“You shall not covet…anything that is your neighbor’s…You shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex 20:17; Deut 5:21).
The tenth commandment, which focuses on the intentions of the heart and forbids the coveting of another’s goods, completes the ninth commandment, which concerns concupiscence of the flesh. Because these two commandments concern the heart, they form the basis for all the precepts of the Law. Coveting what belongs to another is the root of theft, which is forbidden by the seventh commandment and also often leads to violence forbidden by the fifth commandment. In allowing greedy desires for wealth and power, to grow in our hearts, we give way to the idolatry prohibited by the first three commandments. The tenth commandment, in calling us towards poverty of spirit and away from envy, guides us in keeping the entire Decalogue by directing us to true dependence on God and wholehearted love of neighbor.
The tenth commandment can only wholly be fulfilled in Christ, who paves a path for us to nail our worldly desires to the Cross and allow our hearts to be transformed by the Holy Spirit to seek and desire our highest good—God Himself. The Law entrusted to Israel could not justify those subject to it. A gap arose between wanting and doing. Rather than desiring what led to their ultimate happiness, they began to desire what led them away from God. Thus conflict formed between God’s law, the “law of my mind,” and another law, “the law of sin which dwells in [their] members” (Rom 7:23; 7:10). The Law bears witness to the righteousness of God, but only through Christ is this righteousness fully manifested. Christ allows the faithful to not only do good, but desire it as well, by crucifying “the flesh with its passions and desires” and following the desires of the Spirit (Gal 5:24).
In directing us towards a desire for God alone, the tenth commandment calls us to poverty of spirit. As the Gospel exhorts, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). In order to follow Christ, we must prefer Him to everything and everyone, willingly giving everything we have for the sake of the Kingdom. This detachment from worldly goods, in imitation of the poor widow of Jerusalem who, out of her poverty, gave all that she had, is necessary for entry into Heaven. By directing our affections rightly towards Christ, we place our treasure in communion with Him, and thereby our hearts will lie in communion with Him as well.
Poverty of spirit is voluntary humility. Just as Christ “for [our] sake became poor,” so too we may choose to abandon ourselves to God’s providence, trusting Him with all of our needs and desires (2 Corinthians 8:9). This abandonment frees us from anxiety about the future and our own covetous desires of what others have and we seemingly lack. The wealthy grieve the Lord when they find consolation in the abundance of their possessions, yet in becoming poor of spirit, we trustingly surrender our lives into God’s hands, finding our consolation in God alone. As the Catechism describes, “Desire for true happiness frees man from his immoderate attachment to the goods of this world so that he can find his fulfillment in the vision and beatitude of God” (CCC 2548). The tenth commandment, in calling us to poverty of heart, calls us to desire true, lasting happiness as opposed to the fleeting pleasures of the world.
At its root, the tenth commandment forbids the capital sin of envy, which is “sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly” (CCC 2539). “When the Law says, ‘You shall not covet,’ these words mean that we should banish our desires for whatever does not belong to us. Our thirst for another’s goods is immense, infinite, never quenched. Thus it is written: ‘He who loves money never has money enough’” (CCC 2536). Envy is a grave sin because it creates a barrier to charity, disturbing the unity among members of the Body of Christ. As St. John Chrysostom preached, “We fight one another, and envy arms us against one another…We declare ourselves members of one and the same organism, yet we devour one another like beasts” (CCC 2538). Envy leads to division rather than mutual edification of the Church as one body.
Envy prevents us from offering God thanksgiving for the gift of interdependence. By coveting what others have, we often overlook the gifts in our own lives that God desires for us to share. As humans, we are each created in the divine image, which means we were created for a communion of love with others, and we have God as our final end. On entering the world, we are not equipped with everything we need to develop physically and spiritually, and thus, we were created for interdependence. As the Catechism says, “The ‘talents’ are not distributed equally” (CCC 1936). Thus, our differences require us to receive what we need from others and to practice generosity in sharing with those in need. The Catechism states that man can combat envy “through good-will, humility, and abandonment to the providence of God” (CCC 2554). Envy not only cuts us off from the interdependence with others for which we were created, but also prevents us from recognizing God’s constant work of love in our lives. The tenth commandment, in forbidding envy to lay root in our hearts, pushes us to trust in God’s love for us, which is lived fully in the beatitude of poverty of spirit.
The command not to covet what is not ours points to an interior law of our hearts that goes deeper than proscribed rules of conduct. The final commandment sheds light on the Decalogue as a whole, calling us to grasp how the disposition of our hearts can lead us towards or away from other sins. When our hearts are right before God, our desires will be rightly ordered, which frees us to put God first and leads us to act charitably towards our neighbors, thus fulfilling the entire Decalogue. Walking with God entails growth in holiness and progress towards perfection, which is found in “seeking and loving what is true and good,” which is God Himself (CCC 1704). God, in His love for us, wills that we be transformed not only outwardly in our good actions, but also in our interior desires. As the Catechism says, “Moral perfection consists in man’s being moved to the good not by his will alone, but also by his sensitive appetite” (CCC 1770). In banishing our covetous desires, we become open to the fullness of life that comes with wholeheartedly following God through the Decalogue.
The tenth commandment, in forbidding us to covet our neighbor’s goods, invites us to reject all envy from our hearts and replace it with humble trust in God’s providence. Coming to know and love God is eternal life, and our ultimate beatitude. This beatitude “invites us to purify our hearts…and to seek the love of God above all else. It teaches us that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being…or in any human achievement…or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love” (CCC 1723). Directed at purifying our desires, the tenth commandment, along with the ninth which also concerns the intentions of our hearts, “summarizes all the precepts of the Law” (CCC 2534). When we fully live out the final commandment, instead of coveting what others have, hoping that their goods will bring us the happiness we seek, we will take on an attitude of trust towards God who we know “works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).