It is to be observed, in the first place, that these two precepts, which were delivered last in order, furnish a general principle for the observance of all the rest. What is commanded in these two amounts to this, that if we wish to observe the preceding precepts of the law, we must be particularly careful not to covet. For he who does not covet, being content with what he has, will not desire what belongs to others, but will rejoice in their prosperity, will give glory to the immortal God, will render Him boundless thanks, and will observe the Sabbath, that is, will enjoy perpetual repose, and will respect his superiors. In fine, he will injure no man in word or deed or otherwise; for the root of all evil is concupiscence, which hurries its unhappy victims into every species of crime and wickedness. Keeping these considerations in mind, the pastor should be more diligent in explaining this Commandment, and the faithful more ready to hear (his instruction).
We have united these two Commandments because, since their subjectmatter is similar, they may be treated together. However, the pastor may explain them either together or separately, according as he may deem it more effective for his exhortations and admonitions. If, however, he has undertaken the exposition of the Decalogue, he should point out in what these two Commandments are dissimilar; how one covetousness differs from another a difference noticed by St. Augustine, in his book of Questions on Exodus. The one covetousness looks only to utility and interest, the other to unlawful desire and criminal pleasure. He, for instance, who covets a field or house, pursues profit rather than pleasure, while he who covets another man's wife yields to a desire of pleasure, not of profit.
The promulgation of these two Commandments was necessary for two reasons. The first is to explain the sixth and seventh Commandments. Reason alone shows that to prohibit adultery is also to prohibit the desire of another man's wife, because, were the desire lawful, its indulgence must be so too; nevertheless, many of the Jews, blinded by sin, could not be induced to believe that such desires were prohibited by God. Nay, even after the Law had been promulgated and become known, many who professed themselves its interpreters, continued in the same error, as we learn from these words of our Lord recorded in St. Matthew: You have heard that it was said to them of old: "Thou shalt not commit adultery," but I say to you, etc.
The second reason (for the promulgation) of these two Commandments is that they distinctly and in express terms prohibit some things of which the sixth and seventh Commandments do not contain an explicit prohibition. The seventh Commandment, for instance, forbids an unjust desire or endeavour to take what belongs to another; but this Commandment further prohibits even to covet it in any way, even though it could be acquired justly and lawfully, if we foresee that by such acquisition our neighbour would suffer some loss.
But before we come to the exposition of the Commandments, the faithful are first to be informed that by this law we are taught not only to restrain our inordinate desires, but also to know the boundless love of God towards us.
By the preceding Commandments God had, as it were, fenced us round with safeguards, securing us and ours against injury of every sort; but by the addition of these two Commandments, He intended chiefly to provide against the injuries which we might inflict on ourselves by the indulgence of inordinate desires, as would easily happen were we at liberty to covet all things indiscriminately. By this law then, which forbids to covet, God has blunted in some degree the keenness of desire, which excites to every kind of evil, so that by reason of His command these desires are to some extent diminished, and we ourselves, freed from the annoying importunity of the passions, are enabled to devote more time to the performance of the numerous and important duties of piety and religion which we owe to God.
Nor is this the only lesson of instruction which we derive from these Commandments. They also teach us that the divine law is to be observed not only by the external performance of duties, but also by the internal concurrence of the heart. Between divine and human laws, then, there is this difference, that human laws are fulfilled by an external compliance alone, whereas the laws of God, since He reads the heart, require purity of heart, sincere and undefiled integrity of soul.
The law of God, therefore, is a sort of mirror, in which we behold the corruption of our own nature; and hence these words of the Apostle: I had not known concupiscence, if the law did not say: "Thou shalt not covet." ' Concupiscence, which is the fuel of sin, and which originated in sin, is always inherent in our fallen nature; from it we know that we are born in sin, and, therefore, do we humbly fly for assistance to Him, who alone can efface the stains of sin.
In common with the other Commandments, however, these two are partly mandatory, partly prohibitory.
With regard to the prohibitory part, the pastor should explain what sort of concupiscence is prohibited by this law, lest some may think that which is not sinful to be sinful.
Such is the concupiscence of the spirit against the flesh; Or that which David so earnestly desired, namely, to long after the justifications of God at all times.
Concupiscence, then, is a certain commotion and impulse of the soul, urging men to the desire of pleasures, which they do not actually enjoy. As the other propensities of the soul are not always sinful, neither is the impulse of concupiscence always vicious. It is not, for instance, sinful to desire food and drink; when cold, to wish for warmth; when warm, to wish to become cool. This lawful species of concupiscence was implanted in us by the Author of nature; but in consequence of the sin of our first parents it passed the limits prescribed by nature and became so depraved that it frequently excites to the desire of those things which conflict with the spirit and reason.
