Coming to Grips with Covetousness

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by Shane Scott

The holidays are a wonderful time of the year. Who doesn’t enjoy the chance to be with family, a little time off of work, great food and lots of presents?! But “the most wonderful time of the year” is not always so wonderful. If you are facing tight financial circumstances, Christmas can be a very depressing time. When you don’t have the money to buy the kind of gifts for your loved ones that you would like to be able to give, the holidays can be frustrating. And this frustration can lead to a preoccupation with material things, which in turn can lead to distorted priorities in which the love of money trumps the love for God and for family.

So how do we balance the desire to be able to do nice things for others with our deeper commitment to God? How do we find the sweet spot of contentment and avoid the blind spot of covetousness? I’d like to suggest that a chapter toward the end of Deuteronomy contains some great practical lessons to help us come to grips with covetousness.

The large middle section of Deuteronomy (chapters 12-26) consists of series of statutes designed to flesh out the demands of Israel’s covenant obligations with God. At first glance these laws seem randomly organized. However, a good case can be made that the ordinances in Deuteronomy 12-26 follow the order of the ten commandments and serve as an expanded commentary on how these commandments should be applied.

On this view, Deuteronomy 25:5-26:19 corresponds to “thou shalt not covet” commandment. It explains that marrying your brother’s widow is not covetousness (25:5-12), that you should avoid the sin of greed by using honest weights and measures in business (25:13-16), and it pronounces a curse on the Amalekites for greedily exploiting Israel’s weak and vulnerable during the wilderness wandering (25:17-19).

This brings us to Deuteronomy 26. My Bible headlines this chapter as “offerings of firstfruits and tithes.” But I would suggest that since this chapter is part of the discussion of covetousness, that the instructions in Deuteronomy 26 have a much deeper meaning – they explain how to avoid covetousness. We can comes to grips with greed if we do the following:

Give the “Firstfruits” to God

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.” Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God (26:1-4).

In an agrarian society like ancient Israel in which the people were so immediately dependent on the land, and so they were keenly aware of how reliant they were on God for their daily bread (just notice how many times the word “gift” is found in the first eleven verses). And so the Law insisted that the people recognize God’s gracious provision by giving Him the firstfruits (see Deut. 26:5-11).

So here is the first key to dealing with covetousness: acknowledge God as the source of all of your material things. If you see the stuff that you have as a gift of God, you will never be tempted to worship and serve it. And a simple test of whether you worship God or mammon is this: is the glory of God your first priority for using what you have? Paul lauds the generosity of the impoverished Macedonians because “they gave themselves first to the Lord” (2 Cor. 8:5). What we have is either a tool or an idol. Give God the firstfruits and you can stop covetousness dead in its tracks.

Speaking of the generosity of the Macedonians, here is a second key to coming to grips with greed.

Share With Those in Need

Paul says that the Macedonians “gave themselves first to the Lord, and then by the will of God to us” (2 Cor. 8:5). This other-directed mindset compelled them to send aid to poor Christians in Judea, which they saw not as doing a favor to the Jerusalem saints, but as doing a favor for themselves (2 Cor. 8:4)!

Similarly, Deuteronomy 26 commanded Israel to share with those in need.

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled, then you shall say before the Lord your God, “I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover, I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all your commandment that you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the Lord my God. I have done according to all that you have commanded me. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:12-15).

Sharing rather than hoarding – that’s the Law’s prescription against covetousness. The refusal to give to the needy is what kept the rich young ruler from entering the kingdom in Luke 18:18-25. But in the very next chapter, a camel went through the eye of a needle, as the wealthy tax collector Zacchaeus became a follower of Jesus. What made the difference? “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor” (Luke 19:8). The willingness of Zacchaeus to share with those in need revealed a heart that loved God more than things. And if we will use what we have to help the needy, we will likewise show our love for God (1 John 3:17-18).

But there’s one more lesson for turning back the sin of covetousness in Deuteronomy 26…

Define Yourself in God, Not Things

This day the Lord your God commands you to do these statutes and rules. You shall therefore be careful to do them with all your heart and with all your soul. You have declared today that the Lord is your God, and that you will walk in his ways, and keep his statutes and his commandments and his rules, and will obey his voice. And the Lord has declared today that you are a people for his treasured possession, as he has promised you, and that you are to keep all his commandments, and that he will set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that he has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised (Deut. 26:16-19).

Israel was not to define its identity in terms of what it possessed. In fact, Moses warned the people that doing so would lead to the loss of everything (Deut. 6:10-15). Instead, the people were to rejoice in their identity as God’s “people for his treasured possession.”

Covetousness is driven by the belief that who you are is determined by how much you have (like the foolish farmer in Luke 12). Contentment comes when we define ourselves by our commitment to Christ, which does not fluctuate with every bursting bubble on the stock market. When Paul said he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him, do you know what he was talking about? The subject was not how to bench press 350 lbs or run a four-minute mile! It was contentment. “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:12-13). Paul could be content in all situations because he was not defined by what he had, but by who had him, Jesus Christ.

Whether your Christmas stockings were full to bursting or nearly empty, the real issue is whether you see what you have as a gift of God, whether you are willing to share what you have to help others, and whether you define your identity in terms of Christ or stuff. Take to heart these ancient words from Deuteronomy, and you can come to grips with covetousness.