When did it become ok to covet? Michael McDonald looks into sinful desire.
Well, here we are on the threshold
of another Christmas. What used to be a gentle season of giving and receiving,
feasting with family and friends, and perhaps contemplating the birth of the
saviour of the world, has become – just like everything else, it seems – an
orgy of shopping. How is it that commerce manages to cast its deadly pall over
every human activity? Nothing is spared. Not hospitals. Not schools. Not our
national game, nor our statutory holidays. All must make obeisance to this most
godless of gods.
Commerce long ago moved beyond the
simple exchange of useful goods to grace useful lives. It is, now, in and of
itself, insatiable, omnivorous, and unstoppable in its pursuit of endless
growth and limitless profit.
It’s absurd, of course. The world
can’t stand much more. That’s clear. But what drives it? What causes someone to
want to be a billionaire? Why
does anyone need nineteen tee
shirts or twenty-eight pairs of shoes? Who really requires not one but two 78-million-dollar yachts? Or a driveway
full of cars? Or a kitchen groaning with gadgetry? The answer of course is
Desire. Greed. Lust. Envy. Chamad, in Hebrew. Coveityse, in Chaucer’s Medieval
It’s not a word we hear very
often. Perhaps because it belongs to the philosophical and spiritual realms,
when we are now so determinedly secular and materially driven. We don’t hear
about it much because greed and lust and getting what you want are all now
commonplace, unquestioned, and endemic – and probably taught in the curriculum
– whereas the notion of ‘coveting’ implicitly challenges this mindset. Coveting
is about value, but not commercial value. It is about the battle for the soul,
not for the discretionary dollar.
The exotically named Omarosa
Manigault Newman, in her book about the Trump White House, Unhinged,
said of Trump: ‘I believe he covets his daughter. It’s uncomfortable to watch
them.’ Blimey. Uncomfortable indeed. Covet, in the sense Manigault Newman uses
it, means sexual desire. This, though, is not the way some commentators on her
work understood it. Many of them thought coveting meant ‘caring for’ or ‘being
affectionate to’. Wrong. It shows just how much we have lost in a short time
when many grown-ups simply don’t know what this word means anymore. M. Newman knew exactly what she meant and
it’s purely biblical. When Exodus 20:17 says, ’Thou shalt not covet thy
neighour’s wife’, it’s not saying ’thou shalt not pat thy neighbour’s wife on
the head in a caring way,’ It’s pretty clear.
When I first became aware of this
proscription about neighbours’ wives, it was known round our way, as the Tenth
Commandment. I didn’t really know at the age of seven what ‘covet’ meant
exactly. I was pretty damn sure all the same that I didn’t covet Mrs Dix. Our
neighbour’s wife was, in my father’s memorable summary, ‘a woman of repellant
aspect.’ As far as the rest of the Commandment was concerned, while Mr Dix had
neither a manservant, maidservant, ox nor ass to covet, he did have a powder
blue Morrie Thou’, which I coveted enormously. Mea culpa Mr Dix.
The last two Commandments – the
ninth and tenth – which deal with coveting of all manner of sinful loveliness,
are different from the other eight. They are all about actions – murder,
blaspheming, adultery, stealing – all that lurid stuff. But the coveting ones
are about the heart’s desires. When then USA President, Jimmy Carter told Playboy in 1976 that he had ‘looked on a
lot of women with lust’, he was quite right – in a scriptural sense – when he
said that by this very act of coveting he had, in fact, ‘committed adultery in my heart.’ In
saying so, he was reflecting Matthew 5:28: ‘…whosoever looketh on a woman to
lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Jimmy
Carter’s becoming and self-deprecating shame seems quaint now in an age when
the President of the United States appears happy to grab any passing bit of ass
without so much as turning a yellow hair of his pompadoured head.
Across all religions and most
philosophies, coveting always led to trouble. Greed, avarice, the desire to
amass wealth without limit, and the passion for power were all the same to the
church and it was seen as the deadliest of sins – well, for others at least, if
not for the church itself. Philosophers typically felt the same. ‘Covetous
desire’ said Philo of Alexandria, ‘is the worst kind of passion. Left unchecked
it is the cause of personal, interpersonal, and international strife.’ Well,
he’s not wrong there. What is China grabbing rocks in the South China Sea but
covetousness writ large and dangerous. What is Bashar al Assad’s slaughter of
half his people but the expression of lust for personal power at any expense.
The annals of human depredation are long and depressing, and behind all of it
is people’s desire for what they don’t have and others do. The simplest and
best antonym for covet is ‘not want’.
Well, I suppose it’s easy for me to say. I’ve reached an age where I
don’t have much and I don’t want much.
My covetousness seems extremely low, if not in complete abeyance. It’s
strangely restful. I recommend it.
On the other hand – if anyone out there has a spare Cartier tank watch or an Aston Martin Superleggera they don’t want, I’d be very happy to relieve them of the burden. Just a thought.