THE NINTH AND TENTH COMMANDMENTS.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighor's house.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's.
These two commandments were given almost exclusively to the Jews, although they are partly applicable to us. For they do not explain them as referring to unchastity or theft, since these are sufficiently forbidden in the forgoing commandments; and they also held that they had observed all those commandments, if they had performed externally the works enjoined, or if they had abstained from those forbidden. For this reason God added these two commandments, that to covet our neighbor's wife or possessions, or to attempt to obtain them in any way, might also be considered sinful and forbidden; and especially, since under the Jewish government servants were not like our hirelings at present, at liberty to serve for wages as long as they pleased, but they were the property of their masters, with their bodies and whatever they had, like cattle and other property. And besides this, the Jews also had power over their wives to put them away publicly, through a writing of divorcement, and to take another. Under these circumstances they were necessarily exposed to the danger, if any one desired to have the wife of another, of his taking occasion, by some means, both to put away his own wife, and to alienate the wife of another, in order that he might obtain her under the appearance of justice. Among them this was not considered a sin or a disgrace, as little as it now is when a father of a family discharges a servant, or when one alienates the servant of another.
Therefore they, I say, thus explained these commandments, and correctly too, (though they are somewhat more comprehensive,) that no one should presume and endeavor to obtain the possessions of another– his wife, for instance, his domestics, house and home, lands, or cattle– even with a good appearnace and pretext of justice, yet with injury to his neighbor. For in the seventh commandment, the guilt of so seizing upon the property of another, or of withholding from our neighbor that to which we can have no right, is forbidden. But here it is also forbidden to take away any thing from our neighbor, even if we are able to obtain it honorably in the sight of the world, so that no one may dare to impeach or to censure us with having acquired it through unjust means.
For we are so inclined by nature, that no one desires another to be as successful as himself, and every one accumulates as much as he can, no matter what the condition of his neighbor may be. And still we wish to be regarded as pious, putting on the best appearance, and concealing the imposture; we seek after and devise ingenious artifices and crafty schemes, (which are now daily contrived with consummate skill,) as though they were sanctioned by law; and boasting, we boldly appeal to these; and we wish them to be called, not deceptions or frauds, but sagacity and prudence. And all these are suffered by jurists and judges, who distort and extend the law by forced constitutions, in whatever manner it may seem to apply to the case, perverting and evading the words, regardless of justice and the necessities of their fellow man. And in a word, he who is the most ingenious and expert in these things, is most favored by the laws, as they also say: vigilantibus jura subveniunt – the laws favor the watchful.
This last commandment is, therefore, not given for knaves, abandoned in the sight of the world, but particularly for those who wish to appear the most pious, and seek applause, desiring to be esteemed honorable and blameless, having in no wise transgressed the preceding commandments; as the Jews especially, and amny great noblemen, lords, and princes, desire to be called at the present day. For the common mass of people are embraced in the seventh commandment,– which is of a more general import,– who are but little concerned how they may obtain their possessions with honor and justice.
Thus these things occur mostly in litigations, in which persons determine to gain something from their neighbor, and to deprive him of his just rights. For instance, when a person contends for a large legacy, permanent property, &c., he avails himself of those means which seem to have an appearance of justice, he so embellishes his cause with a display of words, that the court must favor it, and he holds the property by such a title, that no one is able to lay claim to it. Moreover, when one desires to occupy a castle, town, an earldom, or something else of great value, he has recourse to so many schemes, that through the instrumentality of his friends, and whatever other means he is able to employ, the occupant being driven away, the possession is adjudged to him; and besides, it is confirmed by seal and signature, so that it may be said that he gained it with honesty and the title of a prince.
Similar practices are also carried on in common traffic and contracts, in which one, through grasping cupidity, defrauds another, so that the latter must be perpetually on his guard, or be deceived and defrauded; and the one who has been defrauded, may probably, on account of pressing necessity or debt, not be able to retain his property, or to redeem it without sustaining serious injury, so that the other one obtains it for half or less than half of its value. And yet this is not considered as taking unjustly or stealing, but as buying honorably. According to the common saying, "Let the first be the best– let each one watch his own interest, regardless of the condition of another." And who would be skilful and ingenious enough to think of all the ways in which wealth may be accumulated under this appearance of justice, and which the world does not consider unjust? Nor will it see that by this means our fellow man is injured, and must be deprived of these things, the want of which he cannot bear without pain; when at the same time there is no one who desires such practices to be exercised towards himself; from which it is easy to perceive that this kind of evasion and pretext is false.
A similar course was pursued with respect to women among the ancients; for they could invent such artifices, that when one was pleased with the wife of another, he would within himself or through the instrumentality of others, (as there were various ways and means which could be devised,) induce her husband to become displeased with her, or cause her to resist him, or so conduct herself that he must put her away, and permit this one to have her. This doubtless prevailed very much among the Jews, as we also read in the Gospel, concerning king Herod, that he married his own brother's wife, even whilst his brother was yet living, who, nevertheless, wished to be an honorable, pious man, as St. Mark testifies, Mark 6, 20. But such examples, I trust will not occur among us, since in the New Testament, those joined in matrimony, are forbidden to separate,– unless it were in a case, where one, by some stratagem, takes away the rich bride of another. But among us, however, it is not a rare thing for one to alienate the servant or handmaid of another, or otherwise to lead her away by the persuasion of flattering words.
Now, let all these things happen as they may, we should know that it is not the will of God that you should take away any thing from your neighbor, which belongs to him, so as to reduce him to want, in order to satiate your avaricious desires, even if you can hold it honorably in the sight of the world. For it is an insidious deception, practised under a false coloring, to prevent it from being detected. For even if you act as if you had done no one injustice, you still have encroached on your neighbor's rights, and if it is not called stealing or cheating, it is, at least, coveting the property of your fellow man; that is, striving after it, taking from him without his consent, and envying him for that which God has bestowed upon him. And even if the judge and every one must allow it to you, yet God will not; for he truly perceives the deception of the heart and the cupidity of the world, which, if we grant it a finger's breadth, will take the length of an ell, so that finally manifest injustice and violence must result.
We, therefore, understand these commandments according to their common meaning:– First, that they forbid us to wish our neighbor any injury, or to assist or to be instrumental in injuring him; but on the other hand, they require us willingly to allow him whatever justly belongs to him, and to favor him in the enjoyment of it; moreover, to promote whatever may contribute to his interest and advantage, and to defend the same, as we would that others should do unto us. And consequently, they are particularly given in opposition to envy and insatiable avarice, in order that God may remove the cause and the source from which all the evils spring, through which our neighbor is injured. For this reason he has plainly expressed them with these words: "Thou shalt not covet," &c. For he especially desires to have the heart pure, although we cannot attain this purity while this life endures; so that these, indeed, as well as all others, remain commandments, which continually accuse us, and indicate how impious we are in the sight of God.