If God really is sovereign and He has promised to meet all our needs, then why do we covet? In this message Stephen reminds us that contentment will be found when we stop asking for more from God and start asking for more of God.
“ONE NATION UNDER GREED”
My wife is out of town this weekend. She is at a wedding of a cousin. And it’s really been fascinating, the moment I started studying on this particular command, it seemed like I was confronted with covetous situations more than ever. In fact, I’m so glad to be preaching this because we can get past it and get on to something else! One of my favorite automobiles is that Volvo 760 GLE turbo. It’s a great family car. It really is. And then when the family is not with you, you’ve got that turbo. But we had a family call us, a dear family called and my wife answered and they said, “Hey, I understand you’re going to Atlanta. What are you going to drive?” And my wife said, “Well, you know, the Chrysler.” And they said, “No. We just bought a brand new car. We want you to take that to Atlanta.” You guessed it. They pulled up in the driveway in a brand new 1990 760 GLE Volvo turbo. My wife won’t even appreciate it. That’s the problem. She won’t get a thing out of that eight speaker system and everything else. And they called up and I thought, “Lord, this is not funny at all. It’s two days and I’ve got to preach on this subject.”
We’re going to deal with a subject this morning that you may think is very anti-climatic to the list of ten. And yet, I believe, this commandment knocks at our doors more than any other. If you have your Bibles, take them and turn to Exodus, chapter 20. And we’re going to look at the subject of covetousness. A sister word is greed. It’s interesting that one company considered covetousness to be a solution to their problem. An American company, based in Panama, was having trouble with their employees quitting the job. With an agrarian economy and society, where these people didn’t have much money, and after a week’s work, when they got their cash from this company, they had more money than they had ever seen in their lives. And they assumed that was all they would ever need and they would often quit. So the executives put their heads together and decided a way to keep them. They gave each employee a copy of a Sears catalog. And, all of a sudden, those people saw things they had never dreamed of before and realized they needed more. And the ratio of employee turnover was incredibly reduced.
Now it may be a solution for this company but, the problem is, it has invaded our culture and it invades our churches. Covetousness or greed, if you would call it that, it’s prevalent in our society. And you’ve just been reading the newspapers for the past month and you’ve discovered that truth. A U.S. attorney in New York, Gouliani(?), decided to create a sting operation. And recently, if you’ve been reading, you’ve discovered that one hundred and six public officials have been offered bribes. One hundred and five accepted the bribe. The other guy turned it down because it wasn’t enough money. It pervades everything about our culture and our society. And it’s interesting, when we study these commands, that they are so relevant to today.
Look at it with me. That command is given in verse 17. He says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Now, the word “covet,” is the Hebrew word “chamad,” if you’re following in your notes. It means, “to desire,” “to take pleasure in.” In fact, it is a neutral word. You go to the New Testament and find the counterpart of this word is “pleonexia,” which means, literally, “a passion for possessing,” “I’ve GOT to have that.” The thing that makes this so hideous is, you are coveting something that belongs to somebody else. It is seeing that thing, that object, that person that someone else has or has the right to and you covet that thing or that person. And He really gets to the nub here, I mean, He isn’t playing games. He says, “Don’t covet possessions. Don’t covet spouses. Don’t covet anything. Don’t take pleasure in pursuing possessions that are not rightfully yours.”
As I studied this passage this week, it’s interesting that, I think, we could make a case that coveting begins or is built on a foundation of comparison. You see, you look around and you see what somebody else has and you think, “That’s better than what I’ve got.” It is built on perhaps the foundation of comparison. Your car is just fine until a Volvo turbo pulls up into the driveway. Your health is perfectly adequate until you go visit so-and-so and you see what they’ve got. The terrible thing about this is, your wife is all right, perfectly acceptable, until you start comparing her with someone else’s wife, or husband with someone else’s husband. Comparing. I mean we can joke about it and laugh but, isn’t that true? You know, you found out, ladies, that Henry bought his wife flowers last week. Now that wife that got flowers, women are great at this, she’s going to make sure that three or four of her friends find out. And she’s going to wait for an opportune moment, like when her friend calls her and says, “What are you cooking for supper?” “I don’t know but my husband just bought me flowers.” You know, it really led into that! And so that wife goes home and says, “Hey, Henry bought his wife flowers.” And all the sudden you’re thinking, “Now, when was the last time.” If the truth were known, Henry probably doesn’t take the trash out when his wife asks. What do you wives want, flowers or the trash taken out? All these wives are mouthing, “Both! Both! Both!”
