COVETOUSNESS IS IDOLATRY
- Much is said about this subject. It must be important.
- Covetousness strongly forbidden in the Law of Moses (Exodus 20:17).
- Great emphasis placed on it in the New Testament (Luke 12:15; Romans 1:29; I Corinthians 5:9–10, 6:9–10; Colossians 3:2–5).
- Coupled with the sins of impurity:
- Not considered as evil out in the world.
- In the church, we withdraw fellowship from those who are guilty of moral sins of a sexual nature, but accord fellowship toward the covetous.
- Sin is separation: “He journeyed to a far country.”
- Old Testament:
- To desire for yourself.
- To cut off, or gain (unlawfully).
- Dishonest gain.
- New Testament:
- To fix the mind on.
- To extend the arms for anything.
- One who wishes more.
- To reach after a thing: to give one's self up to.
- A having more, a larger portion, advantage, superiority.
- Greedy desire.
- Covetousness a condition of the heart:
- Inner decay of the soul (Mark 7:21–22).
- May be unaware of the sin in our lives, and this is one of the great dangers of it.
- What it does to one:
- Becomes a god. Occupies the heart, the center of affections, controls thought and actions (Colossians 3:5).
- It is idolatry. Define idolatry (Ephesians 5:5).
- Eve was more interested in what Satan promised that what God said.
- Achan looked with uncontrolled greed at the Babylonish garment and the silver and gold.
- Judas “bar the bag.” A thief, set upon getting more and satisfying his own evil desires.
- With Christians today, it can be jobs, homes, and other material things. The things of this world can become a god to us. We would never consider falling down before a graven image to worship such a thing, but we may fall down before things and make them an idol.
- It leads to positive wrongdoing (I Timothy 6:10).
- Many sins perpetrated out of consideration of money.
- Achan coveted and was led to steal.
- Eve coveted and was led to disobey God.
- David coveted and was let to commit adultery and murder.
- Ananias and Sapphira coveted and were led to lie to God.
- Judas coveted and sold the Lord for thirty pieces of silver.
- Israel profaned the Sabbath. Covetousness today leads some Christians to forsake the Lord's Day.
- The destructive forces of it:
- Eats as a cancer in the soul of man. Does him the greatest damage.
- Hardens him to the needs of others. Loses sensitivity to the pain, problems, and position of others.
- Deafens him to the pleas and cries of those around him who are worth consideration.
- He can't hear the cry of those who are starving for the gospel.
- Blinds him to the opportunities every where at hand.
- They do not feel, see, or hear. They think only of themselves. Will a man rob God? A covetous man will!
- He becomes miserable, wretched, and discontented.
- Ahab and Naboth (I Kings 21).
- Haman and Mordecai (Esther 5).
- Tolstoy's story.
- The cure:
- The cause of it is selfishness, self–interest, preeminence, and self–satisfaction. What is there in it for me?
- The cure for it is self–denial (Matthew 16:24–25).
- It is looking to the needs and well–being of those around us.
- Happiness follows: “More blessed to give than to receive.”
- Contentment comes in the wake of such conduct (Philippians 4:11; Hebrews 13:5).
COVETOUSNESS IS IDOLATRY
Covetousness is a sin about which we speak little. In all the years I have heard sermons, I cannot recall a complete lesson having been delivered about this topic. To explain why we hear so little on this question is rather difficult. Perhaps it is because the issue is subtle we fail to detect the evil with which it is fraught. Or it may be that it is a theme dear to our hearts and we are so involved in it and encapsulated by it, we are blinded to the dangers and destructiveness of it.
While I have never heard a complete sermon on this question, neither have I known a Christian guilty of covetousness to be disfellowshipped by a congregation. We withdraw fellowship from those who are impure, morally, and who persist in their sin, but we fail to mark those who are guilty of avarice. In fact, it has been noted that such people are often admired, praised, treated indulgently, and even coddled. It is not uncommon for some to court the friendship of those who are economically successful, even though they may be greedy and grasping in their demeanor.
The Old Testament forbade God's people to be covetous and strongly condemned the sin: “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's” (Exodus 20:17).
Achan, when detected in his sin and confronted with it, said, “When I saw among the spoils a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of God weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. And there they are hidden in the earth in the midst of my tent, with silver under it” (Joshua 7:21).
How Classified in the New Testament
Considerable space is given in the New Testament to the discussion of the subject of covetousness. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil–mindedness” (Romans 1:28–29).
The list goes on, but an important lesson we need to learn is that Paul couples covetousness with the sins of impurity, immorality, and even murder.
