[292] “You are not to covet your neighbor’s house.”
“You are not to covet his wife, manservant, maidservant, cattle, or anything that is his.”

[293] These two commandments, taken literally, were given exclusively to the Jews; nevertheless, in part they also apply to us. The Jews did not interpret them as referring to unchastity or theft, for these were sufficiently forbidden in the previous commandments. They also thought that they were keeping all the commandments when they outwardly did precisely the works commanded and did not do the ones forbidden. God therefore added these two so that people would also think that coveting a neighbor’s spouse or property, or desiring them in any way, is sinful and forbidden.

[294] These commandments were especially needed because under the Jewish government menservants and maidservants were not free, as now, to earn a wage as long as they wanted. Rather, with their body and all they had they were their master’s property, just the same as his cattle and other possessions. [295] Moreover, every man had the power to put away his wife publicly by giving her a bill of divorce and to take another wife. So there was a danger among them that if any man craved another’s wife, he might find some sort of reason to put away his own wife and to alienate the other man’s so that he might legally take her for himself. Among them this was no more a sin or disgrace than it is among us when a master dismisses his manservant or maidservant or entices someone else’s servant away.

[296] Therefore, I say, they interpreted these commandments correctly (even though they have a broader and higher application) to forbid anyone, even with an apparently good pretense and excuse, to harm a neighbor by intending or scheming to take away anything that belongs to this neighbor, such as spouse, servants, house and farm, fields, meadows, or cattle. Above, the Seventh Commandment prohibits seizing or withholding someone else’s possessions to which you have no right. But here it is also forbidden to entice anything away from your neighbor, even though in the eyes of the world you could do it honorably, without accusation or blame for fraudulent gain.

[297] Such is nature that no one wants someone else to have as much as he or she does. Everyone tries to accumulate as much as he or she can, and lets others look out for themselves. [298] Yet we all consider ourselves upright people, and put up a fine front to conceal our villainy. We hunt for and think up clever tricks and shrewd tactics—better and better ones are being devised daily—under the guise of justice. We brazenly dare to boast of it and defiantly insist that it should not be called rascality but shrewdness and foresight. [299] In this we are abetted by jurists and lawyers who twist and stretch the law to suit their purpose, straining words and using them for pretexts, without regard for equity or for our neighbor’s plight. In short, whoever is sharpest and shrewdest in such matters gets most advantage out of the law, for as the saying has it, “The law favors the vigilant.”

[300] This last commandment, therefore, is not addressed to those whom the world considers wicked rogues, but precisely to the most upright—to people who wish to be commended as honest and virtuous because they have not offended against the preceding commandments. Especially the Jews saw themselves this way, as today the nobles, lords, and princes do even more. The common masses belong much farther back in the Seventh Commandment, however, for they are not much concerned about honor and right when acquiring possessions.

[301] This occurs most often in lawsuits in which someone sets out to gain and squeeze something out of a neighbor. For example, when people wrangle and wrestle over a large inheritance, real estate, etc., they resort to anything that has the appearance of legality, so varnishing and garnishing it that the law must support them, and they gain such a title to the property that no one can raise an objection or initiate legal action. [302] Similarly, if people covet a castle, city, county, or some other great thing, they practice bribery through friendly connections and any other means available to them, until the property is taken away from the other person and legally awarded to them, complete with deed and official seal showing that they have lawfully obtained title from the prince.

[303] The same thing also happens in ordinary business dealings, where people cunningly filch something out of another’s hand so that the victim is helpless to prevent it. Or, seeing an opportunity for profit—perhaps where a person because of adversity or debt cannot hold on to property nor sell it without a loss—they hustle and harass the person until they get it for half price or less; and yet this is not to be considered as something acquired or obtained illegally, but rather as legitimately purchased. Hence the sayings, “First come, first served,” and “Take care of yourself,” and let the others take what they can. [304] Who would be clever enough to make up all the ways by which people can acquire for themselves so much through such lovely pretexts, which the world does not consider wrong? The world does not want to see that the neighbor is being taken advantage of and is being forced to sacrifice what he or she cannot afford to lose. Who would want to experience this personally? From this it is clear that all these pretexts and shams are false.

[305] This was also the case in ancient days in respect to wives. They knew tricks like these: If a man took a fancy to another woman, he managed, either personally or through others, by any number of ways to make her husband displeased with her, or she became so disobedient and hard to live with that her husband had to dismiss her and leave her to the other man. That sort of thing was undoubtedly quite prevalent in the time of the [Old Testament] law, for we read even in the gospel that King Herod took his brother’s wife while the latter was still living, and yet posed as an honorable, upright man, as St. Mark testifies.121 [306] But such an example, I hope, will not be found among us, for in the New Testament married people are forbidden to be divorced. Still in our day someone may trick another person out of a rich fiancée. Among us it is not uncommon for someone to entice or lure a person’s manservant or maidservant away or otherwise estrange him or her with fine words.

[307] However these things may happen, we must learn that God does not want you to deprive your neighbors of anything that is theirs, so that they suffer loss while you satisfy your greed, even though before the world you can retain the property with honor. To do so is underhanded and malicious wickedness, and, as we say, it is all done “under the table” so as to escape detection. Although you may act as if you have wronged no one, you have certainly trespassed on your neighbors’ rights. It might not be called stealing or cheating, but it is coveting—that is, having designs on your neighbors’ property, luring it away from them against their will, and begrudging what God gave them. [308] The judge and everyone else may have to let you keep the property, but God will not, for he sees your wicked heart and the deceitfulness of the world. Give the world an inch and it will take a mile,125 and open injustice and violence will result.

[309] This, then, is the common meaning of this commandment. First, we are commanded not to desire to harm our neighbors, nor to assist in doing harm, nor to give occasion for it. Instead, we are gladly to let them have what is theirs and to promote and protect whatever may be profitable and serviceable to them, just as we wish others would do for us. [310] So these commandments are aimed directly against envy and miserable covetousness, so that God may remove the root and cause from which arise all injuries to our neighbors. Therefore he sets it forth in plain words: “You shall not covet,” etc. Above all, he wants the heart to be pure, even though, as long as we live here, we cannot accomplish that. So this commandment remains, like all the rest, one that constantly accuses us and shows just how upright we really are in God’s sight.