What Do You Covet? The Last Commandments.

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 7th September 2018

This is the last of my articles on the Ten Commandments. I’ve decided to look at the ninth and tenth commandments together because they deal with the same idea, coveting. Coveting is not a word we use so much today so I looked it up. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary it is defined as

“to want to have something very much, especially something that belongs to someone else . ”

That’s fairly straightforward but why is it so important as to require two commandments? Presumably we would want something because it is better than what we have. What is wrong with wanting something better? I think it is a very important part of human nature to want to improve. We are the only species capable of making changes that improve our world.

Take the houses we live in. When I was a wee boy I lived in a tenement building where three homes on each landing shared one toilet. Now I live in a house that has two toilets all to itself. We have a natural desire to want to improve ourselves and we often see that as meaning we need better things.

Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, understood from his uncle’s study of the human mind that we all aspire to better ourselves. He found a way to harness this to persuade people to change their behaviour. At the end of World War I, one hundred years ago, American industry had geared up for war production. Now the war was over they needed people to buy things to replace the demands of the war.

Bernays put his ideas to work and devised a strategy to increase demand for cigarettes. He took up the campaign for emancipation of women and In a parade in New York had women parade smoking cigarettes under the banner of ‘Torches of Freedom’. Women smoking had been frowned upon now this was a campaign to get women to rebel and assert their equality with men. The market for cigarettes virtually doubled. Public relations had come to maturity. We can be persuaded to want something we don’t need.

It seems to me that we all need a positive self-image if we are to be happy. We need to know that we are important, that someone holds us in some regard. The effects of loneliness are corrosive and we can see this in the rise in the suicide rate. We are often persuaded that we can prove our importance by the things we have. For some that means wearing the latest fashion. We discard perfectly good clothes and replace them with something new. For me that usually results in a jacket that I am comfortable in being dumped and a new one purchased because my wife won’t be seen with me in the ‘shabby’ one.

Human relationships suffer the same way. We are constantly shown images of women with ‘perfect’ figures and men with muscular stomachs. We are persuaded that someone else’s wife of husband is better than the one we have and desire to have them. Marriages break up. Families are disrupted. Nobody is really happy.

Money is the other thing we desire because it can put us up there with the elite. Billionaires can display their wealth with multiple mansions, yachts and even personal planes. How we would love to be like them. The Lottery and the Euro Millions take in vast fortunes each week because we think that a big win would sort out all our problems. A couple of months ago someone I know won the Millionaire raffle on the lottery. He won one million pounds. He gave half of it to his son to buy a house and spread the rest over his nieces and nephews. He virtually gave it all away. He is a very happy man because he has solved problems for other people.

I have come across a few millionaires in my career. They all looked miserable. Rarely a smile crossed their faces. Their money never made them happy. On a flight earlier in the year I watched a film, “All the Money in the World” about John Paul Getty who was the world’s richest man. His grandson had been kidnapped and he refused to pay the ransom. It reminded me of an interview Alan Wicker did with him. He was unhappy living in England. He wanted to be in America but was afraid to fly in case the plane crashed and thought that a boat might sink so he had to stay put. He was thoroughly miserable.

How often do these things we covet actually make us unhappy? Surely we should be happier when we have them? But we don’t. How many people have be caught by the Nigerian scam where they get an email from a woman whose husband hid millions in a bank vault and she needs help to get it out. Send her the money to get access to the money and share in the riches. The money is sent and vanishes for ever.

It seems to me that this all brings unhappiness. I think I’ve spotted the reason. We are all striving for happiness. To be happy we must feel that we are respected and loved by others. We look around to find ways of achieving that. Of course we are looking in the wrong place. Popularity is a fleeting thing. You can be a hero today and be forgotten tomorrow. You are still the same person but the world moves on.

To achieve happiness you need to look at who you really are. You are not the sum of your possessions. You are not the person others see. You are unique. Your existence here is not random; you are here for a reason. Kojak’s catch phrase was “Who loves ya baby?” (If you remember that you are as old as me.) It is the key to happiness.

