The 10th Commandment Gives Fair Warning About Envy

COMMENTARY: We are different in many ways, both by nature and by achievement. These differences should not cause us to covet what we don’t have or envy one another.

Stained glass window depicting Moses showing the Stone Tablets with the Ten Commandments, in Saint James's Church in Stockholm, Sweden.
Stained glass window depicting Moses showing the Stone Tablets with the Ten Commandments, in Saint James's Church in Stockholm, Sweden. (photo: Jorisvo / Shutterstock)

The 10th Commandment reads: “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s goods”. This commandment is rich in implication. First of all, it applies to all of us equally. We are all equal in the eyes of God as moral beings. No one is exempt from the moral order. 

The word “covet” is synonymous with the more familiar term, “envy.” We are strongly advised, therefore, not to envy what our neighbor has that we may lack. Envy is a Deadly Sin. It is, as the historical record shows, a disposition that can lead to anger, violence and warfare. It is a vice that can spawn other vices.

Envy distracts us from virtues that we should put into practice, such as industry, responsibility, motivation and gratitude for what we have. It is far better to improve ourselves rather than envy others. 

Envy creates a mood of discontent and contains an element of injustice, especially when what is coveted rightfully belongs to our neighbor. The Judeo-Christian position encourages self-development, but it also encourages counting our blessings.

The 10th Commandment has been criticized inasmuch as it accepts the inequality of goods that pertains between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” This inequality may be remedied by social justice that is motivated by charity. It need not be a permanent situation. The Christian position is to avoid envy, develop one’s self as a person and work for the common good.

The Marxist/communist position is to utilize envy as the engine that ignites a revolution. The end result of the revolution, theoretically, is for the State to establish equality of goods for everyone. Thus, envy is seen, in the communist perspective, as a virtue that leads, through violence if necessary, to a universal equality of possessions. In practice, however, this theory has never achieved what the revolution had promised, though untold millions have died in the aborted attempt.

The term “equality” has a broad range of application. The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal.” The Preamble of the United States Constitution refers to “We the people of the United States. By contrast, the Marxist/communist view is one that denies both God and creation, while referring to the “people” and the “masses.” What communism hopes to achieve through a state enforced equality of goods, it loses in relation to the individual nature of each human being. According to Karl Marx, “the individual, of and by himself, has no value unless he is a member of the revolutionary mass.” Therefore, man exists fr the state, rather than the state existing for man.

Pope St. John Paul II’s major contribution as a philosopher is his careful articulation of the human being as a person. Accordingly, a person is a dynamic integration of unique individuality and communal responsibility. Each human being, then, is both equal as a human being and unequal in terms of his unique identity. 

For Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro and Stalin, the individual person has no value in himself, but wholly subordinated to the state. For Marx, “Communism begins where atheism begins. ... We can create a new man if we confiscate all property and if we persecute religion.”

Communism rejects the worth of the individual person. Christianity holds that each individual person is created in the image and likeness of God. On this point these two systems of thought could hardly be farther apart. Pope Pius XI, therefore, could be justified in stating the following in his encyclical Divini Redemptoris (1937): 

“Venerable Brethren, see that the faithful are put on guard against these deceitful methods. Communism is intrinsically evil, and therefore no one who desires to save Christian civilization from extinction should render it assistance in any enterprise whatsoever.”

Fedor Dostoevsky understood with extraordinary clarity the radical incompatibility between Communism and Christianity. Communism denied the worth of the individual person and placed him at the mercy of the state. Dostoevsky was correct in stating, “Our people are not only becoming atheists, but believe in atheism as if it were a religion.” Communism of the Marx, Lenin, Stalin variety is omnivorous. It is totalitarian in its essence and not a party. As Vyacheslav Molotov, a leading figure in the Soviet government observed, “Communism is in power; all the other parties are in jail.”

In the United States, at the moment, there is a noticeable love affair with socialism. The notion of equality is mesmerizing, even if it is the kind that robs the human being of his unique identity. We would be wise, however, to take seriously Christopher Dawson’s warning that “socialism is a half-way house to communism.” 

We are different in many ways, both by nature and by achievement. These differences should not cause us to envy one another. Nor should it precipitate a strong socialist government. If a Christian revolution is needed it is a revolution of love. Love honors and embraces differences. 

It is the inspiration that puts into practice the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, and finally, burying the dead. Christianity differs from atheistic communism as mercy differs from violence.

The 10th Commandment is not purely negative. In condemning envy, it implies living a life of virtue, one that promotes the good of the person and at the same time, the good of others. Marxist/Communism does not believe in love or virtue; it believes in force. 

Democracy will succeed only when people are virtuous. As people drift away from virtue, they become attracted to the power of the state. The 10th Commandment gives us fair warning.