Thursday, October 27, 2016

Zionomics, part 6: Covetousness

Covetousness is worthy of noting directly, as it is a sin which directly conflicts with the economy of Zion. It has been a factor in the downfall of many efforts to ascend toward Zion. It has power to thwart Zion's return if we don't put it in check. But to put it in check requires we have a clear understanding of exactly what it is.

The word is generally understood as being synonymous with “desire,” but with a bit of a "bad" connotation, essentially desiring things that you shouldn’t. While there is truth to that, I don't think it is the whole truth, and I think the devil is in the details. If you look into the etymology, there are at least two other facets present that I would point out. One is emotional entanglement, and the other is territorialism.


“Covetousness” is always defined with strong emotional attributes. It is a “passionate” desire, it includes “eagerness,” we “long” for something. These terms indicate an emotional investment in the securing of the thing that is desired. We would have a strong, positive emotional response to gaining it, and similarly a negative emotional response to not having it.

When we attach our emotions to the securing of something, we enslave ourselves to it. We do not subject ourselves to the Lord’s will, being content with what He sees fit to appoint to us in the present moment (Job 1:21). Instead, our happiness becomes dependent upon what we hold. 

It is possible to have desires without becoming emotionally entangled with them. We can desire a thing and ask it of God, and be content to wait until He sees fit to bestow it, appreciating what He has given us in the interim. This isn’t to say such a state is easy, especially in a consumerist world, but it is possible.


The second part of covetousness I want to point out is territorialism. It is the desire to “possess” the thing that is desired. It is not enough to have partial claim upon it, to be able to use it for your benefit. It is the desire to have it all to yourself, with the right to withhold it from others.

A man who covets his neighbor’s wife, property, etc. isn’t seeking to merely have access to these things, to "enjoy" the benefits of these things while sharing them with his neighbor. He desires to take them from his neighbor, for his neighbor to lose all claim upon them. He desires to make these things subject to himself, and none else. He wants them for his territory, to be protected and guarded from all other unpermitted access.

This is what the early Mormon saints were embroiled in when the Lord condemned them for their covetousness (D&C 98:19-20; 101:6).  This is how covetousness broke the covenants of the United Firm (D&C 104:4, 52). He had given the church the law of consecration, requiring they surrender private property up to become common property of the whole church, but the church members simply weren’t interested in doing that. The idea was offensive to them and they wouldn’t engage in it. So workarounds were created, scriptures were altered, and the people were condemned and finally given a lesser law of tithing (D&C 119), which permitted them to hold onto some of their property exclusively and privately, while only surrendering a small portion to become the common property of the church. (This law of tithing has been replaced by another, manufactured by man.)

One reason that “covetousness” cannot be understood merely as a desire for something is found in D&C 19:26:
And again: I command you, that thou shalt not covet thine own property…”
A person cannot desire to lay hold on that which they already hold. However, a person can become emotionally entangled with the property they hold, desiring to retain it as their territory, to be withheld by right from others who may need it more. A person can be afraid to lose exclusive claims on property. I think these are far more fitting understandings of what the Lord means when speaking against “covetousness.”


Now, there are two verses in all of scripture which appear to use the word “covet” as a positive thing, both from 1 Corinthians:
But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.” - 1 Corinthians 12:31
Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.” - 1 Corinthians 14:39
However, if you look into the translations from which these verses are derived, something interesting emerges. In both verses, the word “covet” is translated from a Greek word that simply means “desire” or “have warm feelings for.” This particular Greek word has no inherent connotation, it can be used positively or negatively, depending on context.

But when Paul writes about coveting in his other epistle to the Romans—where he warns them not to covet, treating it as a sin—Paul uses a different Greek word.  He saw fit to distinguish between the desire for gifts of God on the one hand, and covetous desires on the other. But the KJV translators chose to eliminate Paul’s distinction between the two, applying “covet” for both Greek words. 

Numerous newer translations of the Bible have seen fit to correct this, translating the 1 Corinthians words to “desire” rather than “covet,” separating the desire for spiritual gifts from the sin of covetousness. I think this is wisdom on their part.