You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.
If you’ve ever seen Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, you’ll remember Anakin Skywalker’s first encounter with the Jedi Master Yoda. Anakin, you’ll remember, was cast as an awkward Messianic figure – as the one who would ultimately bring balance to the force, but Yoda had some reservations about even allowing him to be trained as a Jedi. Yoda looked at Anakin and saw in him fear, and famously commented: Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.“ Anakin, of course, did allow his fears to overtake him, turned to the dark side, and became Darth Vader (though he would later play a key part in overthrowing Emperor Palpatine by returning to good.)
But what you’ll notice in Yoda’s comment is the fact that it wasn’t the first emotion that was the problem – it was the way in which these feelings progressed. To be afraid can be a natural -and good- reaction to a variety of circumstances. But when anger builds upon fear into hate, then it becomes something else, and someone often suffers. You can see this in the way people often react to tragedy: the fear which is natural can quickly turn to anger, and rather than seeking peace and justice, we wind up looking for revenge… and then, there is always more suffering. This is why mercy is so important in the life of faith.
But this progression from feeling to sin does not just happen in the case of fear and anger, it can also happen when we covet (want) something that another has:
“Covetousness leads to greed, avarice, theft, robbery and fraud, violence and injustice, envy and immoderate desires to own what belongs to others.” -YouCat 465
The obvious example in my life is how much I would love to own a new car. I have never bought a brand new car. The cars I’ve owned have all been various used cars from six to seventeen years old. In 1999, I bought an ’82 Mercury Lynx; in 2001, it was a ’93 Oldsmobile; in 2003, a ’97 Pontiac Sunfire; in 2005, a 1992 Nissan Sentra; and in 2007, a 2000 Ford Focus. Currently, I am driving an ’04 Corolla, which my wife purchased new, but I only inherited when we bought her van. I would love to have the opportunity to pick the colors and features in a car, to drive it brand-new off the lot, to savor the new car smell, and to break the car in myself. But I know, for a variety of reasons, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. And while the desire for a new car itself isn’t bad (as with many good things), what can happen with it can harden my heart.
I have many friends who’ve pulled up to my house in their brand new car/truck. While I’m mostly happy for them, a part of my envies the good thing they’ve gotten. I want for it to be me getting the new car – or, at my lower moments, I resent what they’ve got. And envy (“sadness and annoyance at the sight of another’s well-being and the desire to acquire unjustly what others have” -YouCat 466) is not good for the soul:
“As rust consumes iron, so envy consumes the soul that is afflicted by it.” -St. Basil the Great
Instead of being happy for them, I look at what I don’t have. If you take my envy of other’s new car to an extreme, what might end up happening is that I am not only jealous of what they have (and I don’t), I might start to hope something bad happens so they can’t have or keep this new car. Instead of finding joy in this new thing my friend has, I grow to resent them and might do harm to our friendship. This commandment warns against letting our desires for good things lead us down this road (and other commandments encourage not to desire things which are not good or not good for us.)
How do you fight these disordered desires for stuff? YouCat offers two good suggestions on how to stop coveting your neighbor’s goods. The first, quite simply, is to choose to find joy in the good things other people have. This is what I work at doing when friends bring home cars: rather than getting stuck in what they have and I don’t, I look for the opportunity to be excited with them. Instead of dwelling on what’s missing from my life, I love my friends and am glad that they are happy. Basically, I try to make whatever new thing they have about them, and not about me. There will be moments where this will be easier, and moments where it will be more difficult; wanting a thing, job, or relationship that another has, but the key is not to give up the battle. We need to work at this as much as possible.
The second is to recognize that we’ve been made for more any ‘thing’ we desire in this life. When the rich young man asked Jesus what he needed to do to gain eternal life (Mark 10:17-22), he wasn’t just asking about how to get to Heaven, but is asking something much deeper:
The question in the Gospel does not regard only the future. On the contrary, it exists as a task in the present, in the ‘here’ and ‘now. In short, the young man’s question raises the issue of life’s meaning. … [W]hat must I do so that my life is not wasted? Jesus alone can give us the answer, because he alone can guarantee us eternal life. He alone, therefore, can show us the meaning of this present life and give it fullness.”
-Pope Benedict XVI, to the youth of Brazil: May 10, 2007
The Pope’s words echo what St. Augustine said in the fourth century: “You have made us for yourself, oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” There’s a sense here that all that we want is ultimately a longing for God. God has made us for more, but we spend a lot of time trying to ‘fill’ ourselves with too many other things. The ‘coveting’ that the final commandment discourages us from is not only trying to keep us from envy, but also reminding us that what we really want is God, and no thing will ever fulfill that desire:
“The ultimate and greatest longing of a person can only be for God. To see him, our Creator, Lord, and Redeemer, is unending blessedness.” -YouCat 468