I think this passage is probably a tremendous text for marriage itself. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s . . . wife” - or spouse. What does that mean? That is, working through what God has given you. Somebody once wrote that, “Marriage is like taking a plane trip to the Bahamas for vacation. When the plane arrives, you get off and discover you’re in the Swiss Alps. The ingredient that is necessary is learning how to ski.” I love that. The healthy ingredient, in every marriage, even though you may observe someone else’s and think, “Boy, that’s so much better,” the healthy ingredient is that in our marriages, we have all discovered how to ski. So in the process of discovering that, STOP looking around and comparing. That situation, your financial situation, what you have or don’t have, God says, directly through Moses, “Stop desiring possessions that don’t belong to you, or people.”
Let me give you two principles, before we move on. If you’re following along, they’re here in your notes. This command is not prohibiting activity but, attitude. That’s crucial to understand. It is an attitude that may lead to activity but, what He is condemning here is, that attitude. He is not prohibiting the overt act of the hand but the inner secrets of the heart that nobody else knows about but you. The struggle no one else would have a clue you’re going through but you. He says, “In the inner recesses of your heart, there is where you covet, it is there where the battle is won. Don’t, in the secrecy of your heart, covet.” Don’t covet persons. We could translate this into today’s society, “Don’t covet someone’s position.” You look around the job and think, “That guy that just got promoted, you should have gotten that. You’re much more capable than he is.” And so, what do you do? Well, you do the same thing that you and I both learned to do. All you guys, you know, back then in junior high school, you’re sitting the bench, watching the basketball team play. I speak from experience so maybe I ought to personalize this. I’m out there and I’m second string and there’s Doug Gates. I still remember that character, he was first string. I’m watching the whole game and you know what I’m hoping? My team wins? No way. I’m hoping he breaks his leg so that I can get in there and play. He’s got the position I want. Bring that right in to where we live today. People have positions, people have possessions we want. Can we rejoice in what God has given them? Absolutely not. Somebody once said, “It’s so easy to ‘weep with’ - people - ‘who weep’, but it’s so difficult to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’.” Why? Because we’re covetous, we are greedy people.
It’s interesting in Romans, chapter 7, the apostle Paul, who took pride in his standing before the Law, I didn’t discover this until recently. Romans, chapter 7, Paul says, “I discovered, according to the Law, that I am dead.” And he pulls one of those commands out and guess which one it was that confronted him? “Thou shalt not covet”. And Paul said, “I have been able to handle the other nine but, it is this one that lays me low.”
Now, I want to take this command into the New Testament and I want to illustrate it and apply it. So turn to Luke, if you would please. Luke, chapter 12. Here is an illustration and application of the sin of coveting. Look at verse 13, “And someone in the crowd said to” - Jesus - “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Interesting, he didn’t say, “Please,” or “I have a right to this.” But just, “Lord, you’ve got authority. Tell him to divvy up the spoils.” Verse 14, Jesus - “said to him, ‘Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbiter over you?’ And then He said to him,” - that is, a crowd of unbelievers, including His disciples - “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed;” - that’s the word “pleonexia,” covetousness - “for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.”