He drives this lesson home when he writes to the Corinthians, “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people [to associate intimately with fornicators]. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of this world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is a fornicator, or covetous [greedy], or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person” (I Corinthians 5:9–11).
Definition of Terms
May I deviate for a moment here to say that this particular word for covetousness, (pleonektes), means “one who wishes for more.” Notice the kind of company covetousness keeps! There is an old saying: “You can judge one by the company he keeps.”
There is a strong indictment, therefore, against covetousness because it is always in evil company! There are several words in the Greek New Testament which are translated covetousness. Each word carries a little different connotation, thus giving us a larger view of what covetousness is.
There is the word epithumeo and it means “to fix the mind on; to set the heart upon; desire, long for; have earnest desire; to lust after (Matthew 5:28); to covet” (Romans 13:9). A further definition of a word that derives from the root word means “an impure desire, what enkindles desire.” Paul said, “I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel” (Acts 20:33). He used this word.
Paul used another word for covet in his writings to the Corinthian church and this time it was zeloo. This word has the meaning of zeal—“to be zealous for; to boil, to be hot; to be fervent; ardent, zealous; to have a strong affection towards; to be ardently devoted to.” In these passages, covet is used in a good sense: “But earnestly desire [covet] the best gifts” (I Corinthians 12:31; 14:39).
Another word that is used in the New Testament for covet is a term Paul used in his letter to Timothy warning him against the dangers of the love of money. He used oregeomai, and this denotes “an extending of the arms for anything; to stretch one's self out; to reach forward to; to earnestly desire; to indulge in, be devoted to.” “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness [eager—there is the word], and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (I Timothy 6:10). These people “stretch themselves out” after money. How very common this is—and, I am afraid, even among those who profess to be Christians.
The writer of the Hebrew letter persuades us: “Let your conduct be without covetousness” (Hebrews 13:5). But this combination of words is philarguros. The two words are love plus silver. Anything that is made of silver and came, therefore, by metonymy to mean a “lover of money.”
Luke relates: “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money [who were covetous], also heard all these things, and they derided Him” (Luke 16:14). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul asserted that terrible times would come in the last days when “men would be lovers of themselves, lovers of money [money–lovers]” (II Timothy 3:2). His term for “money–lovers” is one of the New Testament words for covetousness.
While covetousness is condemned throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments, the passage that is the most frightening is Colossians 3:5: “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming.”
Young says that this word means: “One who wishes more.” The Analytical Greek Lexicon has several definitions: “An inordinate desire for riches; grasping, overreaching, extortion.” Paul classifies this sin as idolatry. The word is eidololatreia, and the lexicons define it: eidos, “external appearance, image, form, shape, statue, an idol, image of a god.” The second part of the word, latreia, “to render religious service and homage, worship, servitude.” The apostle clearly states that one who is covetous is an idolater. That is strong language and should cause us to carefully examine our own spiritual posture.
The love of money threatens the very existence, spiritually, of many of God's children. Peter said: “They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness [wickedness]” (II Peter 2:15). The word here for wickedness simply means “bad, vicious, false.” But when we go back to the original story in Numbers chapters 22 and 23 we learn what that wickedness was. It was the grasping, covetous desire of this prophet.
The rich, young ruler of whom we read in Matthew 19:16–22 was covetous. He claimed to have kept all of the commandments of the law of Moses under which he lived. He had not even kept the first one: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” He was an idolater. Jesus looked upon him and loved him. He must have been honest, but he had deluded himself. He loved his possessions more than following Jesus. Discipleship was not all that important to him. He was a “silver–lover.” He had fixed his desire upon things. The affection of his mind was in the direction of wealth. He had a craving, longing, and a strong compelling desire to keep what he had—and, I think, to have more besides.
Paul said several things about this disposition of heart: (1) it is the root of every kind of evil; (2) eager for it, people wander from the faith; (3) they pierce themselves through with many griefs; (4) they fall into temptation and a trap; (5) they are accompanied by many foolish and hurtful desires; and by all of this (6) men are plunged into ruin and destruction. No wonder he calls this sin of covetousness idolatry! When these things in the world become a god to us, Paul said they lead to positive wrong (I Timothy 6:10). They will eat as a cancer; harden our hearts, deafen our hearing, and blind our eyes. This is what happened to Demas, the companion and fellow laborer of Paul. He loved the now age.
Review the brief narrative of Naboth in I Kings 21. We see the sin of covetousness in both Jezebel and Ahab: “Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ So it was, when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, that Ahab got up and went down to take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (I Kings 21:15–16).