The answer is simply that you are loved by the only one who can really see you as you really are. You are loved by the God who made the universe and everything in it. If the creator of everything that exists loves you despite all the things you don’t like about yourself why would you worry about what anybody else thinks? You don’t need a private plane, a floating gin palace or Miss World on your arm. That’s why the ninth and tenth commandments tell you not to covet anything. Things make you unhappy. George, who gave away the million, is one happy man. You can be too.

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The Seventh Commandment

The Seventh Commandment – Thou Shalt Not Steal

If the Ten Commandments are God’s guide to human happiness how does ‘Thou Shalt not steal’ fit into it? Does stealing make you unhappy? Certainly we are unhappy if someone steals from us so stealing does spread unhappiness; but people seem to be happy to steal from others. Theft and fraud are on the increase. Why is this and was it always like this?

Perhaps theft is increasing because it is so much easier to do today in the age of the internet? In the past a thief would have to snatch something from you or break into your house. To get at your savings the robber would have to go in and rob the bank. While that still happens, more theft is happening remotely. People can gain access to your savings remotely and rob you without even being in the country. People who relied on the honesty of banks and pension schemes may find that their savings have been taken and they are left with nothing.

In the past you could be hanged for stealing a sheep. Today you might have your knighthood taken away for robbing a pension scheme. So what does the commandment forbid and what does it allow?

The seventh Commandment is really about providence. Everything we have, the Earth and all its resources are provided by God. The Earth’s resources are for the good of all people. We can take the resources we need as personal property, earning them by work or by inheritance or gifts. The commandment forbids us from taking anyone’s property without their permission. It also regards keeping things we borrow, fraud, paying unjust wages and forcing up prices to the detriment of others.

There is no point in me sitting back smugly thinking that I’m ok with the seventh commandment because I don’t steal; it’s not as simple as that. This is about how we share the Earth’s resources, the gifts from God. We are entitled to acquire the resources we need to live. In simpler times this was very straightforward. You could grow the crops you needed and farm your animals. This was limited by the amount of land you could work. When societies became more complicated that changed. When land was enclosed to create more efficient agriculture there were those who owned land and those who had to work for the landowner. That can be a good system that provides more food than we got from individual plots of land. It’s only good if the workers are paid a fair wage that lets them share in the resources provided.

Industrialisation takes this further and allows the owners to acquire vast wealth. It is easy to forget that the resource of the Earth are provided for the common good and believe that we should take as much as we can as our own personal property.  Probably the greatest gift of creation is human life. Our lives are given as a free gift and we have been given free will to allow us how to use this gift. The commandment forbids us to abuse this freedom of our fellow human beings. If we enslave people or see their worth simply as a source of profit then we break the commandment. Slavery may have been abolished but it still exists in practice. People trafficking is now one of the major problems confronting the police.

Now I don’t have any slaves. I don’t have employees. I might feel that this aspect of the commandment does not apply to me. I would be wrong. One of the curious things I have noticed while shopping with my wife is how few items on sale are made in this country. I get the impression that everything is made in the Far East. That is not necessarily a problem but journalists have shown many instances of people in the East working in conditions we would not accept here and for very little money. They have to work long hours and still remain in poverty. That’s not the case for everything we buy but how do we know how the workers who made our clothes are treated? Can I be sure that my cheap trainers were not made by slave labour?

I don’t know what the solution is; even well-known companies have been found to have goods manufactured in conditions that exploit the workers. I must confess that I have never been terribly interested in the trade deals our country has with the Third World. Perhaps it’s something I should be thinking about the next time I use my vote to elect those who make these deals. If I go out to enrich myself by making someone poorer that must be against the seventh commandment; even if the other person is at the other side of the world.

The seventh Commandment goes much further than stealing. The Earth and its contents are a gift from God and we are to use these resources for our good and well-being. These resources are for the use of all mankind, even those who have not been born yet. That makes us responsible for maintaining the ability of the Earth to provide for us. The commandment forbids us from stealing from future generations. If we go about stripping the Earth of its resources to increase our wealth then we are abusing those gifts.

