Jesus Talks About Adultery

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 5:27-30

Sin starts in the mind and the imagination. Whenever we do wrong in our actions, it’s because we first go wrong in our thoughts.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking to his followers about the law of God. He’s already told them that they have to be even more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, a statement that must have shocked and unsettled them, for the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was legendary. They were the religious professionals, the people who were the most serious about obeying the law. But perhaps in an odd sort of way that was the very thing that led them astray.

Because they were so serious about scrupulously obeying the entire law, they tried to make the law more obeyable. They developed long lists of rules, prohibitions, and commands that were possible to keep if one were careful enough. So, for example, when the law said to do no work on the Sabbath day, the scribes and Pharisees very carefully defined exactly what constituted work, how far people could walk, how much they could pick up, just what they could and couldn’t do, right down to the smallest detail. When the law forbade adultery, they talked about just which sexual relationships were permitted and which ones were punished and to what extent. (And as you might expect, men got off easier than women.) When the law told them to love their neighbor, they worked out a careful identification of who qualified as a neighbor and thus was required to be loved, and who was outside that circle and could therefore be safely hated.


But Jesus’ attitude toward the law is very different. He doesn’t talk about ways of interpreting it that make it easier to keep. Instead, he teaches the inner meaning of each of the law’s commandments, thereby showing how impossible it is for anyone to fully obey them. Imagine that you lived in a land where everyone was always sick and no one had ever seen or met a healthy person. If you were a native of such a world, you would think that being sick was the natural and normal human condition, that, in fact, sickness was health. For that matter, you wouldn’t even realize that you were sick, unless someone could show you what a healthy human being was actually like. That is what the law does for us in moral terms. Its first purpose is to show us just how sick we are morally, how far we fall short of spiritual health and wholeness. The law is like a mirror held up before our conscience, revealing the flaws and failures we otherwise wouldn’t see. It’s like one of those miniature cameras that goes inside the human body and shows details that otherwise remain hidden – except that it navigates within our souls.

Jesus brings all this out in his explanation of the true meaning of the commandments of the law. He starts with the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill.” Just when I might be tempted to pat myself on the back with the reflection that, as far as I know, I’ve never actually killed anyone (so therefore I must be keeping at least that part of the law), Jesus tells me that the commandment also has to do with my attitudes and words. He turns the camera on inside of me and shows me how, as far as God is concerned, whenever I hate or carry a grudge or hold someone in contempt or growl insults under my breath I am breaking the commandment. The truth is, most of us break that commandment, along with all the others, every day of our lives.


The next commandment on the list is equally demanding. The seventh commandment says: “You shall not commit adultery.” Just in case I might be thinking that if I have managed to hold onto my chastity so far (a rare enough accomplishment these days), or if I have avoided being physically unfaithful to my wife, well, then I’m on the right side of the ledger with respect to this commandment, Jesus goes deeper once again. “You may think you can avoid adultery by defining it narrowly,” he says, “but I’m telling you that you commit a kind of adultery every time you indulge in lust.”

You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus’ teaching about sexual sin contrasts not only with the attitude of his contemporaries, it is also very different from modern views about sex. (Now there’s an understatement!) If anything runs more counter to our culture’s ideas than this teaching. I have yet to hear it. Ever since Freud, people have said that our problems with sex have been caused by repression. If only we could become liberated, shed all our old taboos and misplaced guilt, enjoy “reproductive freedom,” learn to be comfortable with our bodies and enjoy our sexuality, if only we could jettison the Victorian prudery and be fully modern in our thinking, then we could experience the pleasure of sex without all the problems.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Despite the sexual revolution of the sixties, despite medical technologies that can “solve” the problem of unwanted pregnancies, despite a loosening of traditional moral standards that would have astounded people just a generation ago, sex remains as much a problem as ever. Indeed, in an age of AIDS, mass abortions, soaring divorce and illegitimacy rates, I would have to conclude it’s more of a problem than ever. “They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up,” wrote C.S. Lewis in Christian Behaviour,

“but for the last twenty years [and remember, he was writing fifty years ago!], it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long, yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right, but it has not. I think it is the other way around. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess.”