However, if well regulated, and kept within proper bounds, it is often still the source of no slight advantage. In the first place, it leads us to supplicate God continually, and humbly to beg of Him those things which we most earnestly desire. Prayer is the interpreter of our wishes; and if this lawful concupiscence did not exist within us, prayer would be far less frequent in the Church of God. It also makes us esteem the gifts of God more highly; for the more eagerly we desire anything, the dearer and more pleasing will be its possession to us. Finally, the gratification which we receive from the acquisition of the desired object increases the devotion of our gratitude to God.
If then it is sometimes lawful to covet, it must be conceded that not every species of concupiscence is forbidden. St. Paul, it is true, says that concupiscence is sin; but his words are to be understood in the same sense as those of Moses, whom he cites, as the Apostle himself declares when, in his Epistle to the Galatians he calls it the concupiscence of the flesh for he says: Walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh.
Hence that natural, wellregulated concupiscence which does not go beyond its proper limits, is not prohibited; still less do these Commandments forbid that spiritual desire of the virtuous mind, which prompts us to long for those things that war against the flesh, for the Sacred Scriptures themselves exhort us to such a desire: Covet ye my words, Come over to me all ye that desire me.
It is not, then, the mere power of desire, which can move either to a good or a bad object that is prohibited by these Commandments; it is the indulgence of evil desire, which is called the concupiscence of the flesh, and the fuel of sin, and which when accompanied by the consent of the will, is always sinful. Therefore only that covetousness is forbidden which the Apostle calls the concupiscence of the flesh, that is to say, those motions of desire which are contrary to the dictates of reason and outstep the limits prescribed by God.
This kind of covetousness is condemned, either because it desires what is evil, such as adultery, drunkenness, murder, and such heinous crimes, of which the Apostle says: Let us not covet evil things, as they also coveted; or because, although the objects may not be bad in themselves, yet there is some other reason which makes it wrong to desire them, as when, for instance, God or His Church prohibit their possession; for it is not permitted us to desire these things which it is altogether unlawful to possess. Such were, in the Old Law, the gold and silver from which idols were made, and which the Lord in Deuteronomy forbade anyone to covet
Another reason why this sort of vicious desire is condemned is that it has for its object that which belongs to another, such as a house, maidservant, field, wife, ox, ass and many other things, all of which the law of God forbids us to covet, simply because they belong to another. The desire of such things, when consented to, is criminal, and is numbered among the most grievous sins. For sin is committed the moment the soul, yielding to the impulse of corrupt desires, is pleased with evil things, and either consents to, or does not resist them, as St. James, pointing out the beginning and progress of sin, teaches when he says: Every man is tempted by his own concupiscence, being drawn away and allured; then, when concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; but sin, when it is completed, begetteth death.
When, therefore, the Law says: Thou shalt not covet, it means that we are not to desire those things which belong to others. A thirst for what belongs to others is intense and insatiable; for it is written: A covetous man shall not be satisfied with money; and of such a one Isaias says: Woe to you that join house to house, and lay field to field.
But a distinct explanation of each of the words (in which this Commandment is expressed) will make it easier to understand the deformity and grievousness of this sin.
The pastor, therefore, should teach that by the word house is to be understood not only the habitation in which we dwell, but all our property, as we know from the usage and custom of the sacred writers. Thus when it is said in Exodus that the Lord built houses for the midwives, the meaning is that He improved their condition and means.
From this interpretation, therefore, we perceive, that we are forbidden to indulge an eager desire of riches, or to envy others their wealth, or power, or rank; but, on the contrary, we are directed to be content with our own condition, whether it be high or low. Furthermore, it is forbidden to desire the glory of others since glory also is comprised under the word house.
The words that follow, nor his ox, nor his ass, teach us that not only is it unlawful to desire things of greater value, such as a house, rank, glory, because they belong to others; but also things of little value, whatever they may be, animate or inanimate.
The words, nor his servant, come next, and include captives as well as other slaves whom it is no more lawful to covet than the other property of our neighbour. With regard to the free who serve voluntarily either for wages, or out of affection or respect, it is unlawful, by words, or hopes, or promises, or rewards to bribe or solicit them, under any pretext whatever, to leave those to whose service they have freely engaged themselves; nay more, if, before the period of their contract has expired, they leave their employers, they are to be admonished, on the authority of this Commandment, to return to them by all means.
The word neighbour is mentioned in this Commandment to mark the wickedness of those who habitually covet the lands, houses and the like, which lie in their immediate vicinity; for neighbourhood, which should make for friendship, is transformed by covetousness from a source of love into a cause of hatred.
