The Thief of Covetousness
With thanks to Mac Layton

By Paul Robison

Isn't it sad to think that before this day is ended, some young lady will sell herself for silver, some business man will plan a dishonest deal for some extra dollars, some poor man will decide that stealing will be worth it, some greedy person will kill another person for a material object, some TV evangelist will offer the public prosperity and then invite them to keep sending in their contributions to support him!  Isn't it sad indeed that we live in a land of Enrons, Murdoffs, scams, bribes, laundering, payola, and deceptions of all kinds for the sake of money?  Did you know that word “covet, covetous, and covetousness” are found about 40 times in the Bible?  The last of the Ten Commandments is: “You shall not covet your neighbor's house, you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything else that is your neighbor's” (Exodus 20:17). The other commandments deal with actions, but this one with attitude.  The others are about behavior, but this one is about our mind.  ‘Don’t Steal’ means keep your hands off.  ‘Don’t Covet’ means don’t even think about it” (J. Shirley)!  Covetousness is like a thief because it can sneak up on you before you realize it.  As a thief can break into just about anyone's house, so covetousness can break into just about everyone's heart!  That's what our reading tried to show this morning.  Think about it: Covetousness was the first sin in the Garden of Eden. Eve, you can be god!  Do your own thing!  Make yourself happy!”  It was the first sin as the children of Israel entered into the Promised Land.  Achan, go ahead and take those things, it's just a few items!”  It was the first sin towards Jesus' death.  Yes, Judas, you can not only speed up the kingdom but also make a little profit for yourself!”  And it was the first sin in the Jerusalem church. Sure, Ananias and Sapphira, keep some of the money for yourself!  Who will ever know?”  Covetousness” comes from a Greek word meaning “to reach beyond what has been appointed for a person,” so that when our desires yearn for things beyond our fair share, we are being covetous.  Someone else described covetousness in this way: “It is an excessive desire that compromises convictions to gain something you want.  It is also an envious desire for what someone else has ... for what they have to be yours” (J. Shirley).   As a thief who uses craftiness to gain his goods unlawfully, so the devil also uses deceitful covetousness to gain people's souls as well.   So let's look at seven ways that covetousness can steal in our lives.  These main ideas come from Bro. Mac Layton in his book This Grace Also (Chattanooga: O’Neal Publishing, 1964).

First of all covetousness steals God from our hearts.  Colossians 3:5 encourages us: “Therefore, put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”  There's a play in which an escaped lion takes the place of a shaggy dog by his master's armchair.  The master affectionately runs his fingers through the lion's mane several times before realizing that he has a big problem!  Don't we act like that sometimes with regard to our sinful habits?  We treat them as pets rather than treating them as killers.  We don't suspicion that such sins can not only deaden us but also cause us to lose all spiritual sensitivity (Packer).  The apostle Paul is saying in essence: “As those whose citizenship and prospects are in the heavenly realm, who are sons of God, you must behave as befits your status. You must be what you are, and not what you were” (Packer).  Therefore, you are to deal a death blow to your past evil habits, especially those that involve your fleshly nature!”  Kill those lions that can paralyze you!  And did you notice that covetousness or greed is the last lion mentioned?  In fact, did you notice the short descriptor that Paul added “which is idolatry”?  To be greedy steals God from our hearts.

How can this be?  When we give our attention to anything on this earth—money, cars, electronics, guns, job status, education, travel, clothes, appliances, furnishings (and none of these things are wrong in themselves)—and put that thing over God, then it becomes our idol, and we end up worshiping the creature, rather than our Creator!  There's another passage that illustrates how covetousness can steal God from our hearts found in 2 Peter chapter two.  In this chapter, Peter has been strongly denouncing some false teachers.  Note what he says in verses 13ff: “They are spots and blemishes, carousing in their own deceptions while they feast with you [At your fellowship meals, these men are making passes at the sisters who are there], having eyes full of adultery that cannot cease from sin, [Instead of putting to death fornication and passion, they are feeding it as they look lustfully for new sisters who can be taught that having sexual relations is really “a very loving thing for Christians to do”], enticing unstable souls. [Now notice Peter's wording that follows.] They have a heart trained in covetous practices, and are accursed children.  They have forsake the right way [or God's way] and have gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness [These men are so perverse that they not only want to seduce you but also expect to get paid for their teachings as well].  Are these false teachers worshiping at the idol of pleasure and fun?  Someone has said, “Covetousness is the sin of a world that has turned its back on God” (Shelly).  Let's learn to be content with what we have!  Covetousness indeed steals God from our hearts!

Secondly, covetousness steals discrimination from our minds.

