March 29, 2020
Two dogs live in our apartment this year. You may know about Opie. He’s 11 ½ years old, as far as we know. We discovered him at the Denver Animal Shelter 10 ½ years ago. They didn’t know his name, his age, or much else. He’s white—unless he’s next to a truly white dog; then he’s off-white. He’s obviously part poodle, but we think he’s also part Bichon Frise. He weighed less than 14 pounds when we got him, but within a few months, he’d gained eight more pounds and has stayed steady ever since. He has a gentle, laid-back spirit —almost all the time. We named him Opie but not because of Mount Airy or Andy Griffith.
I’m not sure if one of Opie’s ancestors was trained by a Prussian soldier, but it’s possible. Opie believes in a rigid daily schedule. At 6:30 p.m., he stares at me, and I know he means it certainly would be nice if we could have supper. And after supper, he waits for me to wash the dishes and then stares at me again, which means it definitely would be a good idea to go for a walk. And after that walk, he expects to get the best treat of the day, which these days, consists of a small, soft, freeze-dried fish morsel squished into each end of a big, long dog bone. Mm.
Our second dog belongs to our daughter Emily. He’s a year older than Opie. We found him with a family in Georgia. Their little Yorkie boy had accommodated Senorita Chihuahua who’d crossed the street, and this resulted in a litter of puppies called Chorkies. We gave one to Emily. He was no bigger than a checkbook back then. She named him Charlie, and he’s been her best friend ever since—all five or six pounds of him.
So, here’s 22-pound Opie, and here’s 6-pound Charlie, and I’ve come in from walking Opie, and Emily has come in from walking Charlie. Opie gets his special dog bone treat with the freeze-dried fish squished into the ends, and Charlie gets a few little tricky-crunchy salmon nuggets, no bigger than my pinkie nail, tucked into a rubbery toy.
Can you see where this is going? We can see it night after night, right on our living room floor. Charlie dispatched his salmon nuggets in short order. Then he slinks across the living room to position himself closer to Opie. He watches. He waits. He wants what Opie has. Charlie covets the bone.
Suppose Opie decides to step over to the water bowl for a drink. Pow! Pounce! Charlie grabs the bone, which is about the same size as his entire body, and struts across the floor to a blanket-covered dog bed under a table by the wall. It seems Opie is becoming more protective of the bone, but the pattern hasn’t changed much.
Believe me, this is not a judgment against cute little Charlie. He sadly watches every treat Opie gets—ever bigger and better, it seems, that the treats suited a dog less than 1/3 that size. No, I’m not disapproving of Charlie’s behavior. He’s just a dog.
The thing is, we’re held to a higher standard of behavior than dogs. You shall not covet your neighbor’s bone or treat or toy. Or house or spouse. Or car or truck. Or reputation or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Because, unlike killing, adultery, stealing, or lying, the problem with coveting is that it’s hidden in our thoughts and feelings, where it’s crouching. Lying in wait. Ready to pounce. And when it pounces, it leads to killing, adultery, stealing, or lying.
The prophet Micah proclaims doom to those who plot evil, who go to bed dreaming up crimes. As soon as they get up in the morning, they waste no time pursuing their schemes. They covet fields and grab them, find homes and take them. They bully the neighbor and his family, see people only for what they can get out of them. (Micah 2:2, the Message)
Now, just as I won’t slam Charlie Dog for coveting Opie’s bone, I won’t censure you because I haven’t ever seen you behaving like the people Micah describes.
However, let’s back up half a verse. Rewind slightly. Micah condemns oppressing people and their inheritance. Again, I’m not blaming you, but don’t you feel sad about how much of our country was developed precisely by those who oppressed people and their inheritance?
General Sherman’s Special Field Order of Jan. 16, 1865, gave former slaves 40 acres. After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman’s order, giving the land back to its former Confederate owners. For many years afterward, covetous white men found ways to outfox the heirs of black landowners.
And what about indigenous residents of North America, who had no concept of property ownership to match the assumptions of European settlers? If you’ve never read the book, Bury My Heart and Wounded Knee, now would be a good time to check it out.
We see the same thing today in the West Bank and Gaza where Israeli settlers keep pushing Palestinians off their land. They burn their olive trees, bulldoze their houses, and build apartment buildings in their place. It’s heartbreaking and tragic, and I want to say, “Go read the second chapter of the prophet Micah!”
In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the passage, he inserts the phrase about seeing people only for what they can get out of them. Now, if you need something to chew on for Lent, that phrase ought to suffice.
When we get out of isolation and begin to mingle again, let’s beware of any tendency to see people only for what we can get out of them. I used to belong to a Chamber of Commerce, which had frequent after-hours mixers. Those who were aggressively transactional—that is, who saw people only for what they could get out of them—turned into outcasts. They were pariahs, avoided like we avoid someone know to have the virus.
Sometimes someone approaches church life that way. It’s only about what they can get out of it. But our relationships in the church don’t have a place for covetous behavior or envy.
So, we must examine ourselves. I must ask myself, “Am I just a dog? Or am I a child of God, adopted through Jesus Christ?”