“You Shall Not Covet … Anything That Belongs to Your Neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The tenth commandment prohibits coveting “anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Deut. 5:21). It is not wrong to notice the things that belong to our neighbors, nor even to desire to obtain such things for ourselves legitimately. Coveting happens when someone sees the prosperity, achievements, or talents of another, and then resents it, or wants to take it, or wants to punish the successful person. It is the harm to another person, “your neighbor”—not the desire to have something—that is prohibited.

We can either take inspiration from the success of others or we can covet. The first attitude provokes hard work and prudence. The second attitude causes laziness, generates excuses for failure, and provokes acts of confiscation. We will never succeed if we convince ourselves that life is a zero-sum game and that we are somehow harmed when other people do well. We will never do great things if, instead of working hard, we fantasize that other people’s achievements are our own. Here again, the ultimate grounding of this commandment is the command to worship God alone. If God is the focus of our worship, desire for him displaces all unholy, covetous desire for anything else, including that which belongs to our neighbors. As the Apostle Paul put it, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Phil. 4:11).

Deuteronomy adds the words “or field” to Exodus’s list of your neighbor's things you are not to covet. As in the other additions to the Ten Commandments’ in Deuteronomy, this one draws attention to the workplace. Fields are workplaces, and to covet a field is to covet the productive resources another person has.

Envy and acquisitiveness are indeed especially dangerous at work where status, pay, and power are routine factors in our relationships with people we spend a lot of time with. We may have many good reasons to desire achievement, advancement, or reward at work. But envy isn’t one of them. Nor is working obsessively out of envy for the social standing it may enable.

In particular, we face temptation at work to falsely inflate our accomplishments at the expense of others. The antidote is simple, although hard to do at times. Make it a consistent practice to recognize the accomplishments of others and give them all the credit they deserve. If we can learn to rejoice in—or at least acknowledge—others’ successes, we cut off the lifeblood of envy and covetousness at work. Even better, if we can learn how to work so that our success goes hand in hand with others’ success, covetousness is replaced by collaboration and envy by unity. 

Leith Anderson, former pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, says, “As the senior pastor, it’s as if I have an unlimited supply of coins in my pocket. Whenever I give credit to a staff member for a good idea, praise a volunteer’s work, or thank someone, it’s like I’m slipping a coin from my pocket into theirs. That’s my job as the leader, to slip coins from my pocket to others’ pockets, to build up the appreciation other people have for them.”[1]

Reported by William Messenger from a conversation with Leith Anderson on October 20, 2004, in Charlotte, NC.