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Legislating Morality

by Tim O'Hearn

The old adage says you cannot legislate morality. This was the rallying cry against prohibition. It is now the battle cry of those who want to legalize “victimless” crimes like prostitution, gambling, and drug use. The idea is that you can make laws about what people can or cannot do, but you cannot make laws about what they think. You may make the sale, purchase, and possession of alcoholic beverages illegal, but you cannot stop people from wanting to drink alcohol.

For the most part, this is true. Our laws are generally meant to legislate actions, and let the people think what they will. People are not required to agree with the laws; they are just required to act or restrict action in a certain way. Censorship notwithstanding, people cannot act as the “thought police” because they do not know what others are thinking. They can only judge actions. God, on the other hand, knows our thoughts. He can legislate morality, and has done so.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant,If all the commands are stated in “love God,” all the negative ones are in “don’t covet.” nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's. (Ex 20:17)

Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour's. (Deut 5:21)

These passages from the law given to the Jewish people are designed to restrict thought. The other nine of the Ten Commandments all legislate action. That this commandment concerns the thought and not the action is evident from the other commands.

This command says not to desire. It doesn’t say you can want your neighbor’s wife, but just can’t have her. There is another command for that, the one against adultery. It does not say you can want your neighbor’s car or big-screen television, but just can’t take them. There is already a command about stealing. When Ahab sought Naboth’s vineyard, the semi-legal execution of Naboth was not the only crime; the desire for the property was forbidden, even if Ahab had not violated the command against murder.

How can God legislate our thoughts? He is the only one in a position to do so, because God’s Spirit is able to know our thoughts.

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Heb 4:12)

Someone might say, “But we can’t control what we think. How can God hold us liable for an unintended thought?” That is the beauty of what God commanded the Jews. It was not mere thought that God legislated. He knew we see and hear things that negatively affect or thoughts. That is why the command did not cover all thought. His command dealt with only those thoughts that linger and grow. There is a difference between casual thought and covetousness. It is the difference between “nice car” and “I have to have that car.”

Covetousness is more than an occasional thought. It is more than just a want. It is a desire. It is a thought that remains in the mind long enough to encourage action.

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matt 5:21-22)

First and Last

Perhaps there is a reason that this was the last of the Ten Commandments. Hillel was once asked to teach the entire law while standing on one foot. He replied, “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” (Compare Matthew 22:35-40) If all the commands are stated in “love God,” all the other negative commandments really come down to this one. “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.” (Jas 4:2) Perhaps God gave this last because it was a summary judgement, in both the legal and practical senses.

There may be another reason to conclude the Ten with this commandment. It may be last because it brings the Ten full circle, back to the first. This commandment directly relates to the first.

I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Ex 20:2-3)

Covetousness is a symptom. Underlying covetousness is a lack of trust in God. A lack of trust in God is a lack of faith in God. We desire, and act on those desires, because we do not really believe that God will give us what we need or want. One who steals a man’s car, or wife, does so because he does not believe God will give him those things. As James said (quoted above), he doesn’t have because he doesn’t ask. He doesn’t ask because he doesn’t trust God to answer. James makes a good case for the idea that God would bless us even more abundantly, if we would only ask.

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:31-33)

Do we believe God when he says, “I am the Lord?” If he is who he says he is, then he can provide anything we want or need. If he “sendeth rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt 5:45), how much more will he do for those who trust in him! To covet, and especially to act upon that desire, tells God that we don’t accept his rain, and don’t expect anything else.

Keeping up

People sometimes try to split hairs. We try to justify our own actions by saying we really don’t covet. Some say, “You shouldn’t covet your neighbor’s new boat, but there is nothing wrong in wanting one just like it.” That is a very fine, legalistic distinction. It may certainly ease one’s mind about certain desires, but it may not be true.

There is an attitude called “keeping up with the Joneses.” (The phrase comes from a comic strip from the early part of last century, in which the title characters, incidentally, never actually made an appearance.) The modern equivalent of the phrase is “keeping up with the Gateses,” in reference to computer mogul Bill Gates. The principal symptom of this attitude is an attempt to live like the neighbors (or a celebrity) who appear to have higher social standing and wealth than the person trying to keep up with them. The result of the syndrome is that people live beyond their means, often going into serious debt, in order to appear to have more than they really do. (See “A House in La Jolla” in the November, 2004 Minutes With Messiah for an example of such a person.)

When God told the Jews “thou shalt not covet,” he may have been concerned with more than just preventing them from breaking other laws. He may actually have been legislating an attitude.

When the command says not to covet your neighbor’s wife, or ox, or ass, or his servants, it may be that God is saying not to covet being like your neighbor. Don’t just refrain from coveting his specific herd of oxen. Refrain from coveting having a similar herd. Don’t just keep your hands off his wifeWhen we covet, we tell God that we don’t expect more than his rain.and servants. Don’t even desire to have such a wife or that many servants. Because the attitude of keeping up causes us to live beyond what we reasonably can afford, it is another sign of lack of trust in God. Perhaps we are where we are financially because God knows that we could not handle more. Perhaps we are where we are financially because we have not been able to handle more. In either case, wanting to be someone we are not is telling God that we don’t trust him to know what is best for us.

When I was young I watched “Tennessee Tuxedo” cartoons. One recurring segment was “Tudor Turtle.” Tudor (or Tooter) always wanted to be someone else, and was given the chance to be by his friend, Mr. Wizard the Lizard. Inevitably something would go wrong and Mr. Wizard would save the unfortunate turtle at the last minute. Then he would always give him this (rarely heeded) advice: “Be chust vhat you is, and not vhat you is not, for folks that does this is the happiest lot.” Maybe Mr. Wizard was familiar with Exodus 20. If we are satisfied with where we are, we will not covet what is our neighbor’s.

We common folk may not be able to legislate morality. We have such a problem with morality ourselves, how could we dare to impose it on others? Human morality, moreover, is such a changeable thing. One person’s morality may not be the same as another’s. On our own we cannot establish a moral standard for ourselves to keep, much less others. On the other hand, God is the ultimate arbiter of morality. He is, by definition, goodness. Because he is morality, he has the right to legislate it. The Tenth Commandment shows that he is willing to do so. He can make such laws, because he can enforce them.