We are responsible for handing on a world that has all that future generations will need. Our use of the Earth’s resources must be sustainable. Now is that what we are doing? It seems to me that we are plundering the Earth’s resources as fast as we can; spending the Earth’s wealth as if there were no tomorrow. Perhaps there won’t be a tomorrow for those coming after us if we keep this up. I was in the Philippines a few years ago and visited a hole in the ground, a really big hole, where there used to be a mountain. They dug the mountain away to extract minerals.

We are also using up the Earth’s animals faster than they are replaced. I don’t mean we are eating all the cattle. We are killing all the elephants to get their ivory tusks. That is only one example of the animal species we are removing from the Earth. Our children’s children may never see some species except in books or films. We are stealing their future wealth.

Now I have never personally dug away a mountain nor shot an elephant but am I in that chain of consumption that is at the root of all this destruction? My home is kept warm by burning natural gas reserves. I have a smartphone that uses some rare metals, supplies of which are running out. This is modern living and I have not given any thought to the damage I might be causing to the Earth. What pollution is caused to the air and the seas just to satisfy my desire to have the latest gadget?

I’m posing myself this question and there is no easy answer. I’ve been smugly satisfied because I’m not a petty thief, shoplifting in ASDA; while I might be a major thief, using up the resources that belong to future generations. The world would be a happier place if we all used less and took positive steps to improve our world. Perhaps I should make a start by sorting out the garden? It’s not much but it would be a start.

My February Coolumn – Full Text

This month I’ve been thinking about the Fourth Commandment, Honour thy father and thy mother. At first glance that seems straightforward. It could be translated as ‘Be quiet and obey your parents’. In most cases that would be good advice (speaking as a parent). However, life is not always so straightforward. What if you are an orphan? Who should you honour then? Logically you would be required to honour your legal guardian or those in authority over you. So it’s not just about father and mother then.

The implication is that we should honour those in authority. What if those in authority, even parents, are not a good influence? We surely should not obey in matters that are wrong. So honour is not simply a matter of obeying. Did you always just obey your parents or did you question what they told you? I certainly questioned things and sometimes my questioning led me to a better understanding of what was right and sometimes it raised issues questioning our assumptions.

Now, honour is not a term we normally use. What exactly is meant by Honour in this commandment? It certainly implies deferring to our parents or those in authority over us. But it also tells us more about our relationship with our parents as we get older. It’s not only children who should honour their parents adults are also under this obligation. The nature of honouring our parents changes as we become independent of them. As parents get older their children take on responsibility for looking after them.

This can take the form of dropping in to see that they are doing okay, helping with tasks that are now beyond them and generally looking out for them. This will just seem normal behaviour to many of you who have family fussing over you or even bossing you about. I used to imagine that all families behaved in this sort of way but recently I have begun to see things differently.

There seem to be lots of stories of children being abused or even killed by family members, even parents. Surely if children have to honour their parents the other side of the coin is that parents must love and honour their children. I was disturbed by an item in the news recently about a child who had killed a small boy. He is an adult now and finds himself in trouble for having indecent images. It made me wonder how a child could develop into someone who could do terrible things. I can’t believe that he was born with a terrible urge to do harm. What happened to that child to cause him to be the person he now finds himself to be?

Are we now becoming a people who regard children as a possession rather than someone who has been given into our care? Medical advances have given us the ability to make choices we never had in the past. Embryos can be frozen to be implanted when it is convenient. We may soon be able to choose the design of the baby by genetic engineering.

We have seen cases of marital breakup where one parent has killed the children so that the other parent will not have them. These are examples of people in desperation. They are not behaving as they would in a normal day. However we see examples of people in famine ravaged countries walking for days without food and water in the attempt to find help for their child. We see parents sacrificing their own lives to save their children. Now those are desperate situations. Where have we gone wrong?

Perhaps the wording of the commandment is misleading. It could be seen as putting the onus on the child to be obedient. Have we lost sight of the implication that to be honoured the parent must first be honourable? If someone in authority is to be honoured then they must first be honourable. If a government passes a law which is morally wrong we would not be expected to obey it. Parents teach their children by example. If parents do not act in an honourable way then that’s how the children will learn to behave.