So He tells them a parable, and here it is illustrated. “The land of a certain rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’” And I want to give you now, in this passage, three failures in the school of life. The first one was, he failed to consider his neighbor. And you ought to, as I just read through, just circle the words, “I,” “me,” “my,” all right? “And he began reasoning to himself, saying,” - verse 17 - “‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up’”. Six times he says, “I.” Five times he refers to himself, “me,” “mine.” It’s interesting that this individual who is wrapped up, just as you and myself, ladies and gentlemen, who are wrapped up in coveting, the passion for possessing, guess what? We get wrapped up in ourselves. If that battle is not conquered by the Spirit of God every time we walk out the front door, we develop lives centered around ourselves. What WE want, where WE’RE going, the position I want to have, the list of things I want, the bottom line in the bank account, “I,” “me,” “my.”
A very wealthy man, by the way, wealth is in itself too neutral, it’s how you handle it. This individual had a terrible disposition, a very selfish man. He came to visit a Bible teacher. The Bible teacher was writing, he records the visit. He said, “I have a lot of money and this may be very selfish but I’m not really sure why.” And this Bible teacher took him over to the window and he said, “Look out. What do you see?” And he looked out the window to the street below and he said, “I see men, women, and children.” He took the man by the arm and he took him over to a mirror and he said, “And now what do you see?” He said, “Now I see myself.” And the teacher said, “In the mirror and in the window is glass. The only difference is, the glass of the mirror has been coated thinly on one side with a coat of silver. No sooner do you add the silver do you begin seeing only yourself and not people.” You see, the tragedy of this man in this story is, not that he was wealthy, the tragedy was, he was wrapped up in a very little package called “himself.” He never saw anybody else but “I,” “me,” and “my.” That’s one failure in this fool’s life. He failed to consider his neighbor.
Paul writes to his son in the faith in I Timothy, chapter 6, and he says, “For the love of money” - not money, but the LOVE of money - “is a root of all . . . evil”. We usually stop there but we forget there is the rest of the verse there. He says, “and some by” - coveting - “for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many” - sorrows. You know what I think one of the chief sorrows of that is, in relation to this scripture? Loneliness. I think an individual who is wrapped up in himself is a very lonely person because no one else can invade his life. He failed to consider his neighbor.
Secondly, he failed to recognize his own mortality. Let’s look at the last part of verse 19, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come;” - underline that, many years to come - “‘take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you”. I used to think that God was taking his life. That isn’t it at all. The fact was that God knew that that man would die that night. Heart attack, whatever, a burglar breaking in and taking his life, we don’t know. God knew that his life would end that night. This man didn’t know it. He said, “I have many years and I’m just going to settle back and spend it on myself.” “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’”
It’s interesting that Charlemagne, the great conqueror, his tomb was discovered and opened. And, to the shock of the archeologists, they found that Charlemagne had been positioned on his throne on his request. And he was seated on this golden overlaid throne and he was dressed in the finest that he had owned. It was just a skeleton at this time and yet, his hand had been fixed on his knee with his index finger pointing. And they came closer and they discovered he had woven into the fabric of that material, Mark, chapter 8, verse 36. He was a believer. And it said this of this world conqueror, here is the epitaph he wanted remembered, Mark, chapter 8, verse 36, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”
Somebody wrote, tongue and cheek, “Have you ever seen a hearse pulling a U-haul?” No. The point is that this man failed to recognize that he was mortal. There is a deceiving, obnoxious factor in people who possess and pursue things, that they are removed from accountability, especially to God. They are independent. They are very obnoxious because they fail to recognize that they are mere mortals.