Covetousness causes people to judge all things in life from a single perspective—the worth of self.  The questions no longer are: “Is it right?... Will it advance God's work on earth?... Will it bless my neighbor?”, but the questions become: “Is there anything in it for me?... Will it make me money?  Will it be give me pleasure?” It steals discrimination from our minds.  Remember the parable Jesus told of the covetous rich farmer in Luke 12:13-21?  A man came from the crowd and asked Jesus to tell his brother to share an inheritance with him.  Jesus replied in verse 15: “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”  When we are bombarded with over 273,000 advertisements via radio, TV, billboards, newspapers, and magazines per year, does Jesus' warning mean anything to us who live in a consumer society?  Then, Jesus tells us more about this covetous farmer who had such a bumper crop that he wasn't sure what to do.  Notice his solution in verse 18: So he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there will I store all my crops and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”'  Then God said to him, 'Fool!  This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?'  So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God.”  We notice in this man's life how the darkness of covetousness drove out the brightness of love.  What did he think about?  It wasn't about any people; all he thought about was things—crops, goods, barns, groceries—and himself. Someone has said that this rich man was called a fool because he let the material crowd out the spiritual, he never acknowledged his dependence upon others, and he failed to thank God for his prosperity (King). Covetousness steals discrimination from our minds.  How many of us are like the rich fool?  We work our heads off and run ourselves to death for more things!  So much of our time is given to gaining these things that we too forget about people and our own families.  Parents, your children want YOU.  Husbands, your family wants YOU.  Think about these questions for a moment: Is one more dollar more important than one more hug?  Does playing with our modern “toys” take precedent over playing with our children?  Does making another sale mean more to you than making strong lasting family ties?  Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”  Let's be rich towards God!  Covetousness indeed steals discrimination from our minds!

Next, covetousness steals service from our neighbors.  Remember the story of Ahab and Naboth in 1 Kings 21:1-16?  Ahab, one of the most wicked kings of Israel, one day saw Naboth’s vineyard.  He coveted it and wanted it badly, so he approached Naboth about selling it.  Because it was an inheritance, Naboth explained that it could not be sold.  Ahab pouted and sulked until Jezebel, the wicked-hearted pagan queen, told him not to worry.  She cooked up a perverse scheme to have Naboth killed, and so an innocent man's blood was shed as he was murdered!  The moment he was dead, she gets the news and tells Ahab to claim the vineyard.  Ahab rose up and took possession of Naboth’s vineyard.  His covetousness had led to murder!  But all this had not gone unnoticed by God.  The prophet Elijah was sent by God and came to the vineyard to announce to Ahab, “In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick your blood, even yours” (I Kings 21:19).  “There are still a lot of Ahabs around, but their sins will find them out too (J. Shirley).  Covetousness steals service from our neighbors.  Do you also recall the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19ff?  The poor beggar Lazarus just wanted to eat the crumbs, but the rich man did nothing to help him.  He was too concerned with his own wealth that he could not share!  Someone has observed: “The problem of the rich man went deeper than indifference.  Lying behind his cold unconcern was a self-centered life occupied with pleasures.  His physical enjoyments were his pride.  Absorbed in them, he became mercilessly oblivious to the needs of others” (Lightfoot).  Covetousness steals service from our neighbors.  Here's another idea.  Did you catch the last words of the tenth commandment?  We are not to covet our neighbor's goods, but then it adds, “nor anything else that is your neighbor's” (Exodus 20:17).  “That little phrase can encompass a lot of territory, can't it?  It could also include our coveting their status, their position, their power, or their prestige (Reynolds)!  How many “thousands upon thousands are ruining the lives of their families, their relatives, and their friends as they grasp for more and more” (J. Shirley)?  Let's be unselfish and learn to rejoice with others!  Covetousness indeed steals from our neighbors!

Next, covetousness steals satisfaction from our lives.  Ecclesiastes 5:10 sta
tes: “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver.  Nor he who loves abundance with increase.”  Covetousness just wants more and more!  Covetousness is the one sin that never brings satisfaction.  The apostle Paul put it this way in 1 Tim 6:9-10:  But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”  Now here's a question for you—Would you rather die from wounds made by a metal trap, from drowning in a whirlpool, or from being stuck with many spears?  The correct answer is that all of these happen to those who are covetous and make money their god.  “Paul's concern here is to point out the spiritual risks involved in money-grabbing” (Gutherie).  When we covet riches, we can “fall into temptation and a snare” (there's the metal trap), and into “harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and great loss” (there's the drowning), and straying from the faith, “they pierced themselves with many sorrows” (there's the spears).  Covetousness steals satisfaction from our lives.  Another preacher said: “When we become controlled by our desires and wants, we lose control.  You see, we can’t fight a battle on two fronts.  So we wind up 'saying one thing' and 'doing something entirely different,' and the battle between right and wrong rages.  [Greed] steals your happiness, joy, and peace” (J. Watts).  Someone else made this good observation: “As soon as you get to thinking that all life is about is the amassing of things for your own pleasure, you've lost the purpose of life” (Shelly)!  ... some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”  Let's be generous with liberal giving that clearly shows our desire is to serve God rather than [riches] (Harrison)!  Covetousness indeed steals satisfaction from our lives!

