This blog was first a written response to a comment:
My initial thought is that covetousness isn’t just about “expecting” a gift or “looking forward” to that time of gift-giving, or merely about the mere act of wanting. Although the 10th commandment can be summarized into “You shall not covet,” this is only the beginning of the commandment. Covetousness, as laid out in Exodus 20, is about seeing something belonging to your neighbor, wanting it, and desiring something, which we have no grounds to want—like wanting someone’s wife or house: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor.”
Thus the matter isn’t about the act of “desiring” but, rather, about what the object of that desire is. For instance, I can want and desire God’s comfort in a hard time and this is no sin. But if I want and desire my something I have no right to, like my neighbor’s house, I now covet. There is a certain order to the world and desiring things that militates against that order is something we have no right to desire. I can want God’s glory, Christ’s kingdom coming, a wife, a degree, and so forth. These desires are all desires we have a right to, that is, are permitted in the way God’s ordered and designed the cosmos. So, desire is only a tool; it is the object of that desire that turns it into covetousness or a proper want. We can want many things but we cannot forget God’s command, “You shall not covet [whatever],” and so we are always wondering, “Is this “want” something God sanctioned and approved or not?”
Now for the Christmas example, I would point out that a gift—and this is a philosophical analysis of it mixed with a pointer from Romans 4:4—for it to remain a gift cannot be obligatory. If the gift-giving becomes obligatory, then it is no longer a pure act of giving but is now becoming more akin to <em>paying something I owe</em>. And if it becomes something I owe, then it is no longer me giving a gift, but paying a obligation. I would point out a huge piece of evidence for what I am saying, namely, this is why Christmas time is thought of by so many as not a jolly time but a tedious time, because they feel the obligations imposed on them by the expectations of their family and friends. I do not think the desiring of gifts from friends and family qualifies as covetousness because God is not opposed to gift giving or the hoping and wanting of gifts from those we love. It seems the opposite: God is the first giver and so the inspirer of all gift giving—the historic doctrine of donum bonum (= Latin for “good gift”) speaks of creation as that first good gift.
And if you choose not to give gifts I think those who hoped for them—not expecting them to the point of thinking they were owed the gifts—could be genuinely disappointed. Where I think evil would enter would be if that disappointment transformed into a reason for disassociation, bitterness, or resentment. I think these point to an attitude that believes they are owed gifts rather than rejoicing in the one who gives the gift. On a Christian view, which I take here, the greatest gift is Christ (and Spirit and God) but God was not compelled by anyone to give Him, how could He be? He was not obligated or made to give Him, He was not expected to save us by giving Him, He just did it freely—I can’t see how God could ever even be put in a position where He owed someone something He did not first initiate and willingly offer. Say God said that He was going to give spiritual gifts but then didn’t give any! This, of course, is absurd because God always keeps His word but for argument’s sake, let’s continue. Would we be disappointed? Yes, we would because there was an expected set up by the <em>Giver</em>. But say God said he wasn’t giving any spiritual gifts and so we received none—or merely didn’t say anything at all about giving any gifts. Would we be disappointed? No, we wouldn’t because we were not set up by the Giver to expect gifts.
What is the problem, then, with Christmas? Christmas is troublesome because it is a tradition of giving gifts, among other things. And a tradition is the collective practice and wisdom of ancestors passed on to later generations. And so you are expected to give gifts, not of your own will and initiative, but by the will and initiative of those ancestors. And if the ancestors, who started this tradition, say you should give gifts, then you best listen, submit, and do as they say. Or, at least, this is how the conventional wisdom goes.
If this analysis is right, we now have come to the threshold where gift giving could become obligation. It depends on where we stand in relation to this tradition. If I think it is good and I like it, then I’ll say, “What the ancestors say counts for me as well,” and I’ll gladly and freely give gifts. Why? Because I’ve accepted the ancestors’ wisdom and practice for myself and so it counts as my practice and wisdom as well. Thus, I’ve heard what the ancestors have said, considered it, and accepted it as my own practice, not by being forced but by my own careful deliberation over the matter and so it is not done out of obligation. But, if I consider what this tradition says, those ancestors’ practice, and decide it is not for me, then ought I just submit? I could but the result will be “giving” out of obligation, not out of my free desire and goodwill towards that tradition, towards those ancestors. Why? Because this “giving” is done to satisfy expectations placed upon me, not because of my affirmation of the practice itself, not because I’ve adopted it for myself but only that I submit to it, perhaps, for the sake of others’ beliefs, social harmony, and so forth.
When we fulfill those expectations place upon us by others, we might also be achieving some “good” as well. If we do it because we want to be a cause of social harmony, this is no doubt a good. Thus we are “paying a price” for social harmony. Or perhaps, although we don’t agree with the tradition ourselves, we want to show reverence to our elders in our family, we still go along with it. This is also a good. So there seems to be a competition of goods, between the good of truly giving versus the good of paying the price for some other good thing—like showing reverence to elders or social in family harmony.
And it is at this point that we see how “giving” becomes “paying.” It is paying the price of those expectations, social harmony, or reverence. Now paying the price for some good is laudable but not as laudable as the example Jesus set. He “paid the price” of our redemption but He did so willingly and thus was freely giving Himself. In the same way, if we take the tradition on as our own practice, the price we pay is no longer considered “paying a price” but “freely giving.” I am not merely compelled by the good I can accomplish through following the tradition (like social harmony) but I am convinced that the tradition itself is “good” and “right” for me, so that the giving I do is for the goodness of the giving itself and not because of eternal pressers. Notice that this attitude allows no place for bitterness or resentment to set in whereas “paying the price” for the goods I can accomplish through going along with the tradition does not protect against these. It is easy to see why we speak of some people in these situations as just “going through the motions.” They do it for goods accomplished by it, like meeting loved ones’ expectations, social harmony, or to show reverence, but are dispassionate and so disinterested about the value of the tradition itself. And soon, if we are not careful, going through the motions will give place to its cousins, bitterness and resentment.
And it is in view of these cousins, when they take hold on us, that it can be suggested that rejecting Christmas altogether may indeed be a greater good than resentfully going through the motions. The personal question we all must face, therefore, is, “Is giving going to change me into a more whole and beautiful person or is “paying the price” going to do that?” The answer is giving. But if this is the answer, then we all must make a choice in view of Christmas, either to affirm the tradition and become a genuine giver (the greater good) or to simply “pay the price” of the expectations place upon me (fulfilling the “lesser” good but also a danger by giving place to bitterness/resentment). Of course, we could just refuse the entire Christmas tradition and then those who want to follow that tradition in our families face a similar choice between good and evil: “Will I respect the choice of my family member who refuses the tradition of Christmas (a good of not forcing myself on them), like how Jesus refused to follow religious traditions, or will I enforce my tradition upon them through my expectations (the lesser good or even an evil)?”
Finally, notice that whether we give willingly or pay the price, sacrifice is entailed in both. But willingly giving is sacrifice done joyfully whereas paying the price is sacrifice only done pragmatically. Christ endured the cross because of the joy in front of Him (Heb. 12:1 – 2).
B. T. Scalise