When I think about it I realise that this is not a commandment about children or about parents. This is a commandment about family. The vision encompassed in it is of a traditional family unit with parents and children and the extended family too. The relationships between the family members and their responsibilities are fairly well understood. But the traditional family is fast becoming a thing of the past. Lots of children are now growing up in different sorts of families. There are single parents taking on the responsibilities of both father and mother. There are split families where children live with two separated parents and other less conventional units too.

Where a family is split up as a result of infidelity where is the example of behaving honourably? Where there is acrimony in the breakup what pressures are put on the children? People today are pressured into thinking about what is best for ‘me’. We are constantly being urges to look better, dress better and be more successful. That is not a bad thing in itself. It’s when these things are taken to extremes that we get trouble. If I’m persuaded that doing what’s good for me takes priority over everyone else then that is a problem.

A lot of this is about selling us stuff. We should buy this shampoo because we are worth it. We should drive this car because it creates the right impression. The other night I saw and advert on television where a man declares that he has begun to ski; spend kid’s inheritance. I suppose it’s meant to be funny but it has a serious side. What do our children inherit from us? Money is the least of their inheritance (it will be in our family anyway). Our children inherit attitudes and values that will be with them long after they have spent the cash.

Today it’s all about promoting ‘me’. Christ’s example to us is one of putting us before Himself. He died on the cross to save us and showed us that we too must put our family before ourselves. That was my experience in growing up. As a parent bringing up children in a house I was able to buy and able to provide them with simple luxuries, I was compelled to wonder at how my parents managed to provide for us in the way they did. They did it by putting their children before themselves. They left us an example of how to be a parent, an example I struggle to equal.

So the commandment that I initially thought was really quite straightforward turns out to be nothing of the kind. If these commandments really are God’s guide to happiness then the fourth is the one that brings happiness to everyone involved. Selfless parenting results in children whose attitudes and values will stand them in good stead to face the difficulties in life. Strong family units will tend to produce a society based on honouring and respecting each other. Wouldn’t that be a welcome change?

Keeping the Sabbath Holy? – My January Column – Full Text

Over the last couple of months I’ve been examining the Ten Commandments to see if they are really God’s guide to happiness. This month I’ve been looking at the third Commandment – remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. So what’s the Sabbath day and how do we keep it holy?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us more detail.

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work.”

The Jewish Sabbath is a Saturday but the early Church made our day of rest a Sunday to mark the day of Christ’s resurrection. Now I would imagine that having a day when you don’t have to go to work would make most of us happy but why the ban on work and just how practical is that?

In Scotland there are many Christians who believe that no work of any kind should be done on a Sunday, The day should be completely reserved for worshipping God. Even household chores must be completed on the Saturday night and Sunday will see no cooking or cleaning. A day spent in close communion with God should make us happy.

A few years ago some island communities were split over the issue of the ferries sailing on a Sunday. For Catholics and many other denominations Sunday does not mean a complete shutdown of normal life. According to my old ‘penny catechism’ the Church requires that we assist at a public Mass and refrain from servile work on a Sunday. I suppose the difference is about what we mean by holy.

Servile work would be going to work as usual, working for pay. Working in the home, preparing meals, tidying up etc. would not be classed as servile work. Whatever we do for our family, making meals, cleaning the kitchen etc. is part of marriage and because matrimony is a sacrament we actually receive grace for doing these things. I think that means these tasks are making the Sabbath holy.

In our society today we are often expected to work on a Sunday as a normal part of the job. We expect the buses and trains to run on a Sunday. Where would we be if the emergency services didn’t work on Sunday? Doctors and nurses in hospitals must work on Sunday. Some people would not be able to get to Mass otherwise. Even in non-essential jobs Sunday working is seen as normal. The shops are open on Sunday. How many of us leave Mass and go straight to the supermarket or meet friends in a coffee shop to catch up? These things require people to work on Sunday.

It is also permissible to indulge in entertainment like going to a football match (though some of the matches I’ve seen require a great stretch of the imagination to describe them as entertainment) or the cinema or some other entertainment. These things promote bonding among friends and family. But what about the workers; those who have to work so that we can be entertained also have need of family time. They may get time off during the week but that might not allow for family activity.

