Imagine if we truly listened to this particular commandment:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.-Exodus 20:17
No, I’m not trying to get us to be biblical literalists, but I do think that this commandment bears some thought, prayer, and reflection. Perhaps the reason I bring this up is that I am a world-class coveter of the highest degree.
When I write, I do most of my work in at the kitchen table. One of my biggest “covets” is a renovated kitchen. You have no idea just how much I want that kitchen. WANT! NOW! Recently I visited with some family members in another state, and I was awed by what they had done with their kitchen. I have to actively remind myself not to think about it, or else I will start doing some obsessed-kitchen-coveting.
The hard part is, at least as I see it, is how we live in a culture immersed in advertising and planned obsolescence based appliances, with an economy hell-bent on growth that comes more from spending than saving. Everything around us tells us that we “deserve” the best and that we should go pursue it. There are more than a few practical and spiritual problems contained therein.
Lately I have been struggling with my own “I-want” impulse, the coveting of that kitchen, not to mention a dozen other things that I long for. Another thing that sits on my heart these days is television advertising and the concept of coveting. It really bothers me, even when I am drawn into the seductive wanting offered by these commercials.
Here is one example, the commercial for the iPhone which touts that “every day, more photos are taken with the iPhone than any other camera.” It is alluring for me to watch, because I am one of those people who uses their iPhone to take zillions of photos. This is not all bad, but there is something inherently narcissistic about it. And I think of the great luxury of owning such a thing, when other people have nothing to eat. Now that obsessive picture taking is even more offensive to me – and yes, I’m the one doing it.
It is hard to watch that ad, think about this great “I-want” and not face the recent words of the Holy Father squarely on. He recently said:
Pope Francis said he feels pained to see a priest or a nun with the latest model of car, when a bicycle is good enough. However he noted one needs the car to go to work or move about, but urged them to pick something more humble. If you like a fancy car, he said, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world. The Pope also intended his words to young people at large.
I’m not one for making things all good or all bad, but I have to wonder about the price to the soul of such things. God did ask us not to covet for a reason. Not because “things” are inherently good, but an endless longing for such things is such a barrier between us and God. And then to consider how we spend our riches and what our “investments” are made towards!
When we covet, it seems to me as if we put blackout shade on the window to the soul where God gazes in, and we redirect our energy to someplace else where there is a false light. That false light catches our attention and it will not let go, or rather – we will not let go.
Somehow this ties to a kind of productivity (oh here I go, all Martha and Mary again!) that appeals to humans, especially American humans. If I work hard enough I can get this or that. A new kitchen, a new iPhone, a new pair of shoes, a new car. This is another barrier to God, the one where we allow ourselves the egotistical audacity to believe that we are the ones who make things happen.
Now I’m not saying that God does nothing, and I’m not saying a new car is a bad thing, and I’m not saying that productivity is a problem.
The problem it seems to me is this great “I want” that turns it all into some kind of false pursuit that leads us away from God. I’m not sure that I have any real solution, save the hairshirt and the hut in the woods that is off the grid… but I don’t think that that is a solution either. The hairshirt implies we can even create our own suffering, and the retreat to the woods isn’t so great either. Some are meant to be hermits, but to be Catholic is to be of and in the world, so I don’t buy that withdrawing from society thing.
Perhaps awareness is a starting point, letting go of some things that distract us, and turning more intentionally towards God is a must. It is hard to ignore the barrage of messages that elicit and feed this great “I want,” but to ignore the problems associated with the constant urging of desire, is to live with a great spiritual challenge.
What are your thoughts about how to do this in a world based on making us want our neighbor’s every material good?