Date: November 20, 2016
Bible Text: I KINGS 21 | Reverend Dr. William A. Evertsberg
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” —Exodus 20:17
This is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday in the Church Year. Next year is New Year’s Day, the first Sunday of Advent, and we start all over again. It’s fitting then that on this final day of the Church Year, we reach the end of this sermon series called The Ten Best Ways.
The Tenth Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house or your neighbor’s wife nor anything that belongs to your neighbor. Why is it Tenth? Why is it Last?
Sometimes when you make a list you put something last because it’s least important. If the congregation’s attention span is shorter than the preacher’s sermon, which is often the case, it won’t matter so much if they’ve stopped listening at the end because that’s where you’ve parked all the trivia.
That might be why this one is last. This commandment is different from the ones that come before. Coveting something is not nearly as serious as killing, cheating, stealing, or lying. It is not a behavior or an action; it is a thought, or an emotion. It is not public; it is private. No one ever needs to know if your neighbor’s comely wife is an object of your desire. It only gets serious if you act on it. Your covetousness does not injure anyone, maybe not even yourself.
Sometimes when you make a list you put something last because it is least important. Sometimes, though, you put something last because it sums up everything that’s gone before. And that, as you have probably guessed, is what I think is going on with the sanction against covetousness.
So much of what goes wrong with our lives begins with inordinate, misplaced, or unattainable desire, right? My Old Testament Professor at Princeton put it like this: “The purpose of this commandment is to forestall what other commandments prohibit.” That is to say, cheating on your wife begins with shabby desire. Stealing from your neighbor begins with wanting what he has and you lack. Sometimes people will even kill to get what they do not have.
For instance, I love this story about King Ahab, who ruled the ten northern tribes of Israel in the ninth century before Jesus. When I was a kid, Ahab was my favorite character in Sunday School because he was so reliably and comprehensively awful. Every good story needs one of these vivid, violent, viperous villains, right? I mean, who would want to read about Middle Earth without Saruman, or Narnia without the White Witch, or Hogwarts without Voldemort, or, speaking of Ahab, who would want to read about Captain Ahab without Moby Dick?
To give us a snapshot of Ahab’s venality, the Hebrew Bible tells us about Naboth’s vineyard. So Ahab is the undisputed King of Israel during a time when the nation is near the zenith of its global hegemony. You would think Ahab has everything his royal little grasping heart could desire, but he wants to expand his estate. He wants to plant a garden, but his neighbor Naboth’s 20-acre vineyard is in the way.
Ahab’s initial solution to this problem is rational and calm and fair: he goes next door to cut a deal with this humble vintner. “Sell me your land, Mr. Naboth; I will give you more than it is worth. You can just move somewhere else.”
This, of course, is an early instance of ‘eminent domain.’ If your family has owned a modest diner in the West Loop for generations and a wealthy real estate developer comes along and wants to put up a 50-story office building where your diner now sits, you are in big trouble, especially if the wealthy real estate developer goes to the birthday parties of Rahm Emmanuel’s kids.
Naboth is in trouble, but he refuses the deal anyway; this land has been in his family for generations, and it is sacred to him.
And look what happens next. Here’s where the story not only gets crafty and interesting but also serves my homiletical purposes this morning. Ahab is just completely undone when he cannot get what he wants. The Bible tells us that “Ahab went home resentful and sullen.”
He goes straight home to his room, lies down on his bed facing the wall, and refuses to come out for dinner. He sulks; he pouts; he throws a fit; he can’t even carry out his royal responsibilities.
When his wife Jezebel finds her husband the king so flummoxed by thwarted desire that he cannot govern the affairs of state, she is completely disgusted with his childishness but as with any spoiled child, the only way to fix the problem is to give him what he wants even if he shouldn’t have it, so she handles the problem in the most fraudulent and brutal way and the story reaches its swift, sad, sorry conclusion.
God is so fed up with Ahab’s disdain for property and human rights that God will make sure that the rest of Ahab’s reign will be unhappy, his death violent, and his dynasty foreshortened.