But this Commandment is by no means transgressed by those who desire to purchase or have actually purchased, at a fair price, from a neighbour, the goods which he has for sale. Instead of doing him an injury, they, on the contrary, very much assist their neighbour, because to him the money will be much more convenient and useful than the goods he sells.
The Commandment which forbids us to covet the goods of our neighbour, is followed by another, which forbids us to covet our neighbour's wife a law that prohibits not only the adulterer's criminal desire of his neighbour's wife, but even the wish to marry her. For of old when a bill of divorce was permitted, it might easily happen, that she who was put away by one husband might be married to another. But the Lord forbade the desire of another's wife lest husbands might be induced to abandon their wives, or wives conduct themselves with such bad temper towards their husbands as to make it necessary to send them away.
But now this sin is more grievous because the wife, although separated from her husband, cannot be taken in marriage by another until the husband's death. He, therefore, who covets another man's wife will easily fall from this into another desire, for he will wish either the death of the husband or the commission of adultery.
The same principle holds good with regard to women who have been betrothed to another. To covet them is also unlawful; and whoever strives to break their engagement violates one of the most holy of promises.
And if to covet the wedded wife of another is entirely unlawful, it is on no account right to desire in marriage the virgin who is consecrated to religion and to the service of God. But should anyone desire in marriage a married woman whom he thinks to be single, and whom he would not wish to marry if he knew she had a husband living, certainly he does not violate this Commandment. Pharaoh and Abimelech, as the Scripture informs us, were betrayed into this error; they wished to marry Sarah, supposing her to be unmarried, and to be the sister, not the wife of Abraham.
In order to make known the remedies calculated to overcome the vice of covetousness, the pastor should explain the positive part of the Commandment, which consists in this, that if riches abound, we set not our hearts upon them, that we be prepared to sacrifice them for the sake of piety and religion, that we contribute cheerfully towards the relief of the poor, and that, if we ourselves are poor, we bear our poverty with patience and joy. And, indeed, if we are generous with our own goods, we shall extinguish (in our own hearts) the desire of what belongs to another.
Concerning the praises of poverty and the contempt of riches, the pastor will find little difficulty in collecting abundant matter for the instruction of the faithful from the Sacred Scriptures and the works of the Fathers.
Likewise this Commandment requires us to desire, with all the ardour and all the earnestness of our souls, the consummation, not of our own wishes, but of the holy will of God, as it is expressed in the Lord's Prayer. Now it is His will that we be made eminent in holiness; that we preserve our souls pure and undefiled; that we practice those duties of mind and spirit which are opposed to sensuality; that we subdue our unruly appetites, and enter, under the guidance of reason and of the spirit, upon a virtuous course of life; and finally that we hold under restraint those senses in particular which supply matter to the passions.
In order to extinguish the fire of passion, it will be found most efficacious to place before our eyes the evil consequences of its indulgence.
Among those evils the first is that by obedience to the impulse of passion, sin gains uncontrolled sway over the soul; hence the Apostle warns us: Let not sin, therefore, reign in your mortal body, so as to obey the lusts thereof. Just as resistance to the passions destroys the power of sin, so indulgence of the passions expels God from His kingdom and introduces sin in His place.
Again, concupiscence, as St. James teaches, is the source from which flows very sin. Likewise St. John says: All that is in the world is the concupiscence of the mesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life.
A third evil of sensuality is that it darkens the understanding. Blinded by passion man comes to regard whatever he desires as lawful and even laudable.
Finally, concupiscence stifles the seed of the divine word, sown in our souls by God, the great husband man. Some, it is written in St. Mark, are sown among thorns; these are they who hear the word, and the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lust after other things, entering in, choke the word, and it is made fruitless.
They who, more than others, are the slaves of concupiscence, the pastor should exhort with greater earnestness to observe this Commandment. Such are the following: those who are addicted to improper amusements, or who are immoderately given to recreation; merchants, who wish for scarcity, and who cannot bear that other buyers or sellers hinder them from selling at a higher or buying at a lower rate; those who wish to see their neighbour reduced to want in order that they themselves may profit in buying or selling; soldiers who thirst for war, in order to enrich themselves with plunder; physicians, who wish for the spread of disease; lawyers, who are anxious for a great number ofcases and litigations; and artisans who, through greed for gain, wish for a scarcity of the necessaries of life in order that they may increase their profits.
They too, sin gravely against this Commandment, who, because they are envious of the praise and glory won by others, strive to tarnish in some degree their fame, particularly if they themselves are idle and worthless characters; for fame and glory are the reward of virtue and industry, not of indolence and laziness.Back