Next, covetousness steals progress from our spiritual lives.  Jesus warned us about this in Matthew 13:22: “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.”  The concerns that we have in this life and our covetous striving for wealth chokes out that which is spiritual.  There is an engraving on a wall at Stanford University which says: “There is no narrowing so deadly as the narrowing of a man's horizon of spiritual things.  No worse evil could befall a man in his course on earth than to lose sight of heaven” (Layton).  Yes, how easily covetousness takes our attention off spiritual and heavenly things and focuses it on material and earthly things (Shelly).  Covetousness steals progress from our spiritual lives.  Have you ever noticed how covetousness just reverses all of the elements in the fruit of the Holy Spirit?  Love becomes suspicion, joy becomes discontent, peace becomes trouble, patience become irritability, kindness becomes cruelty, goodness becomes deceitfulness, faithfulness becomes lawlessness, gentleness becomes arrogance, and self-control becomes selfish indulgence (Layton).  An elder once made this interesting observation: “Covetousness withers away all the highest resolves of the heart for spiritual development as an elder, deacon, or teacher in the church” (Layton).  How many opportunities for spiritual growth have we passed up because we were too busy grasping greedily for something that this world had to offer?  Let's keep our attention on what is above, on the spiritual, on the church, on truth, on righteousness, and on Jesus!  Covetousness indeed steals progress from our spiritual lives.

Next, covetousness steals Christ from our souls.  Remember the rich young ruler who
came to Jesus in Mark 10:17ff?  He had three things going for him, didn't he?  He was wealthy, he was youthful, and he was powerful.  He knelt before Jesus and asked him, 'Good teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?'”  So Jesus told him that only God was good and basically to keep all the commandments. And he answered and said to Him, 'Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.'  Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him: 'One thing you lack: go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.'  But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”  This young had some more going for him.  He was seeking for eternal life.  He knew the commandments.  He even practiced them.  So what was the problem?  It was covetousness wasn't it?  He could not part with his great possessions.  Do we have great possessions?  Are we willing to share them?  How much of our incomes are being given to help aid others?  Covetousness steals Christ from our souls.   Or here's another more current example.  Kathy Griffin, a TV star, won an Emmy in 2007 for having an outstanding reality program.  When she accepted the award, listen to what she said, “I guess hell froze over.  A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this.  He had nothing to do with this ... [then she blasphemed Jesus' Holy name]  This award is my god now” (http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=57586]  It sounds like her covetousness to win the award became her idol!  But what did she lose?  She lost Christ, didn't she?  Let's be willing to obey Christ and keep Him the Lord of our lives!  Covetousness indeed steals Christ from our souls.

Next, covetousness steals security from our future.  Jesus teaches us again in Luke 12:32-34: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Where are our investments?  “In contrast to the world's hoarding of possessions, the disciple must be generous with what God gives.  By serving God and others, [we] can invest in [our] eternal future. ...  [We] can store up eternal treasure by giving to others” (Nelson Study Bible).  Jesus does not want us to let our possessions possess us.  “When this takes place, possessions become a fatal barrier to eternal life” (Morris).  Covetousness steals security from our future.  When John D. Rockefeller was the richest man in the world, someone asked him how much money was enough.  He replied, "Just a little bit more" (Goble quotes Shannon).  Someone else has noted: “It is a sure indication of a materialistic heart if the feeling of [our] security fluctuates with the amount of goods [that we] may possess” (Layton)!  Let's be rich in investments toward those things which will endure—rich in God's Word, rich in His presence, rich in winning souls, rich in serving others, rich in the fruit of the Spirit, rich in good works (Parmely).  Covetousness indeed steals security from our future!

What a cunning thief covetousness is!  It steals God, discrimination, service, satisfaction, spiritual progress, Christ, and security!  This sin “will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and make you pay more than you want to [spend]” (Watts)!  Notice these sober words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:5: “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of God.”  Yes, covetousness can keep you from entering heaven!  Only with the strength of Christ and the help of the Holy Spirit can we put to death covetousness!  If you haven't obeyed Christ and been given the gift of His Holy Spirit, then confess Jesus as Lord and be immersed into His name.

If you have been guilty of the sin of covetousness, then confess this sin, and ask our Lord to help you refocus on the riches that endure and to give you strength to overcome this notorious thief!