The needs of others, misfortune, and death have little effect upon the hearts of those who are covetous. You can see why this sin is so damning: it is idolatry. It is the inner decay of the soul. What makes it among the most dangerous of sins is that those who are guilty of it and enveloped by it often do not recognize it. They are not aware that it has taken control of their lives. They may “go to church” regularly, appear to be, and think themselves to be, among the most pious, and live moral lives above question or reproach, yet God knows that they are idolaters.
Covetousness becomes man's god, occupies the chief place in his heart, becomes the center of his affections, and controls his thoughts and actions. He is endeavoring to worship both God and mammon. “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5). Eve was more interested in the promises of Satan that in doing the will of God. She saw that the fruit offered her was (1) good to eat, (2) beautiful to look at, and (3) good to make one wise. She coveted what was not hers and reached out to take it.
Achan looked with unrestrained, willful, unchecked greed at the Babylonish garment and the gold and silver. He couldn't see anything else—not even that he might be detected and punished!
Judas Iscariot “bare the bag.” Getting a few more shillings was all that occupied his heart. He cared nothing for the poor. He was, in fact, a thief. Covetousness filled his heart and he sold his Lord for thirty pieces of silver which led to His crucifixion. So. covetousness leads to positive wrongdoing.
Achan coveted and it led him to steal. David coveted and it led him to adultery and murder. Ananias and Sapphira coveted and it led them to lie to God. This sin seriously impairs one's usefulness, impedes any spiritual progress, and, unless one turns back from it, will utterly destroy him.
Covetousness hardens people to the needs of others. They become impervious and can't hear the cry of those who are starving for the gospel. They pass by on the other side because they are blinded to the opportunities everywhere at hand. The successful (by this world's standards) farmer did not feel, see, or hear the needs of those around him. All he could think of was
make more, save more, and have more so that he could take his ease, eat, drink, and be merry. He thought only of himself. Will a man rob God? A covetous man will! The rich man at whose gate Lazarus lay in daily, desperate need cared nothing for this beggar. What an opportunity to show his love and care for his neighbor. He didn't even have to make the opportunity. There it was every day at his gate!
Covetous People are Wretched
Spend a little time reflecting on Ahab and Naboth (I Kings 21) and on Haman and his relationship to Mordecai (Esther 5). Think about the covetous people you know. How many are truly happy? Someone has well said that covetous people spend half of their lifetime fretting and worrying about making their fortune and the other half in apprehension and uneasiness in saving and protecting what they have got.
Tolstoy, Russian novelist and social critic, who lived most of his life in the last century, said: “How much land does a man require? A greedy [covetous] man was offered all the land he could walk around in a day. He started very early, walked with diligence, came back late in the evening, and dropped dead where he had begun.” “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver, nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
The Cause of It
It is difficult to know all the contributing causes considering the complexity of the human frame, but we should not be far from the answer if we asserted that selfishness, self–interest, and self–satisfaction are the prime culprits. What is there in it for me? What can I get out of it? How will my cause be bettered? Will it enhance my standing? What about the increase in my personal coffers? Is it likely that my popularity will grow? Is there a chance that greater power may be wielded and my name more widely known?
The Cure For It
The cure, without question, is self–denial. “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny
himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’ ” (Matthew 16:24–26)?
Paul learned that lesson in becoming a Christian: “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. But indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7–8).
Following this commitment to the Lord will be happiness and a peace that surpasses understanding. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” as quoted by Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:35. And with all of that is contentment: “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Philippians 4:11). And there is that great assurance from God, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 14:5). There are always additional things one wishes to say concerning a subject like this concerning which the Bible devotes so much teaching. I would not want to close this lesson without mentioning again those things that make covetousness so wrong.
Covetousness involves one in the wrong relationship to others. He is guilty of sensualism and coveting his neighbor's wife or property. This leads to taking advantage of others, and he will resort to almost any means to accomplish his goal. And a covetous man is so unlovable. We have such great admiration and respect for one who is unselfish, free–hearted, and generous towards others, and it is difficult to keep from despising a covetous man.
Covetousness involves him in the wrong relationship to God. Covetousness in the heart of a Christian puts God out of first place. It relegates Him to an inferior position in that person's life. So, he thus becomes an idolater. Covetousness puts him out of harmony with himself. He is never satisfied and always wants more—particularly more of what he doesn't have! His motto is :“To get, to have, to hold and to hoard.” He becomes cruel and grasping. Hypocrisy is one of the chief characteristics of
him—make believe, feigned, stage acting, out of character and dishonest in it all. “So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their gain” (Ezekiel 33:31).
Here is the Answer for Each of Us
“Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetous, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:2–5).
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21).