Rev. Rolf Preus| October 3, 2010
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s. Exodus 20:17
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, nor obtain it by a show of right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away from our neighbor his wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and do their duty.
The reason people think that they can work their way to heaven is that they don’t know what a good work is. They define a good work according to the work. The Bible defines a good work according to the one doing it. Jesus stated it this way: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:17-18) If you are good, you do what is good. If you are bad, you do what is bad. You do what you do because of what you are. Before anyone can do what is good he must first become good. Only then will what he does be good.
Now this is not at all how most people think. Most people are works-righteous, that is, they believe that they become good by their works. Since this is their faith, their faith is centered in themselves. After all, they are the ones who will be making themselves good by doing good things. On the other hand, those who believe the teaching of Jesus believe that Jesus alone makes them good and he does this without any help from them. Since this is the Christian’s faith, the Christian’s faith is centered in Jesus. After all, Jesus is the only One who can make us good, and he does this by doing good things for us.
Many people think that they are Christians when they are not. A Christian is not someone who is trusting in his good deeds. If you are trusting in what you are doing to make you good enough for God, you are not trusting in Jesus.
The Ten Commandments tell us what a good work is. The Ten Commandments don’t tell us how to make ourselves good. You would be good if you obeyed all of the Ten Commandments. There’s no question about that. No other law has ever been written that so perfectly describes the righteous person than this law engraved on stone tablets by the finger of God. No merely human law can compare. This law is summarized in two great commandments: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” A good person loves. He loves God with his whole heart, soul, and mind and he loves his neighbor as himself.
The Ten Commandments certainly do tell us what a good work is and we certainly would be good if we obeyed the Ten Commandments. But to those who think that they have done so, God insists that we listen to the demands of the last two commandments, and not merely to listen, but to hear them, that is, to take them in and consider seriously what these commandments actually require of us. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. You shall not covet his house, his life, his home, his friends, his family, his husband or wife, his job, his land or animals, or anything else. You shall rather desire that he keep what is rightfully his and increase in prosperity and happiness. You shall do this, or you do not love your neighbor, and you have not obeyed God.
It is not enough to obey God’s commandments outwardly. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments drive home the fact that you must want to do what is best for your neighbor. It is not enough that you don’t defraud him, rob him, or hurt him in any way. You must sincerely want what is right or you have done wrong.
Hatred is murder. Lust is adultery. Thinking evil about your neighbor is to bear false witness in your heart. The desire to sin is sin. You need forgiveness, not only for the outward acts that the world sees you do, but for the inward desires that are known only to God.
You say you have obeyed God and done what is good. But God’s Law says back to you: What have you desired? What have you wanted? What have you thought? This shows you what is really inside of you. As Jesus said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man.” (Matthew 15:19-20) The Ten Commandments do not just tell you how to behave. They tell you what you must want. You must want to do what is best for your neighbor. You must sincerely desire his well being just as much as you desire your own. If you do not, you have not obeyed the Ten Commandments. You say you have obeyed some of God’s commandments? St James writes, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10).
Listen to the words of the great hymn by Paul Speratus, “Salvation Unto Us Is Come.”
What God doth in His law demand
No man to him could render.
Before this Judge all guilty stand;
His law speaks curse in thunder.
The law demands a perfect heart;
We were defiled in every part,
And lost was our condition.
It was a false, misleading dream
That God His law had given,
That sinners could themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
I don’t want to look into that mirror and see how ugly I am. So I set aside the law that accuses me, ignore it, and go my way. But I cannot silence the law. It follows me wherever I go and it won’t stop accusing me because that is what God wants it to do: accuse! Listen to how St. Paul described it. “I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7) The law accuses. And he accuses rightly because he is holy, pure, and perfectly fair. You should not have coveted what was intended for your neighbor’s benefit, as if what you wanted was more important than what your neighbor wanted. You should have wanted what was good for your neighbor as much as you wanted what was good for you. But you did not. So the law stands against you.
And the law leaves us helpless on the side of the road, beaten, stripped of any dignity, dirty, bruised, and half-dead. There we are. The law sees us there and in implacable judgment walks on by. He walks on by without a single word of encouragement or help. All he can do is accuse, for that is his nature, to accuse. He is the law, after all, and the law is pure and holy and right, and we are impure, sinful, and wrong.
And then there comes to us the Good Samaritan. The One despised and rejected by men. He sees us in our helpless condition and he doesn’t walk by on the other side of the road. He rather comes to us, and has compassion on us. He sees us mired in our own sin, and he lifts us out of the filth we ourselves created. He bears us up on his donkey, and carries us to the Inn. He does for us what we wouldn’t do for our neighbor. And he does it purely out of his infinite love for us. He obeys where we disobeyed. He loves where we hated. He offers his obedience to God in the place of our disobedience. He willingly bears the punishment for all of our sin. The law had no claim on him. He was the good man. He had no use at all for a law. The law is designed for sinners. It could teach Jesus nothing. Jesus did by nature what was only good and right and pure. The law is for those who are born in sin and who desire what is sin and who cannot make themselves into anything other than sinners. The righteous man, Jesus, obeyed that law in the place of us sinners. He met all of its demands, and now he gives to us the credit for what he did.
In holy baptism, Jesus covers us with the robe of his own righteousness. He makes us good. He makes us good by giving us the credit for the good he did. Now we are good as we hold on in simple, child-like faith to the Jesus whom we have put on in holy baptism. In Jesus’ name, by Jesus’ word and authority, and for Jesus’ sake, we are good people. We are righteous people. Our righteousness is nothing less than the obedience of Jesus Christ himself.
Furthermore, we have in us the Holy Spirit, who daily fights against the lust, the greed, the covetousness, the hatred, and every other manifestation of evil inside of us. The Holy Spirit makes us holy by giving us the forgiveness of sins that Jesus has won and by changing us on the inside to love God and to love our neighbor. The Holy Spirit will not forsake us. He is our Comforter. He works through the gospel to strengthen us in our faith. When he convicts our conscience of sin, this is always for the sake of comforting us with the forgiveness of sins. In this way he keeps us trusting, not in ourselves or in our good works, but always and only in Jesus Christ and his obedience all the way to the death of the cross. In Jesus’ name, Amen.