In an article a few weeks ago, I noted a university professor's request for his students to suggest a plan for "downsizing" the Ten Commandments which would eliminate one of God's commandments. Most students said the sixth commandment -- the prohibition against adultery -- should be the first one eliminated.
If the students had reflected a moment longer, they might have realized that the ninth -- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife -- and the 10th -- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's goods -- commandments have already been downsized out of existence in much of Western culture.
In fact, our economy is based upon coveting our neighbour's goods. Much of the advertising industry is, in fact, directed to getting people to violate the 10th commandment.
Indeed, one mechanism for encouraging people to covet material possessions is to associate those goods, if not exactly with their neighbour's wife, at least with beautiful and tempting female bodies. One well-designed magazine ad or TV commercial can lead a person to break both the ninth and 10th commandments with one long and lingering glance.
To which, one may respond, "Who cares? What I covet is no one's business except my own and I don't need any busybody telling me I'm guilty of thought 'crimes' that don't hurt anybody."
In a certain sense, that's right. What you covet is your business. It determines who you are as a person even if it never spills over into the active pursuit of one's neighbour's wife or goods. By living a life of lust and greed, one cheapens oneself and turns away from God.
But if we care about our relationship with God, we'll take those vices seriously. We'll know that even if we don't commit adultery or steal or amass huge amounts of material possessions, that we ought to take the ninth and 10th commandments seriously. Violating these commandments erodes our relationship with God by moving him away from the centre of our concerns and focusing on his creations.
An essential part of Christian living is an appreciation for the tragic dimension of life. This world can never satisfy our wants and desires. If we are to be happy in this world -- let alone the next -- we need to come to grips with its limits. We need to undergo a dying to self.
I need to accept that relationships are limited, that respect for the dignity of others should prevent me from obtaining all my desires and that the consumer society is promoting a lie. My only hope is hope. Unless I accept that God has promised us something far greater than anything dreamed of in my worldly desires and that he will be faithful to that promise, life can hold no lasting meaning.
This is true not only for individuals, but for society as a whole. Western society today is drunk on materialism. That drunkenness leads to over-consumption in the developed world, the impoverishment and suppression of human rights in the Majority World, environmental devastation, sexual promiscuity, falling birth rates and widespread divorce.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls for "a purification of the social climate" (no. 2525). This purification must include not only an end to pornography and semi-pornography, but also the blind desire for more and more possessions. To turn things around, we need to purify our own desires. We also need our governments, media and education system to lift us to a higher moral level rather than letting us fall to a lower one.
In our personal lives, we need to turn away from a lifestyle of sex, drugs and shop-until-you-drop. We need to be grateful for what we have and even give some of it away to those who have less. We need to joyfully engage in voluntary self-denial. We have a duty to witness to others that Jesus Christ is the source of the only lasting happiness and that anything which takes us away from him leads only to despair.
It is difficult to limit our desires for wealth or sexual fulfillment. Those desires are prone to imperialism. Focused on wealth, one never gets enough of it. Focused on sex, one never gets enough of it. And when one has accumulated all the wealth in one's own country, one sets off to suck the Third World dry.
The effort to put an end to coveting in our lives is not a negative attitude so much as a program of overcoming the obstacles to eternal life with God.
Maybe the students were right in not bothering with the ninth and 10th commandments. Those commandments are already pretty much forgotten. But coveting is not a victimless sin. It does lead to action, actions which are seriously distorting societies around the world. And yet society encourages coveting. If we want to put an end to our world's self-destructive tendencies, calling an end to coveting is an important and necessary step.
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