I noticed that Poland has decided that Sunday shopping should be phased out to allow the workers to have their day of rest as well as everyone else. This may not be too popular with the shoppers but I for one would be delighted to have one day in the week when I can’t be taken shopping.

So what exactly do we mean by holy? This is a question that has got me into arguments in the past. Some would cling to an image of someone kneeling in prayer before a crucifix or a statue of a saint. Hands joined in prayer are a famous image on prayer cards. There is no doubt that being in contemplation of God or in deep prayer would be described as being holy. However I don’t think that is the only context that could be described as holy.

Saint Thomas described holiness as the virtue by which we make all our acts subservient to God. It would follow then that whenever we act in ways that follow Jesus’ example we are being holy. How, then, could we keep the Sabbath holy? If we join with our fellow Catholics in the celebration of the Eucharist we are joining with them in communion with Christ. Jesus spent time withal sorts of people, his disciples, friends and many people he did not know. He shared meals with them and engaged in conversation.

I would consider from his example that we could spend the Sabbath with family and friends, sharing a meal, conversation and entertainment (there is no mention of Jesus going to the football but we can disregard that) and act in a way that is holy. When we are dealing with those we don’t know we should treat them with respect and friendliness.

You might argue that we should always behave in that way and you would be right. Why would we expect to spend Sunday behaving in one way and the rest of the week behaving differently? Really we should try to keep every day holy. We don’t need to walk around with a beatific smile on our face every day but I suspect Jesus didn’t do that either.

Now the question is simply one of whether this approach to holiness would make us happy. Now it seems to me that breaking up the working week so that life is not just one long unbroken trail of working days must be good for the psyche. Whether your work is hard physical labour or some more cerebral occupation you need to stop and rest regularly.

Whatever your station in life, Prime Minister or bin man, it is good to stop and consider the relationship you have with God. You were made by the God who created the universe and all its wonders. In your Sunday Mass you receive the Saviour who died to save you personally. He knows your name and listens to your prayers. God has no favourites; you are just as important to Him as the Bishop or the Pope. In that Mass we are all joined together through Christ. How could that fail to make us happy?

In making our Sabbath day a holy day we can transcend the daily niggles and hurts that can make us unhappy. We stop and remind ourselves that we are passing through all this on a journey to our eternal home. We will leave behind all the worries, all the trivial issues that bother us. We can start a new week ready to face whatever confronts us.

It’s never material things that make us happy. Your new sports car will only make you feel good until you start to hear strange noises or warning lights start blinking on the dashboard. Our happiness depends on our relationships. We need to build good relationships with our friends, family and the people we come into contact with. Our relationship with God is the most important and brings true happiness.

Keeping our Sabbath day holy builds these relationships. So to be truly happy don’t treat the Sabbath as just another day; it’s the most important day of the week.

My December Column, The Second Commandment – Full Text

This article was published in the Christmas double issue of the Scottish Catholic Observer on 22/12/2017.

The Second Commandment

In this series I’m having a look at the Ten Commandments from the point of view of them being God’s guide to human happiness. This month I’m having a think about the Second Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ At first glance that seems to be a straightforward command. What, exactly, does it mean? My old ‘penny catechism’ tells me that taking the Lord’s name in vain means using the name of God or the Holy Name of Jesus Christ without due reverence. That sounds quite reasonable but it also says that we are commanded to keep our lawful oaths and vows.

Now using the Holy Name with due reverence was a big issue in my religious education in primary school. We were all made aware of the importance of never using the Holy Name. Any time we used the word Jesus in a prayer we had to bow our head. I had forgotten all about this until I was approached at the end of Mass one day by someone who thought I must have been at his primary school. He explained that he had noticed I bowed my head when we said the word Jesus. He was taught that at his school and had realised he was still doing it too.

