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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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COVETOUSNESS.—This word (Gr. πλεονεξία) has the root-idea of greed, shown in a strong desire to acquire, even more than in a keen wish to keep. In the Gospels, as elsewhere in Scripture [see, however, Ephesians 4:19], the term is confined to a reference to property; the verb (πλεονεκτέω) is wider in sense. As the complexity of social life increases, so may the shapes the evil can assume. To ordinary avarice have to be added subtle temptations in the realm of rank and fashion, conventional ambition, cultured ease, or delight in successful activity unsubordinated to ethical aims. The tinge of covetousness comes in wherever men so absorb their life in the temporal that they impair its high instincts for the spiritual. ‘What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ (Matthew 16:26).

To the mind of Jesus what stands condemned is, characteristically, the possession of a certain spirit—the spirit of grasping selfishness. The forms assumed, the methods employed, are not minutely dealt with, and not matters for specific cure. Rather the one tap-root is to be cut, or a general atmosphere created in which the noxious weed must perish. And the almighty power to this end is the holy spirit of the gospel, which on the one hand is a spirit of loving trust towards God the Father in providence, and on the other a tender feeling towards fellow-mortals which prompts to ready sacrifice of all things to their good. The man with the great possessions (Mark 10:17), who attracted Jesus, had yet one luxury to discover—that of doing good, giving to the poor, and so coveting wealth of the right kind. Not the coming to our hands of earthly good is condemned, but the absence of the one spirit which shall inform and vitalize its use. The triumph of religion is to turn it into ‘treasure in heaven’ (Mark 10:21).

A classical passage is Matthew 6:19-34, with which compare Luke 12:22-34; Luke 16:13-15. The higher life being concerned with faith and goodness and the things of the spirit—the realm revealed in the Beatitudes, it is clear inversion to be absorbed for their own sake in the things of time and sense. ‘Moth and rust’ are the emblems of their corruptibility; and they are unstable, like property exposed to ‘thieves.’ It is the mark of a pagan mind to be full of anxious and self-centred concern for meat and drink and raiment (Matthew 6:32). Such persons reverse unconsciously Christ’s principle that ‘the life is more than meat’ (Matthew 6:25); and the Pharisees, ‘who were covetous’ (Luke 16:14), by their blindness to the true order of importance called forth essentially the same rebuke, ‘that which is highly esteemed amongst men, is abomination in the sight of God’ (Luke 16:15). Though they had one eye for religion, they kept the other for the world, hence inevitably their truly distorted views. In the last resort of psychological analysis ‘no man can serve two masters’ (Matthew 6:24), and the Pharisees are pilloried for evermore as the awful example of hypocrisy in this respect. With Jesus, in these passages, the first postulate of religious worth is, that people must be single-minded and whole-hearted in service—‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ (Matthew 6:21). And to only one quarter can the enlightened heart turn—‘the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33). Coincident with that, as humble faith feels, all needed things shall be added unto us. With exquisite insight Jesus points to the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field as eloquent at once of the minuteness of Divine Providence, and the trust we may place in a Heavenly Father’s care. ‘Are not ye,’ He asks, ‘much better than they?’ (Matthew 6:26). (Cf. as an enforcement of the lesson, Christ’s own unworldliness of character, and trustfulness in earthly matters. And as a counter-illustration to the Pharisees, cf. the convert from their straitest sect, St. Paul, who having food and raiment learned therewith to be content, 1 Timothy 6:8, cf. Philippians 4:11).

On a question arising of family inheritance (Luke 12:13-15), Jesus warns against covetousness, and for impressive depth nothing excels the summary there—‘A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth’ (Luke 12:15). As one concerned with the spiritual domain, Jesus refuses to touch the civil matter of property. Wisdom lay in leaving questions of the law to lawyers, although the consideration is doubtless implied that even then there should be found a permeation of the Christian spirit. The point which Jesus presses is the falsity of the vulgar notion that it is ‘possessions’ which make life worth living. Devotion to the outward is, in His gospel, vanity; the loving and discerning soul has God for its possession, and from sheer sympathy of heart joys in His work amongst men.

A parable follows (Luke 12:16-21), not necessarily associated originally with the foregoing incident, although in full affinity of theme. The Rich Fool is the personification of the successfully covetous man, and yet a revelation in almost the same breath of how little such success amounts to from the standpoint of eternity. He sowed only to the world; therefore he reaped inwardly no riches of the spirit. ‘So is he,’ saith Jesus, ‘that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God’ (Luke 12:21). There is affinity of teaching in the parable of Dives and Lazarus (which see).

Literature.—The standard works on the Sermon on the Mount and on the Parables. Among special discourses: F. W. Robertson, Sermons, 2nd series, Serm. I. (with which compare XVII. of 1st series); J. Service on ‘Profit and Loss’ in Salvation Here and Hereafter; J. Oswald Dykes, The Relations of the Kingdom to the World, pt. i.; A. Maclaren, A Year’s Ministry, 1st series, No. 16; J. Martineau, Hours of Thought ii. and iii., Endeavours after the Christian Life, pp. 76–86; Mozley, University Sermons, pp. 275–290.

George Murray.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Covetousness'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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