Friday, April 9, 2010

The Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Commandments

As I am going over this morning's reading in my head, I am surprised with how much these three commandments are intertwined.

The eighth commandment seems simple enough: "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15).  This means that we are forbidden to take any possessions rightfully belonging to someone else.  It also means that we should help our neighbors keep their own possessions.  "We must consider that what every man possesses has not come to him by mere chance but by distribution of the supreme Lord of all."  Therefore, by depriving a man of what is his we are going against God's will for that person and ourselves.  We should not even lust after what belongs to someone else.

Theft is not limited to taking money on a grand scale a la Oceans Eleven.  Sure, taking possessions by violence is one way.  Fraud is another.  Manipulating the legal system is yet another way to steal from another.  Or even a promise of an undelivered gift.  There are so many ways for one to take from his neighbor in a fashion unpleasing to God.  We must be careful to not let our greed go unchecked, but we must always take only what is rightfully given to us and preserve our neighbors possessions for themselves.

"We will duly obey this commandment, then, if, content with our lot, we are zealous to make only honest and lawful gain..."  We should refrain from seeking to become wealthy through injustice, to take what belongs to our neighbor, to profit from the hard work of others, or any other unjust way of profit.  In fact, we should be so careful according to Calvin, "if we have to deal with faithless and deceitful men, let us be prepared to give up something of our own rather than to contend with them."  He also states more than once that we must pay our outstanding debts.  Calvin concludes by reminding us that it is God who issues this commandment for our own good: "that we may know that this rule was established for our hearts as well as for our hands, in order that men may strive to protect and promote the well-being and interests of others."

The ninth commandment is this: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:16).  Calvin sums up this command by saying, "let us not malign anyone with slanders or false charges, nor harm his substance by falsehood, in short, injure him by unbridled evilspeaking and impudence."  You know that Calvin could not stop at just the negative - do not lie.  He has to turn it around as to what else is expected of us: "we should faithfully help everyone as much as we can in affirming the truth, in order to protect the integrity of his name and possessions."  Once again, we are speaking of helping others hold onto what is rightfully theirs.  Although Calvin separates the integrity of one's name and his other possessions, one's good name is a precious possession.  Calvin is specific in telling his readers that this commandment is not limited to perjury.  In fact, he reminds us that the third commandment dealt with perjury, so even though there is overlap this commandment is a separate rule. 

We should refrain from engaging in gossip or "evil-speak".  Humans naturally enjoy talking scandalously about one another.  We must resist the evil of defaming our neighbors through gossip or other means.  Not only should we not actually speak evilly about one another, we must not even listen to another doing it.  That just lends credibility to their lies if we refrain from speaking the truth.

Finally we reach the tenth commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s" (Exodus 20:17 NKJV).  Covetousness is contrary to love, but God wills that we love one another.  Therefore covetousness is contrary to God's will for us.  "No thought should steal upon us to move our hearts to a harmful covetousness that tends to our neighbor's loss...whatever we conceive, deliberate, will, or attempt is to be linked to our neighbor's good and advantage." 

As a personal aside here, I used to think this may have been the least of the commandments if one were to rank them.  Really, what harm can come by wanting something of your neighbor's?  It was not until later that I realized how insidious this type of thinking is.  It may actually be the most important of the commandments relating to how we treat our neighbors.  Covetousness as we have seen leads to other sin.  We covet our neighbor's wife and then we commit adultery.  We covet our neighbor's bicycle and then we commit theft.  We covet our neighbor's position in the community and then we bear false witness against him.  All these sins are tied to covetousness.  What makes this commandment even more difficult to keep than others is that we sometimes seem to have no control over what we desire.  We can refrain from taking our neighbor's car.  We can refrain from lying about our neighbor.  We can refrain from cheating on our spouses.  We can even refrain from bowing before an idol.  But sometimes when we see that someone who we label as "undeserving" receives great reward, we find ourselves desiring his possessions no matter the cost to him.  It takes more help from God in order to restrain our minds in this instance than it does to restrain our hands from breaking other commandments.  Just my two cents here - not Calvin's.

Calvin talks more about a heart full of covetousness is empty of love.  In order for us to truly love our neighbor we must want for him to keep the possessions which God has entrusted to him.  Calvin wraps up the tenth commandment by stating, "God...commands us to keep the possessions of others untouched and safe, not only from injury or the wish to defraud, but even from the slightest covetousness that may trouble our hearts."

Tomorrow's reading: 2.8.51-2.8.56

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