Number three, the third failure in this fool’s life is, he failed to acknowledge God. Note the last part of this passage. Verse 21, God says, “So is the man” - that is, the fool, so is the fool - “who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” There’s a French artist who painted a very interesting canvas piece. He read this passage of scripture and he decided to put it on canvas in oil. And so he painted away and he painted the picture of a man sitting behind a desk. And on the desk were bags of golden coins. Behind him was a long shelf and on that shelf were many other bags of golden coins. And there was a window to his left and you could see through the window and you saw a bumper crop, nothing but dark green fields. This man was sitting there with a rather smug look on his face. When the artist finished, he did something unusual. He said, “This doesn’t portray it right.” And he turned the canvas over and he painted the same picture again, the same man, the same desk, the same bags of gold, same harvest, same bumper crop through the window. But, this time, he painted it all overlaid with a thin coat of dust. And one more thing was added, there was the shadowy figure of the death angel with his hand on his shoulder, leaning forward with his lips pursed, as if to say, “Fool.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the grave danger of coveting is, we become self-oriented, we only see ourselves, OUR things, what WE want. We fail to recognize our neighbor. We lose sight of the fact that, at any moment, we could be standing before God, that we are not immortal, we will not live forever in this body. And those who are wrapped up in pursuing things, fail to recognize the sovereign God who waves His hands, in effect, saying, “Stop and look to Me.”
In fact, what I want to do is apply this now, in the rest of the passage. We’ve usually divided this chapter right down the middle and it hurts because we take it out of context. The next passage to the end of the chapter deals with, what is basically termed, anxiety, how to get over anxiousness. This has nothing to do with anxiety. It has everything to do with overcoming covetousness. Look at the next verse, verse 22. “And He said to His disciples,” - that is, He gets them away from the crowd. And He says, “Now look, I want to give you the meat of what I just taught these people. I want to apply it.” He says, - “For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body than clothing.” You know, as I read and re-read and re-read again this passage, two questions began to form. It’s as if Jesus Christ has just given the instruction and now He pulls his disciples over and He says, “Look, I want to give you a test. I want to see if you are materialistic. I want you to see, in yourselves, whether or not you are greedy, whether or not you are covetous.” He gives them some principles that, I think, we can form into two questions. I challenge all of us to take the test right now. You ready?
Question number one, if you have your notes, jot this in. What’s more important to you, getting more financially or growing up spiritually? Verse 24, “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; and they have no storeroom nor barn; and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds! And which one of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span?” That could be translated, “eighteen inches to your height.” They’re not really sure how to translate that one little word that’s “span” or “life,” however it is in your translation. And I really began to understand that better than I ever have before, somebody being anxious about adding inches.
Then the illustration was given to me last week, my kids make great illustration books. It’s their birthday, our twin sons turned four ten days ago. And on the morning of their birthday, they knew it was their birthday, they had been celebrating the whole week prior to that. One of my boys, Seth, we woke up and was kind of quiet and, all of a sudden, we heard this crying. And I went upstairs and I said, “Hey, Pal, what’s the problem?” And he said, “Today’s my birthday.” And I wondered, “Did he pick this up from his mother when she turned thirty? Why is he crying?” Let’s reserve that kind of behavior for when you hit that decade, or forty, or whatever it may be. I said, “Well, yes, aren’t you happy about that? You’re four years old.” He said, “But I thought, when I was four, I’d be big!” He had a feeling that he would wake up the next morning and have sprouted, you know, about fifteen inches. And it almost ruined his entire day. What a great illustration of how we ought to live with our spiritual growth in mind. How passionate are we to grow up spiritually in the Lord? How often do we go to God and say, “Lord, whatever it takes, mature me in the faith.” That’s the point here.
In fact, let’s keep reading and you’ll see He refers to that mature growth. Verse 27, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. But if God so arrays the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you,” - note this - “O men of little faith!” You see, what’s important? Developing faith or my financial portfolio. That’s the point. He is saying, “I want to develop in you men, you believers, faith in Me that supercedes any pursuit of anything. I want you to get turned on to the fact that I can mature you if you will yield to Me and take your eyes off that stuff and put them on Me.” Question number one, What’s more important to you, getting more financially or growing up spiritually?
Do you want to go to question number two? Let’s do. What concerns me most, having money I can manage or having God manage me? Look at verse 29, “And do not seek what you shall eat, and what you shall drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek for His kingdom, and these things shall be added to you. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, and unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” What really turns our crank? Is it having money in our hands to spend or living with the attitude of placing ourselves in the hands of God? That’s the point.
