Jesus warned us to take heed concerning covetousness. In the immediate biblical context (Luke 12:15), someone had just asked Jesus to command that his brother share his inheritance with him. Jesus responds first by saying, “who made me arbitrator over you?” But then He goes on to say, “take heed of covetousness, a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.” St. Paul also tells Timothy that those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare of the devil (1 Tim. 6:9).
I think the reason why Jesus warned us particularly about covetousness is that covetousness seems so natural, so healthy (to want to get ahead, to do better, to prosper), and it doesn’t seem to harm anyone. Yes, “Do not covet” is one of the Ten Commandments, but unlike murder, theft or adultery, coveting doesn’t seem to hurt anyone else. But of course coveting does hurt others. When I covet something I start seeing people as means to an end. A covetous person sees the people in their life as things to be manipulated to reach a goal.
What makes Jesus’ warning particularly poignant for us today is that we live in a consumer society that depends on covetousness to function. If everyone did not want bigger and better and newer things, the economy of much of the world would tank. Therefore, everything around us encourages us to want more. Not to covet is to go hard against the flow of our culture. No wonder Jesus tells us to take heed.
But aside from the fact that covetousness hurts other people, covetousness hurts the one who covets most of all. It hurts us by pulling our attention away from what is eternal and important to what is temporal and unimportant—from what is inside us to what is outside us. I was speaking to someone recently who was telling me about their life. They were talking about how unhappy they were and made the following comment: “not that I think there is a secret to happiness or anything like that.” I immediately said, “I do.”
As Jesus said, our life does not consist in the abundance of what we possess. So long as we are looking outside ourselves for happiness, we will never find it; we will always be disappointed. Happiness is not in possessions; it is not in vacations; it is not even in friends or family, especially if you are looking to them to make you happy. A better wife or husband or parent or child or friend (or priest or bishop, for that matter) will not make you happy. Coveting such things only makes you miserable because it only adds bitterness to the already weak relationships you have.
Happiness, or to use more biblical terms, blessedness and contentment, come from within us. They come from doing to others what you would want them to do to you (whether or not they ever do what you want). Blessedness and contentment come from thinking of others as better than yourself, from taking the lower seat, going the extra mile, and giving without expecting anything in return. Basically, blessedness and contentment come from doing what Jesus said, or to use Jesus’ metaphor, blessedness and contentment are the result of a house built on the rock foundation of Christ’s commandments rather than on the sandy foundation of what seems best to me, which washes quickly away.
However, I am the first to admit that actually doing what Jesus said is counter intuitive, counter cultural, and very hard. It is the narrow way. I completely understand why very few of us do, or even try very hard to do, what Jesus said. When I look in my own heart, I see that I am full of fear. I don’t want to lose my stuff. I am full of fear also because I don’t know how. I don’t know how to do the things Jesus said. Certainly, how one should follow the words of Christ in any specific context is not at all self evident, as anyone who has seriously tried to do what Jesus said has found out. Like the Ethiopian Eunuch, one needs to be taught, discipled, and guided into the narrow way.
Immediately before Jesus was asked to divide the inheritance, Jesus said that we need not worry about what we will say when brought before magistrates because of our faith in Christ. “Don’t plan beforehand,” Jesus says, “for the Holy Spirit will give you the words.” I think the same is true about following Christ in any situation. Don’t worry, the Holy Spirit will help you. “How,” you may ask, “will the Holy Spirit help me?”
The Holy Spirit will help you the way It has always helped people–through other people. The Holy Spirit resides in the Church, but no one in the Church has all of the gifts, all of the ministries, all of the functions. If we want to follow what Jesus said, we need to be discipled, taught, and led by teachers, pastors, prophets (preachers) and elders (the English word ‘priest’ comes from the Greek word that is translated ‘elder’).
Unfortunately, if following Jesus is the narrow way, then finding a good spiritual father or mother to help you in the way is only slightly less narrow. It is narrow, but not impossible. You can even start where you are: using common sense to weed out any obviously bad advice, treat whatever spiritual leader you currently have as though he or she were a godly, spirit-filled person. In my experience, in most cases, this is sufficient for the Holy Spirit to guide one in the fulfilling of Christ’s commandments. (Yes, I know this can be dangerous, and common sense along with occasional second opinions are called for, but who ever said spiritual life was any less dangerous than all the rest of life?)
The truth is that we can covet even spiritual fathers. We can covet anything we don’t have, or don’t think we have. But Jesus warns us, take heed! The answer is not outside you. The answer is not even a better spiritual father. The answer is contentment, trust in Christ, and obedience to what you already know to be true. (Honestly, I think if we all merely did what we already knew we should do, and just didn’t worry about the stuff we were unsure of, we would all probably make very rapid progress toward godliness.)
Christ warns us about covetousness, nevertheless, sometimes Christ also gives us things. Sometimes we have much more than we need and Christ lets us share in His ministry of generosity. Sometimes relationships are blessed and blossom. Sometimes we even stumble across a wise and loving person whose guidance and love amazes us. Whenever this has happened to me I have felt profoundly lucky or amazed—“Why would God let me have such a friend?” But even in the midst of unimaginable blessing, sometimes, if I’m not careful, I find myself slipping into covetousness. I find myself thinking, “It would be nice to have a bigger, nicer, newer, shinier, kinder, more understanding ________ (fill in the blank). Often I find myself thinking, “If only it were different”; “If only they were different.” When I realize that I am thinking such thoughts, as soon as I come to my senses like the Prodigal Son, I am training myself to immediately give God thanks.
Thanksgiving is, in my experience, the best weapon against covetousness. To be thankful for what I have and for what God has done—this is what destroys covetousness. Covetousness is a deadly vine. It can drive the root of bitterness deeply into our hearts if we let it have its way. Covetousness is a deadly vine that grows in the darkness. Thanksgiving is the light that withers away all covetousness and selfishness. When we thank God, we are already obeying Him and so we begin to be filled with light, the light that shifts our focus from outside to inside, from what should be different out there, to Christ dwelling in my heart and the difference Christ makes within me.