Wise words from a profound Christian teacher! And Jesus puts his finger on the cause of the whole problem. The mess about sex is inside of us. It’s inside our minds.

The problem, Jesus says, is lust – that is, wrongly directed desire. The Bible teaches that sex in and of itself is good, like all of God’s creation, provided it is used in the way God intended. And the Christian rule, which is here reinforced by Jesus, is simple: Sex is for marriage and for marriage alone. We are not to alter or violate the rule in any way, even by what we might imagine to be the harmless alternative of indulging our taste for sexual fantasies. Lust is not harmless. On the contrary, Jesus identifies it as sinful, precisely because it is so harm-full.

It harms others. Lust, along with pornography, the industry that both feeds and stimulates it, treats people as objects, as things to be used and consumed and then discarded. Lust is not interested in persons who are made in the image of God, only in bodies that are viewed as things to satisfy one’s appetite, as if a person were no more than a plate of food or a glass of drink.

But lust is not only harmful to others; it is harmful to us as well. Sexual fantasy can become an addiction as much as food or drink or drugs. And like other addictive things, it enslaves us and subjects us to the law of diminishing returns, so that we continually need more and more stimulation in order to reach a comparable stage of excitement. Lust encourages us to divorce sex from its God-intended context of marriage; that is, from the life-long, mutual, faithful commitment of love between one man and one woman. Ironically, trying to enjoy sex by itself will not only prevent us from experiencing the deeper and richer joy of the love of marriage; it will eventually rob us of the capacity even to find pleasure in sex.


So what are we to do? Here is yet another commandment that we discover ourselves to be breaking all the time. We can cry out for mercy certainly, but Jesus also shows us a way of escape, although I have to warn you, it’s a hard way, even a shocking one.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

(vv. 29-30)

These are dramatic figures of speech. Jesus is speaking with deliberate exaggeration, and he doesn’t mean to be taken literally. He’s not recommending that we mutilate ourselves, although there have been on rare occasions overzealous and unbalanced Christians who have taken him that way and have actually tried it.

No, what Jesus means here is that we must fight to control ourselves and we must strive for discipline, and he tells us it will be no easy battle. It will be difficult. It will be painful, but we have to be utterly ruthless about it. There is a place for hard-nosed fighting in the Christian life (and it’s not fighting against other people); it is fighting against our own internal passions. The principle here is that just as the roots of sin are internal (rising from our fantasies and desires), so the roots of self-control must be as well. Sexual discipline begins with the control of our eye, that is, of our imagination and our thoughts. “Whenever men and women have learned sexual self-control in deed,” writes one great Christian scholar, “it is because they have first learned it in the eyes of both flesh and fantasy” (John Stott).

So Jesus’ suggestions are very practical. “If your eye causes you to sin” – if your sexual struggles are related to things that you are viewing, to the television you watch, to the books you read or the magazines you look at – then “tear it out and throw it away.” Stop watching. Don’t look. Get rid of the pictures. “If your hand causes you to sin” – if you find yourself getting into trouble because of what you are doing, because, for example, you find yourself continually going back to your local video store and reaching for a certain kind of title on the shelf – then “cut it off and throw it away.” Because, as Jesus goes on to say very solemnly, it is better to be partially deprived than to be wholly damned.

Now what he is telling us here about personal morality sounds a lot like the modern slogan “Just say no.” That’s what we here in America have been trying to tell our school children about things like drugs and sex. Unfortunately, what we don’t tell them is how. Where do you find the strength to say no? Christians have an answer. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to imply that this is an easy answer. I don’t mean to say that the battle will be quickly won for everyone. Nowhere is the struggle ever harder than in the area of sexual temptation. But the gospel gives us a resource that the world doesn’t understand – Jesus himself.

Jesus is the grace of God that has appeared for the salvation of the world. He teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives (Titus 2:11-12). If you come to him through faith, if you yield your life entirely to his lordship and open yourself to his Spirit and pray consistently for his power to make you holy, he will. Your struggles with sin will not be ended all at once, but they will end eventually – in victory.