What do I give my time and my thought to? How much I have to manage? I’m not alleviating the fact that you and I have to struggle to make those ends meet. But does the thought ever occur to us that it isn’t just that? It is allowing God to manage our lives. That is the issue. It is pursuing, not OUR kingdom but, HIS kingdom; not OUR stuff but, the things that relate to glorifying and honoring God, seeking first HIS kingdom. Now, admit it. Weren’t some of the best times and aren’t some of the best times in your life when you have been financially in need, having to depend on God? We don’t want it but, when we come through it, we think, “Man, did I ever learn something about God.” That’s why Spurgeon once wrote, “We are at our spiritual best when we are shipwrecked on the island of God’s sovereignty.” Man, I love that. I want you to take inventory just a moment. Go back in your mind, into your thinking, back in time. When did God reveal His hand? Was it when you had money to manage or was it when He was managing you?
It isn’t hard for me to come up with a time of desperate need. My wife and I had been married for a week and a half and we found ourselves in the parking lot at a seminary in Detroit, Michigan. Hadn’t even been accepted in the seminary yet, never been there. I was confident, not because of my grade point average but, because it was a small school and they were desperate for students, that I could get in! We lived in a half a dozen different places, always looking for the cheapest place. I was a janitor, cleaning bathrooms. My wife worked as a secretary. We were always looking for that cheaper place so that we could continue building my library and surviving. Our last move was in a home, if you could call it that, in Detroit, in the city limits, across the railroad tracks, just a block or two away from the Fisher body plant. That was really a classy neighborhood to live in. It’s the place where you would lock your doors as soon as the sun set and the stench was always in the air. Marsha would dust every day because that Fisher body plant would just shoot this polluted air into the sky. And we had a habit, the guys that I went to school with, a very small school, we were very close. We’d go to Grand Rapids. If you like books, you know that Grand Rapids is paradise because that’s where Baker Book House, and Eerdmans, and Zondervan, and Kregel, and all those places publish their books. And you can go there and buy books for nothing. Kregel has a basement that’s as large as this entire building. And you go in there and you go into the basement where all the used and old books are and they’ve got them listed by author. I have some of the greatest treasures written by men that are long out of print. So we’d scrape together our pennies, we’d get a van, put in together for the gas, and we’d drive two hours to Grand Rapids. And, I’ll never forget the day, I think we had about fifty bucks, and I was going to go there. And, in a matter of ten minutes, I had my arms full with that fifty dollars worth. And, as I was leaving, it was Baker Book House, my eyes fell on a set that I had been coveting after for a long time. The Pulpit Commentary, fifty-two volumes, leather bound, it would last longer than I would. But I didn’t have any money. But my friend had a credit card. A hundred and fifty dollars. That’s how much our rent was, by the way, in that house. I thought all the way back to Detroit, “How am I going to tell Marsha? I’m history.” Got in there and told her about that and, bless her heart, never a complaint. And I got those books out of the boxes and was just sitting there and the thought occurred to me, rent was due and now we didn’t have the money to rent. Now I’m not justifying that purchase, so don’t go out and do something crazy like that. All right? That night, we got a phone call, our landlord was a believer, and he said, “Hey, Stephen, this past month God has really been good to my wife and I. We don’t want you to pay the rent this month.” My first thought was, “Man, I should have bought three hundred dollars worth of books! Oh ye of little faith.”
One of the most exciting times was that point of abandonment. And times in your life, just go back. You get caught up in the here and now and what you’re trying to get. Just stop a second. Just hold it. THINK. What have the most exciting spiritual moments in your life been? When you’ve had extra or when you’ve needed to depend on God? THAT is when He has evidenced His hand. That’s the point. “Don’t covet possessions, I’ll take care of you. Don’t pursue these things, pursue Me, pursue My kingdom and I will take care of you.”
Ladies and gentlemen, it is time we stopped asking more from God and started asking more OF God. Don’t covet. Let’s pray.