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Maundy Thursday: The Tenth Commandment

Maundy Thursday, 1 April 2021

A Sermon on Exodus 20:17 by Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS

Exodus 20:17 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles

17 “… 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.”

The Tenth Commandment (from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism)

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife [or husband], or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God so that we do not entice or force away our neighbor’s wife, workers, or animals, or turn them against him, but urge them to stay and do their duty.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This Maundy Thursday liturgy is chockfull of moving parts. After the Entrance Hymn, the sermon comes first, and, then, there is the confession and individual absolution of sins. In that place where the sermon normally happens, there is the washing of feet. Then, comes the distribution of the Lord’s true Body and most precious Blood. And, at the evening Eucharist, the service concludes with the stripping of the altar as Psalm 22 is chanted. If you’re paying attention to all that is going on in worship, who has time for coveting?

Coveting is an individual sport that anyone can play, and we usually don’t covet in the company of others, unless coveting has become a group sport as it is in politics. As we learned yesterday, The Hebrew word for covet “tahmod” in Exodus 20:17 is from the root verb “chamad,” which means “to desire or take pleasure in.” The meaning here in the 10th commandment is to desire “in a bad sense of inordinate, ungoverned, selfish desire” (Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon). Just as the First Commandment points out our unbelief as the root sin (We do not fear, love, and trust God above all else), so here the Tenth Commandment exposes our desire for that which does not belong to us. It tells us what we fear, love, and trust more than God.

A pubescent young person will covet the body, the hair, the possessions, and, yes, the girlfriend or boyfriend of that peer whose beauty is already apparent and, by comparison, elevated when one appraises the face and body in the mirror with the sharpest judgment of a baleful eye. Even if the wagging tongues of others do not feast on that one caught in-between what one was and what one will be, a deep, self-loathing can possess us. It is, of course, not the voice of God but rather of the old enemy, who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Suicide, sadly, has been the permanent solution to a temporary problem. Eating disorders are a slower type of death ordered up by the devil and his flesh-and-blood minions. Coveting always leads to other commandment-breaking.

Alex Berenson’s latest novel, The Power Couple, features two of the most despicable characters in popular literature. An unlikely match between the daughter of smug, East Coast professors and the son of massively dysfunctional alcoholic parents is a cautionary tale about rushing into marriage and family life without knowing who the other is and where he or she comes from. The attraction seems to be mostly physical for twenty-one years of their life together. Their two children are hostages to their grudge fest as the two cannot seem, from beginning to end, not to be consumed by coveting. By the end of the book, a reader with even a passing familiarity of the Ten Commandments will feel the need to take a long, hot shower to scrub away the filth. Discerning minds may wonder, “Who, in God’s name, were the models for these putrid souls?”

Coveting finds its best host in the heart curved in upon itself. Where the Lord God is enough, one receives the gift of one’s life and the gifts in one’s life with gratitude. Why, then, is 21st century America so marred by covetousness? When less than 50% of the total population no longer identifies with a major religion and that percentage grows higher the younger one looks, there is no curb, mirror, or guide for ungodly behavior. When the titans of technology are not only young but have no ears for the Word of God, there is no commonly shared sense that coveting destroys many lives. It is as if that late 80s nauseating movie character Gordon Gecko, whose motto was “Greed is good” is risen and not our Lord Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther concludes his explanation of the 10th commandment in the Large Catechism, “Above all, he [God] wants our hearts to be pure, even though as long as we live here we cannot reach that ideal. So this commandment remains, like all the rest, one that constantly accuses us and shows just how upright we really are in God’s sight” (Tappert, 407:310).

Coveting begins with that taunting whisper, “Look what he has. See what she is. Why shouldn’t you have that? Aren’t you miserable, because you are so nothing by comparison? You know you want it. You know you need it. You know you can get it. What are you waiting for, loser?”

The antidote to this world’s covetous, all-you-can-eat buffet is the Lord’s foretaste of the feast to come, which He instituted this night. Receiving our Lord’s true Body and most precious Blood we have not only what we need most, we have more than we could hope for or deserve. We have here the most intimate encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not the spiritualized ordinance of gnostic Protestantism. Here we actually receive Jesus, true God and true man, the Friend of sinners. Yes, we receive here His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. But that is not akin to the privileges and benefits of a club membership. No, we receive the Crucified and Risen Jesus!

How, then, do you still that voice that would spark covetousness in you? Maundy Thursday tells us. Listen to God’s Word. Confess sin and hear His absolution. Humbly serve as Jesus directs. Bring each empty, wounded place in heart and mind to the altar where Jesus enters in to heal, to fill, and to restore. Then, be stripped with Him of every last vestige of this world’s prideful dress.

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel David Zumwalt, STS

St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church

Wilmington, North Carolina USA