It’s a fitting story to hear next to the tenth and last commandment because it shows us how ungoverned desire can make us pout like spoiled children. Have you ever seen a child throw a tantrum at Toys R Us because Mom won’t buy her the Barbie Doll she didn’t know existed five minutes before? Do you know someone who goes through most of life like that?
So maybe the stricture against coveting is tenth and last because it gathers up so much of what has gone before. One of the crucial components of a beautiful life and a winsome soul is the disciplining of our desires. This is especially true a week before Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and it is especially true in a land like ours where the government thinks of us as nothing more than consumers. That’s what we are to the Department of Commerce: our job is to consume not only food but also clothes and cars and computers and gadgets and jewels so that employment will be full and the economy hot. They’ve turned us into machines for the consumption of merchandise.
In a rare moment of unvarnished honesty an executive at an advertising agency admitted: “It’s our job to make people unhappy with what they have.”
You know what Epicurus said once? Epicurus of course is the ancient Greek philosopher who is famous for—well, Epicurus is famous for Epicureanism, which is all about luxury and sensuousness and the satisfaction of appetites and the pleasure principle.
That’s what Epicurus is famous for—Chateau Lafite Rothschild and caviar and Bentleys and mansions, but in fact we have actually gotten Epicurus all wrong. You know what Epicurus said once? He said, “if you want to be happy, don’t add to your possessions; subtract from your desires.” Yes? It’s not only more virtuous; it’s a lot cheaper.
In the immortal words of those legendary theologians The Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want.” But you can always want what you get. The key is not having what you want; the key is wanting what you have.
Don’t covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. This is the tenth and last of The Ten Best Ways to Live, and I am so glad we are hearing this word from the Lord four days before Thanksgiving, because don’t you think that gratitude is the antidote to inordinate, misplaced desire? Gratitude is more than an emotion; gratitude is one of the sturdy, irreplaceable virtues of a well-lived life.
K. Chesterton said, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
How’s your marriage? You don’t have to answer that, but do you know what they’re discovering in the Sociology Department at Harvard and in the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania and in the Counseling Department at Northwestern? Do you know what quality is one of the sine qua non’s of a happy marriage? It is the capacity to feel and to express gratitude. In mediocre marriages one or both partners pay far more attention to slights and disappointments than to blessings and small kindnesses given and received.
You know this is true. Kathy and I have friends who are about our age. They’ve been married for about 30 years. Their wedding was one of the first I ever performed early in my ministry.
I remember the day Scott asked Laura to marry him. She thought she had won the lottery. He was kind and smart and funnier than Chris Rock; no one made her laugh like Scott did. She thought she had married way, way, way up.
I remember the day Laura said ‘yes’ when Scott proposed. He thought he had won the lottery. She was gentle and humble and considerate and looked a little like Jennifer Garner. He thought he had married way, way, way up.
Neither of them has ever outgrown that early wonder, that feeling of unmerited benediction, to be chosen as a life’s partner by someone so wonderful. After 30 years they’re still both wild-eyed with joy that they have each other.
It’s not easy. It’s not natural. If you feel gratitude, you have to say it. They have a rule, both of them have a rule: eight “Thank-you’s” for every complaint. I don’t know how they arrived at the figure eight, and I doubt that they count, but that’s the rule. Eight gratitudes for every disappointment. Neither of them has ever once coveted another person’s spouse. For them, thanks is the highest form of thought, and gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
It’s been an exhausting year, a very violent one in our fair but tense city, and a stressful time for all or most Americans, even the winners. But if I can’t have what I want, I will just want what I have. What the hell, right? It’s going to be all right.
I am grateful for friends like Will and Sarah and Laura and Dana and Stephen and Lisa and handsome Jack Pucillo and lovely Ainsley Mugg, God’s inimitable gifts to our family of faith, and God’s pledge that life will go on, and I’m grateful that I got to be the one to christen them into Christ’s invincible name and beautiful goodness.
