The temptation to covet promises us that if we can have what someone else has, we’ll be happy. Jesus is about to show us the emptiness of that promise.
But what did Jesus hear? Covetousness. And we might have cringed over Jesus’s response more than the man’s request. Surprisingly, Jesus used the man’s plea for justice not to rebuke unjust oppressors, but to warn not only the man but all his hearers (present and future) of the greater danger earthly wealth poses to every soul that craves it: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
This wasn’t because Jesus didn’t care about injustice. It was because Jesus knew how deceptive, and spiritually dangerous, earthly wealth was to the plaintiff who cried out that day — and to all of us. So, he issued a strong warning to be on guard against all covetousness. Then he illustrated it with a powerful parable, and showed us the way of escape from its temptation.
What Is Covetousness?
The last of the Ten Commandments makes clear what covetousness is:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17)
To covet is to earnestly, even obsessively, desire what your neighbor has. It’s a sin-cousin of envy, though not the same, as Joe Rigney helpfully explains,
Covetousness is an overweening desire for that which is not yours. Or, as I try to explain to my young boys, covetousness is wanting something so much it makes you fussy. Covetousness wants what the other guy has; envy is angry that the other guy has it. Covetousness is oriented toward your neighbor’s possessions; envy toward the man himself. (Killjoys, 22–23)
Envy moved Cain to murder his neighbor, his own brother (Genesis 4); covetousness moved Achan to take forbidden treasure for himself, resulting in the deaths of numerous of his neighbors (Joshua 7). Envy moved Saul to keep trying to assassinate his neighbor, David (1 Samuel 19); covetousness moved David to steal his neighbor’s wife, and then murder him as a cover-up (2 Samuel 11).
Both envy and covetousness are destructive, even lethal, sins against our neighbor, but for different reasons. While envy is an evil, perverse, twisted kind of valuing of our neighbor (we wish we were him), coveting is an evil, perverse, twisted kind of devaluing of our neighbor (we care more for his stuff than for him).
Idolatry with a Double Edge
The unique evil of covetousness is that we value what our neighbor has more than what our neighbor is. We desire our neighbor’s possessions for ourselves rather than loving our neighbor as ourselves. Which makes coveting a particularly heinous form of idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
In literal idolatry, we “[exchange] the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things”; we value creatures more than the Creator, the one who gives them real value (Romans 1:23, 25). But coveting adds another dimension to this. For we exchange the glory of God inherent in a person (the imago dei, however marred by the fall) for the created things that a God-imaging person owns. In doing so, we both rob God of the glory he deserves and rob our neighbor of the dignity he deserves. Coveting is a double-edged form of idolatry.
When we covet, we love stuff more than human life, more than Divine Life, and more than eternal life. Which is why Jesus told the man, the crowd, and us that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). And then he drove his point home with a powerful parable.