The text is Exodus 20:1-17.
I’d like to take a trip with you this morning. We’re going to do a little time traveling. We’re going to hop into Marty McFly’s DeLorean and travel back to the year 1981. A lot of things happened that year. A famous movie star by the name of Ronald Reagan took up residence in the White House. Here in Boonville, a handsome young music teacher named Rod Ventura began directing the choir and playing the organ at our church. There was a popular rock n’ roll song on the radio by a guy named Rick Springfield and it was called Jessie’s Girl. It went a little something like this:
Jessie is a friend,
Yeah, I know he’s been
A good friend of mine
But lately something’s changed
That ain’t hard to define
Jessie’s got himself a girl
And I want to make her mine
And she’s watching him with those eyes…
I’ll leave the rest for you to listen to on your own. This is one of those songs that has definitely outlived its fifteen minutes of fame. Thirty years later, you can still hear it on the radio. Why is that? The music is catchy but the lyrics aren’t particularly poetic. Rick Springfield was hardly William Shakespeare. What was it about this particular song that earned it a place in the history of rock n’ roll? I think it’s the fact that just about everybody can relate to that feeling. Most people, at some point in life, have probably wailed with Rick Springfield (in their own way), “Why can’t I find a woman like that?” Jessie’s Girl is the national anthem of envy.
Rick Springfield wasn’t even the first to turn his poetic sights on this almost-universal human experience. Long before him, way back in the 1800s, the great American poet Walt Whitman put it this way:
WHEN I peruse the conquer’d fame of heroes, and the victories of mighty generals, I
Nor the President in his Presidency, nor the rich in his great house;
But when I hear of the brotherhood of lovers, how it was with them,
How through life, through dangers, odium, unchanging, long and long,
Through youth, and through middle and old age, how unfaltering, how affectionate and
Then I am pensive—I hastily walk away, fill’d with the bitterest envy.
Envy, of course, is slightly different from jealousy (although the two are often confused with one another).
In marital terms:
- Jealousy is what a person might feel when his/her spouse is flirting with someone else.
- Envy is the impulse that makes a person want someone else’s spouse for his/her own.
Envy is a powerful impulse. According to some scholars, it’s the driving force behind human civilization. Human beings compete with one another in pursuit of some lofty image of the “ideal” life. What is our basis for this ideal image? The very people with whom we are competing! We fight with each other in our attempt to imitate each other. That’s what “keeping up with the Joneses” is all about. As it turns out, the Joneses have been trying to keep up with you all along. Thus, an entire civilization is built on mutual envy. Kind of absurd when you think about it, isn’t it?
Earlier in this service, we read from the famous Ten Commandments. It’s a long list of “Thou shalt nots” made popular by Charlton Heston (there was a movie, you may have seen it). At the tail end of this list is one that is quite different from the rest. It reads, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Covet is another word for envy. What makes this final commandment different from the rest (i.e. “You shall not murder… You shall not commit adultery… You shall not steal… etc.”) is that this one is about a desire rather than a behavior. It has to do with what’s going on inside you.
This tenth commandment is going to be our starting point for talking about the other nine. Rather than go through them one by one, we’re going to start at the end and end at the beginning. We’ll end with the first commandment, which goes like this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” We’ll sum up all of the other commandments between those two: “You shall not covet” and “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Think about what’s really going on inside you when you become obsessed with something or someone that someone else has and you don’t. Even if you don’t act on it, the impulse is still there. Depending on what it is and how much you want it, you might sacrifice your own integrity to get what they have. Even if you won’t, there’s someone else out there who will. We hear about it all the time on the news. Some person or nation has something that some other person or nation doesn’t have but wants. So they fight over it.
Eventually, mutual envy becomes an obsession. People sacrifice all kinds of things to its pursuit. They lie, cheat, steal, and kill for it. In time, it becomes a kind of god in itself, leading us all the way back to the first commandment: “you shall have no other gods before me.” Thus, we can look at the entire list of Ten Commandments through the lens of the last and the first commandments. Envy leads to idolatry. The last commandment leads to the first by way of the other eight.
Someone once asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus replied, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
A lot of people have come to understand the Ten Commandments as being summed up by these two ideas from Jesus. They say that commandments #1-4 can be summed up under “love the Lord your God” and #5-10 can be summed up under “love your neighbor.”
I think that Jesus’ summary of the Torah fits well with what we just said about envy leading to idolatry. He taught people to love their neighbors, but it’s hard to love people for who they are when you’re green with envy over what they have and you don’t.
The secret, I think, to getting past this cycle of destruction lies in what I like to call the hidden commandment. Jesus summarizes the Ten Commandments with a single Great Commandment. He replaces the long list of “thou shalt nots” with a single “thou shalt.” Jesus says, “Thou shalt love.” Love God and love your neighbor. It’s that simple. Isn’t it funny how people like to complicate things?
But, before we do that, we should look a little closer at Jesus’ commandment. The hidden commandment is tucked away where it can be easily missed. Jesus said, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ [And] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Can you hear it? Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The Great Commandment is love and the hidden commandment within it is to love yourself.
This whole culture of envy: where do you think it comes from? I see people who get up every morning and, at some level, hate what they see in the mirror. They wish they could be somebody else. So they try. The problem is that everybody else hates themselves too. They get up, look in the mirror, and wish they could be somebody else too. But they can’t, so they settle for coveting what other people have.
In our addiction to envy, most of us tend to forget that we are unique and beloved children, made in the image of God. No matter how we try to destroy it, run from it, or hide it in the closet, none of us can change who we are. Your true self, “the you that is really you in your heart of hearts,” is beautiful and beloved. Most of us try to deliberately forget or ignore that truth. Some of us even try to use God and religion as a way to cover up what we don’t like about ourselves. We think that faith can make us more like somebody else. Personally, I think real faith will make us more like ourselves.
Hundreds of years ago a great Jewish rabbi named Susya of Hanipol talked about this tendency. He said (I paraphrase), “When I die and get to heaven, God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’ God will ask me, ‘Why were you not more like Susya?’”
During this season of Lent, when Christians are preparing to celebrate the holiday of Easter, a lot of people use the time to try and change what they don’t like about themselves. They try to break a bad habit, give up a vice, or even drop a few extra pounds. They try to make themselves conform to some imaginary ideal of what they should be. A lot of folks even look to the Ten Commandments as a guide to the kinds of things they should and shouldn’t be doing. But before you start checking on your long list of “thou shalt nots” and before you get all negative on yourself because you don’t look like or act like someone else, I want to invite you to listen more carefully to Jesus’ Great Commandment. Jesus said, “Thou shalt love.” Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself.
You’ve got to start by learning to love yourself. Practice the wisdom of self-acceptance. If you’re going to try to do anything, try to cultivate in yourself an awareness of the truth that God loves you unconditionally, as you are, warts and all. Jesus said that God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on good people and bad people alike. God doesn’t discriminate. Even if you can’t hold it together and “your cheese is sliding off your cracker” (thank you, Brennan Manning), you are still loved and accepted as you are.
Love yourself. That’s the hidden commandment. That’s the truth that has the power to free you from the shackles of envy and help you become the best possible version of yourself. Then, and only then, can you learn to love others for who they really are. Then we can all learn together how to give back the infinite love that God has already lavished on us.