I’m not alone in this. Using the name Jesus outside of a prayer can be problematic. A few years ago, in my MISSIO days my Irish colleague related an event in a Dublin primary school. She had brought a Ugandan nun, who was on a visit, to meet the children in the school. Sister Fortunata was no quiet contemplative. She was big and forceful. She wanted the children to understand that what we do to others we do to Jesus. She wanted the children to see Jesus in others and she had a plan to help her achieve that. She told the children to turn to their partner and say “Hello Jesus. How are you?”  The children were quick to adopt this greeting and it became their standard greeting. Every day the children came into the playground shouting “Hello Jesus.” to their friends. The good Catholic teachers were shocked at the effect the nun had. They had to stop the children using the Holy name without losing Fortunata’s message. Even with all their efforts it took the teachers over a week to stop the children greeting each other with “Hiya Jesus.”

I confess it grates when I hear someone misuse the Holy Name. I’m sure I would never deliberately do that. However, it does raise a question. It is very annoying but why did God use one of his Ten Commandments to focus on this one act of disrespect? Is there more to this than I had thought? Does this apply to me? When would I use the Holy Name outside a prayer?

Thinking it through I suddenly realised that I do it all the time. I profess to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. I’m using that name. In my prayers I offer all I do in Jesus’ name. Whatever I do reflects on the Holy Name. I suppose that as a Christian I’m telling the world that I’m an example of how Jesus taught us to live. Now nobody wants to give a bad impression of Jesus’ teaching but I wonder how I go about that.

I don’t want to be seen to be someone who does wrong. That would really be giving the wrong message. I wouldn’t be doing wrong in Jesus’ name but Jesus wasn’t known for what He didn’t do. He was known for what he did. If I want to live my life in Jesus’ name then I will have to actually do the kind of things that Jesus did. Now I’m not talking about working miracles. I won’t be walking on water anytime soon. It wasn’t the working of miracles that made Jesus stand out; it was how he dealt with other people.

Jesus showed no interest in people of importance. He spent time with the poor, the sick, people shunned by polite society and sought out sinners. In his story of the widow’s mite he shows that the small coin given by the poor widow is more valuable than a much larger sum given by the rich man. He recognised that the poor are often more generous than the rich, more ready to share the little they have. Now I might think that I’m being generous by putting a pound in the charity box but I’m not really sharing; I’m giving the extra I have left over.

When it comes to helping the sick I’m afraid I fall short again. I’m happy to visit friends and family when they are sick but Jesus helped the sick people he didn’t know. I’ve never been one to think about the people in hospital who have nobody to visit them. Especially now in winter time I should be ready to look out for frail people who might need help.

Beggars are now a feature of our city streets. It’s now difficult to distinguish between people who really need help and those who could fend for themselves. That’s where my problem lies. I am ready to make a judgement about who is ‘deserving’ and who is not. I’m happy to help the deserving poor but not the others. What evidence do I have when considering my judgement? What right do I have to judge? I suppose the answer is that I am in no position to judge. I have no idea what circumstances have brought about the change in someone’s life that sees them outcasts. Given those circumstances could I find myself becoming an outcast? Jesus had no problem in associating freely with the outcasts.

What about sinners? Am I prepared to denounce those who are seen to be ‘living in sin’ or in prison? Jesus didn’t condemn sinners. His mission was to save sinners while He was without sin. On the other hand I am a sinner. My sins might not be publicly noted but never the less I’m not in a position to cast the first stone. As Jesus showed compassion to sinner shouldn’t I do the same?

The period leading up to Christmas (starts mid-October now) has become a time to focus on buying gifts. Television adverts are full of great ideas for things you must give this Christmas. I watched part of a television programme about the most expensive gifts you can buy. They had gold plated everything you could think of. The best things were also diamond studded. I noticed a curious thing. The people buying the gifts wanted to show that only they could give these gifts. The gift was a sign of their status rather than their regard for the recipient. Christmas has become all about ‘me’.

The real Christmas is about a different gift. The coming of Christ is God’s gift to us. Christmas is not about me; it’s about others. The giving of gifts is about showing our appreciation of those we love. The message is quite simple. If you want to be happy forget about you and do what God does – think about others.

I hope you have a happy, relaxing Christmas.