Summary: Not Coveting means choosing to align your desires with God
Title: The Enemy of the Best
Text: Exodus 20:17
FCF: Choose God, because he’s better than anything he has made.
With all the financial shenanigans of the last few years, we tend to forget that the ambition, drive, and sheer lust for wealth that characterizes Wall Street is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, we learned this saying: Greed is what? “Good” Yup, it’s still with us.
The 1920s was a lot like the 1980s – it was an unprecedented economic buildup in an age of prohibition and getting around it. The gains of the speculative market were funneled into libraries, homes, and infrastructure which we still have with us today. Truth be told, greed can be manipulated and turned into physical wealth and prosperity – but it’s a dangerous game.
October 24, 1929 was one of those days. You know it as Black Thursday, the beginning of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, the day the DJIA lost nearly 20% of its value. It wasn’t the worst one-day percentage lost: in 1924 saw the Dow lose 24%. In terms of one day loss, October 17, 1987 dropped 500 points (also nearly 25% of its value), and September 17, 2001, saw a drop of nearly 700 points. But Black Thursday was pretty bad, and it’s widely seen as the beginning of the Great Depression.
But, in the midst of this huge sell-off, a great story emerged. There was a young broker from J.P. Morgan named Richard Whitney. In 1912, as a mere 23 year old, he was a wunderkind among brokers – almost a child protégée – well, at least in comparison to the geriatric good-fellows of Wall Street at least. His older brother eventually became a senior VP at the firm, and the two had a remarkable career, especially during those huge stock market gains that gave rise to the name the Roaring Twenties.
But back to Black Thursday. Already, October had seen some sharp losses – on September 17, 1929 the Dow had reached a peak of 481, and now it was hovering around 300. By noon, frustrated and despondent over their losses no less than 12 brokers had committed suicide. But as the Dow plummeted that day, the Whitney boys and a few other senior brokers hatched a plan. Seeing the widespread panic around them, they pooled their money – several million dollars’ worth, and told Richard to go out and spend it.
He confidently strode out onto the floor of the exchange, and asked, what’s the current bid for U.S. Steel? 195, they answered. I’ll buy as many shares as you’ll sell at 205. People stopped. When somebody with the stature of Whitney spoke, people listened. And then, they began to think – is there a rally I’m not aware of? Maybe I need to get in on this action. I don’t want to be left out! Soon, sell orders ceased and buy orders racked up. The hemorrhaging, at least for that day, had stopped.
Whitney had gone from wunderkind to Wall Street Savior. People loved him. And in 1930, they named him the President of the NYSE – a position he’d hold for 5 years.
But while the other brokers may have loved what he did, an honest broker has to say they made a bad deal. The next Monday and Tuesday saw the gains made earlier disappear. And, for three more years, the Dow continued to fall. From its September, 1929 high of 481, to its 1932 low of 41, the Dow lost over 89% of its value. And the greed on which Whitney played that morning? It was a sucker’s bet. Investors who bought simply to keep up with Whitney wouldn’t see a return on that investment – get this – until 1955. Greed doesn’t pay.
The trick that Whitney used was pretty simple. Play to their desires, play to the fear that somebody else might get more than you – and people will do whatever you want. Whatever it is you desire is thing that will dictate your actions. And that’s why, this morning, our commandment is so simple. Don’t covet.
Don’t desire any physical thing – not your neighbor’s house, not your neighbor’s wife, not your neighbor’s servants, or ox or his donkey. Don’t desire his triple-gabled roof, his BMW, or his high-powered position at the law firm. Any desire you have that isn’t of God, isn’t good. Don’t get trapped by anything less than God.
When David wrote, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” the result of that was pretty obvious – I shall not want. After all, if you have a good God who knows your desires since he created them, what possible real want could you have?
When Paul wrote, “Earnestly desire – covet even – the most spiritual gifts,” you know what he talks about next? Love – as in God’s love for us. What else do we really want or desire more than that?