I am grateful for a 24-year-old kid from Las Vegas with 39 home runs, 102 RBI’s, and the National League MVP award in his living room. I am grateful for two—not one, but two—almost Cy Young Award Winners.
I gotta tell you this story. Some of you know John Zick, right? John was born and raised in Winnetka. His father owned a grocery store here. He went off to school and became a CPA and worked for one of the big accounting firms, and John came back to Winnetka as a working man and raised a family here.
He’d married an Evanston girl who had been a lifelong Presbyterian, and when she settled in Winnetka as a young mother, she was very troubled to discover that there was no Presbyterian Church in Winnetka, so she started her own church: Winnetka Presbyterian.
By the end of his career John was running Price Waterhouse in New York and living in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he was a member of my church and a fine friend.
John told me this story that happened when he was 13 years old in Winnetka. The Yankees were coming to Wrigley Field to face the Cubs for the first two games of the 1938 World Series. John and his best buddy decided they needed to witness this rare event.
So John and his best friend ride their bikes to the end of the train line in Wilmette; it must have been the Linden station, right? They leave their bikes out in front of the station—unlocked—and ride the train to Wrigley, where they make their way to the ticket office at 2:00 in the morning to wait in line. Can you tell this story comes from a different age? Unlocked bikes and 13-year-old boys in the city at 2:00 in the morning.
When the ticket office opens the next morning, John and his friend Rodney snag two tickets in the centerfield bleachers, second row behind the wall. Joe DiMaggio is playing centerfield for the Yankees in 1938, and before the game he’s chasing down fly balls in the outfield, and when he catches one on the warning track he flips the ball over the wall into the bleachers and John and Rodney each come home with several Major League baseballs.
The Cubs lose that first game of the 1938 Series at Wrigley, but that didn’t discourage John and his friend. After Game One they get back on the train to Wilmette and hop on their bicycles and ride home and stay there for a couple of hours and then get back on their bikes, back to Wilmette, back on the train, back to Wrigley at 2:00 in the morning, two more centerfield bleacher seats, and several more baseballs tossed their way by Joe DiMaggio.
The Cubs also lose Game Two to the Yankees, who go on to sweep the Cubs in four games. In Game Two of the 1938 World Series, John and Rodney get to see Joe DiMaggio hit a towering home run into the Wrigley scoreboard.
The morning after Game Two, John and his best friend return to school after playing hookie for two straight days and two sleepless nights. The Principal meets the two 13-year-old eighth-graders on the school steps and marches them straight to the Principal’s office and sits them down and instructs them to call their parents to ask them to come down to school.
John’s Father is the first to arrive, and when the Principal says, “Mr. Zick, did you know your son has skipped school two days in a row to watch baseball games?” Mr. Zick calmly replies. “Yes, sir, Mr. Headmaster, I did know that. In fact, I encouraged them to go, because I wasn’t sure if there would ever be another World Series game at Wrigley Field.”
Well, he wasn’t quite right. There was another Series at Wrigley in 1945. But he was almost right.
You can do the math and calculate that my friend John Zick was born in 1923, and that he is 93 years old today. I am grateful that my friend John lived to see the day when the Cubs not only played, but won, a World Series.
I am grateful that on Thursday I will gather around a table bending under its plenty with those who love me without reservation or condition, and I will taste the heat of the sun in the crust of the bread, and the loam of the soil in the long finish of a good California cabernet.
I am grateful for the whistling winds of gray November. I am grateful for the golden gingko tree down the street from my house; its leaves are the color of sunshine; and it is still fully clothed a week before Thanksgiving. It just stands there gleaming to God’s glory and rustling its quiet praise: “Christ is King! Christ is King!”
Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 391.
B. E. Puckett, quoted by Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996), p. 93
Quoted by William Barclay in The Ten Commandments for Today (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 203.
G. K. Chesterton, quoted by Robert A. Emmons in Thanks! The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007) p. 19.