first with Him and then with our fellow human beings. As long as we think coveting is no big deal, as long as we entertain envious and lustful thoughts and desires, we are in serious trouble. Which is exactly why God repeated Himself in the Ten Commandments. And which is why we must pay attention and take those commandments to heart.