Covetousness and contentment. If ever there were two words placed within the same verse that seem to point in totally opposite directions, it is those words found in Hebrews 13:5. One word seems to imply a persistent and relentless pursuit for something more than one already has. Covetousness is a condition in which a person’s heart, mind and soul are preoccupied with getting and gaining more and more of the things of this world. At an even deeper level, to be covetous is to be so concerned with what someone has of possessions or abilities that we cannot be satisfied with whatever it is that we have.
Pointing in the opposite direction from covetousness is the word contentment. I do not know if you and I will ever reach this state in life, but the writer of Hebrews seems to suggest that it is an ideal state in which to live. To be content is to be satisfied with what you have. To be content is to be at peace with who you are. To be content is not to spend all day complaining about what is wrong in your life. To be content is not to mope around in self-pity because of what you have not achieved, or what you have not acquired, or what you have not attained.
To be content is to spend more time in the presence of God saying “Thank You,” and less time saying “Give Me.” However, the single greatest obstacle to finding contentment is following after covetousness. Many of us cannot be content with who we are and what we have accomplished or acquired because this world is always telling us that we need something more.
Has it ever occurred to you that the whole job of media advertising in America is to make us believe that we really have to have what we already know that we really do not need? We have a nice place to live, but someone convinces us that we need a bigger house or newer appliances. We already have a nice car, but the commercial convinces us that we need a newer and bigger one. We already have a closet full of clothes, but the sales persons has assured us that we need the latest fashions for this season. It does not matter that we already have all that we really need, and more. The only thing that matters is that we are covetous, and we are obsessed by those items. If we have the money we will pay cash, and if not we will charge it now and pay for it later. Once our charge cards are depleted we then turn to lay-away, and when lay-away is not soon enough for some people, they try something called “take-away.”
We do strange things when we are convinced that we have to have something. The Bible is aware of the dangers of covetousness. Not only does Hebrews warn us about covetousness, but covetousness is mentioned among the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. There are several things that we are explicitly told not to do. We are told, “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Right alongside those serious spiritual warnings stands one more warning of equal danger and destruction: “thou shalt not covet.”
Notice that coveting is not limited to any one thing. Moses says thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, or thy neighbor’s spouse, or thy neighbor’s ox or other farm animals, or thy neighbor’s servants. In fact, we are told not to covet anything that is thy neighbor’s.
Some of us covet other people’s ability to sing beautifully, rather than being content with whatever gift God has given to us. Many people in my profession covet the preaching abilities, the talents and the opportunities for doing ministry that God has assigned to other preachers, rather than being content and productive with whatever talents and opportunities God has given to us. In every walk of life, the Christian ministry being no exception, no two words work against each other more consistently than these words, covetousness and contentment.
We are given this warning for a very good reason. Coveting can so consume us that we leave little or no room for serving God as we should. Several weeks ago, one of the students at Ashland Seminary brought this point to life when he told a story from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is about two archaeologists who are in search of the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus was believed to have drunk during the Last Supper. Superstition had overlaid the mystery of the grail, and many had come to believe that whoever drank from that cup would have everlasting life.
After being hidden for nearly 2,000 years, the cup is finally discovered in a remote desert cave somewhere in the Middle East. The problem is that while the cup might offer everlasting life to whoever drinks from it, the cup itself could not be removed from that room. Thus, anyone who found it could have eternal life, but it would come only at the loss of their liberty. A female archaeologist cannot live with that restriction, and she attempts to remove the cup beyond the boundary, and when she does the whole cave begins to collapse. The cup falls from her hand and comes to rest about six feet below the surface on a ledge. She, too, falls in as the ground beneath her feet continues to quake. The only thing that kept her from falling into that open pit in the ground was the fact that Indiana Jones had managed to grab her hands and hold her up.
Now, as she is holding on for dear life, she sees the cup resting on the ledge, seemingly within her grasp. She releases one hand and begins to reach for it while still holding on to Jones with the other hand. He tells her that he cannot hold her up if she keeps reaching down for the cup. However, she cannot resist reaching for the cup, and eventually he loses his grip and she falls into some deep abyss.
Once again the ground shakes, and at this Indiana Jones falls in and finds himself holding on to his father’s hand for dear life. Then the cup, miraculously still resting on that ledge, catches his eye also. Like the woman who had already fallen, he is now reaching down with one hand while his father is holding him up with the other hand. The same cycle is being repeated. The father cannot hold him while he is reaching up with one hand and reaching down with the other. Jones continues to reach for the cup. With one lunge he actually rubs his fingers against it. It is almost in his grasp.
However, with each downward reach, the father’s grip on the hand of his son grows weaker. He knows that he cannot hold on much longer. Then in a firm voice the father says to his son, “Indiana, let it go.” It was apparent to the father that his son could not reach up with one hand and reach down with the other one. It was only when he stopped reaching down for the cup, and reached up to put both hands in the hands of his father that the Indiana Jones could be pulled to safety. The life of the son was saved because he heeded the advice of his father who said to him, “Indiana, let it go.”
Today that is what God is saying to some of us in the face of our covetousness. “Let it go. Put both of your hands in My hand. Be content with the things that I can provide. Do not reach one hand down and one hand up to Me. Let it go!” What we need most in life is not what we acquire while reaching in directions that pull us away from God. The things we need most will come to us if we are careful to keep our hand in God’s hand and be content with what the Lord provides.
This tension between covetousness and contentment is what is at the heart of the teaching of Jesus who says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” If we would just trust God to supply our needs and take the time we would spend worrying about how to get something more and just turn that time into service to God, what a difference that would make.
Please notice that neither the Bible nor I am suggesting that we should have no ambition, or not aspire to a better life, or not be able to enjoy the best things this world can offer. All that is being said is that we need to be careful not to spend so much time seeking after things that we leave no time to seek after God. That is exactly how covetousness leads us away from contentment.
I have recently been reading Against the Tide, the autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. Many people are aware of the work of his son, but not as many people are familiar with Dr. Powell Sr. He was born in 1865, one month after the end of the Civil War, an illegitimate child to an Indian woman and a German slave owner. He lived in a one-room log cabin with 17 other people. His first 10 years were spent as a sharecropper. After that he worked in a coal mine. For 10 years the only piece of clothing he owned was a used flour sack that scratched his skin all night and day. He says in the book that his earliest memories were of poverty and hunger.
However, by the time he retired from the ministry in 1937, he was the pastor of the largest Protestant congregation in the entire world with 14,000 members. How did he get from log cabin to leadership? His answer is that he never worried about getting there. He said that he kept his mind focused on Jesus and the gospel, and he believed the promise that said “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” Hebrews 13, and the whole of the New Testament calls upon us to believe that the Lord will take care of His people if they put their faith and trust in Him above all else. Perhaps the things that are most important in life will only come when we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. And as for everything else, maybe we should follow the advice of the film and just “let it go!”

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