In my family, we tell the story that my sister's first words were a loud and firm, “Me! Mine!” I think that her language must have had something to do with living with a bossy older brother. Given our innate human drive to possess, though, I imagine that she is not the only child who learns the word “mine” early on in life.
To covet is “the need to have, possess, or acquire in order to secure being and worth.” (1) It is the pervasive, human “desiring disease,” and it is a stealthy sin, born from the God-sized hole in each of our hearts--a hole that we try to fill with power and things.
In Hebrew scripture, coveting is forbidden in the tenth commandment. Coveting destroys community and encourages the powerful to prey on the weak. Take the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, for example: When Joseph warns Pharaoh of a seven-year-famine, the powerful ruler sets the wheels in motion to accumulate grain for the lean years to come. While storing some grain for the future might be good stewardship, it is not long before Pharaoh seems to get caught up in the cycle of “more.” He gets Joseph to collect huge portions of the Hebrew farmers’ grain and to store it in the royal granaries, built by Hebrew slave labor. The Hebrew slaves are whipped and forced to make more and more bricks, in order to build more and more granaries, in order to take in more and more grain. They become caught up in a cycle of poverty, oppression, and inhumane treatment. This death-dealing spiral originates in Pharaoh’s covetous desire to possess the power of a food monopoly.
Instead of owning things to feel powerful, God’s desire for us is to own things in order to enjoy them and to care for them. In the creation story in Genesis, God gives Adam “dominion” in the Garden of Eden and instructs him “to till and to keep” the soil. Ellen Davis’ translation of this phrase is more accurate, however: God tells us “to work and serve [the soil,] to preserve and observe it.” (2) In the Hebrew original, the word for “dominion” over other creatures is related less to ruling over them than it is referring to the ways of a shepherd caring for his flock. (3) According to Davis, we are given “mastery” over the other creatures so that we may care for them wisely and in a way that brings health and wholeness to all creation.
We are called by God to be at the service of our land and each of its creatures, and not the other way around. The earth and everything in it belongs only to God. What we “own” is God’s gift to us, a gift that God expects us to tend--a gift that God expects us to share with our neighbors in need.
This month’s challenge: Talk with your children about what it means to “own” something. Think of ways in which we might serve our neighbor, our pets, and the natural world around us. Create a photo of someone truly caring for and enjoying something that they own. Post your image to Instagram with the hashtag #imaginingwholeness. Have your children think of a second hashtag, if they'd like. (If you don’t use Instagram, just email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.) I will collect the images submitted each month and publish them together on this website. If enough people respond, we will have a composite image that will, I hope, help us all to see our world in a new way, and, perhaps, find new ways of relating with the creation and the Creator.
(1) Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth &Helwys, 2001), 121.
(2) Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 30.