Wednesday of Holy Week: The Ninth Commandment

Wednesday of Holy Week, 31 March 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 house….”

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

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house….

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God so that we do not scheme to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, or get it in a way which only appears right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.


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

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 9th 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 Ninth Commandment exposes our desire for that which does not belong to us. It tells us what we fear, love, and trust more than God.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther says this commandment “… is addressed not to those whom the world considers wicked rogues, but precisely to the most upright – to people who wish to be commended as honest and virtuous because they have not offended against the preceding commandments… This situation occurs most frequently in lawsuits in which someone sets out to gain and squeeze something out of his neighbor. For example, when people wrangle and wrestle over a large inheritance, real estate, etc., they resort to whatever arguments have the least semblance of right, so varnishing and garnishing them that the law supports them, and they gain such secure title to the property as to put it beyond complaint or dispute. Similarly, if anyone covets a castle, city, county, or other great estate, he practices bribery, through friendly connections and by any other means at his disposal, until the property is taken away from the owner and legally awarded to him with letters patent and the seal of the prince attesting that it was acquired lawfully” (Tappert, 405:301-302).

“The same thing happens in ordinary business affairs, where one cunningly slips something out of another’s hand so that the victim is helpless to prevent it. Or, seeing an opportunity for profit – let us say, when a man because of adversity or debt cannot hold on to his property, nor yet sell it without loss – he hurries and worries him until he acquires a half or more of it; and yet this must not be considered as illegally acquired, but rather as honestly purchased… The world does not consider this wrong, and it does not see that the neighbor is being taken advantage of and forced to sacrifice what he cannot spare without injury. Yet no one wishes this to happen to himself. From this it is clear that all these pretexts and shams are false” (405-406: 303-304).

So, then, on this Wednesday of Holy Week, how did Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver begin with coveting? Was it that Judas always thought of himself as a clever fellow who deserved a bigger house than the one in which he was born or in which he had previously lived?  Were there those in his village, who had grown up in finer or larger houses, who mocked Judas in those terrible years when perhaps he was attracted to a woman who would never want to be his? Was it that once Jesus had disappointed Judas for our Lord’s seeming lack of ambition: that it was easier to see Jesus as a commodity Judas could trade away for wealth? What was it that caused Judas to ask the chief priests, “What will you give me if I deliver Him over to you?” (Matthew 26:14).

And how did the chief priests’ inordinate, ungoverned, selfish desire to kill Jesus seem to themselves a noble thing even as they found the perfect patsy in Judas and paid him off with thirty pieces of silver? Was their premeditated murder of God in human flesh justified in their minds by the thought they were protecting God and His people from a blasphemer or a naïve, dangerous fool? How was their motivating Judas to betray and manipulating the Romans to kill Jesus actually not merely breaking but indeed shattering all of the Ten Commandments at once?

In the wake of the Babylonian exile (c.597-537 BC), Judah was mostly governed by outsiders and without the Messiah, the King from David’s family. Yes, God had promised David in 2 Samuel 7 an everlasting dynasty, “a house,” but the disobedience of God’s people had resulted in the loss of the land, the temple, and the king. So, in the six hundred years since the exiles’ return from Babylon, it was the priests, who had come to dominate the people who lived under foreign rulers. It was the priests, who feared the loss of prestige and the destruction of the temple by the Romans. They thought of God’s house, God’s people, and God’s land as theirs. So… did they covet the power the Romans had and saw Jesus as a threat if He were the Messiah? Did they tell themselves and others that He was not, because if Jesus were the Messiah what would their place be in the rule of One, who disrupted the normal daily business conducted in the temple grounds?

There are so many deeper questions we would ask that Scripture only hints at. But in Judas and in the chief priests, Matthew holds up a mirror for us to see ourselves in them. To what terrible things would coveting drive us? And how would we betray both Jesus and our neighbor, and for how much or how little?

We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves ever. Only Christ crucified can save us.

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