There are two things that are pretty much guaranteed to destroy any relationship. The first of these is murder. Killing the other person in a relationship will always kill the relationship. We talked about murder last week.
The second most destructive thing for relationships is adultery. The evidence for this is all around us.
It makes sense then that adultery is the second on Jesus list. Adultery is the seventh commandment, and Jesus give us a fairly simple and straightforward intensification.
The Old Testament says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’
Jesus says, ‘Anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.’
Among the early Christians there were some who thought sex was evil in and of itself. This lead to the view in the middle ages anyone who was married and sexually active was a sinner. They were seen as somehow at a lower spiritual level and thus inferior to a person who remained a virgin.
They reasoned that therefore the only people who were qualified to be nuns or monks, priests or pastors were those who stayed celibate and single. They did not get this view from what the Bible says, however, but from Greek culture. In particular from the teaching of a man named Plato. His school of thought, Platonism, elevated mind, reason and spirit, and put our bodies, mortality and sexuality on a lower plane.
The Bible has a very different view. From the start of Genesis, the Bible shows that making love is a positive gift from God. The Song of Solomon celebrates this gift.
Nothing in the New Testament suggests that Jesus was condemning any and every experience of sexual attraction.
It is perfectly possible to translate ‘looks at a woman with lust’ in verse 28 as referring only to a woman who is the wife of another man. This seems to narrow, though. The key word is ‘lust’.
‘Lust’ literally means to desire, long for, or covet something forbidden.
When Jesus condemns lust, he condemns more than the act of adultery and any sex outside of marriage. He also condemns longing for sex outside of marriage. Or perhaps we should say, allowing your mind to dwell on such things.
If you are a man, you might have found yourself in a situation with other men where lustful behaviour is encouraged. It is not uncommon for a group of men at work, at the pub, or even on the street to share dirty jokes and evaluate every woman who passes as a sex object. Degrading her with a score of zero to ten. This is lust. It is forbidden.
Pornography encourages lust. It teaches us to see other people as impersonal objects for our own sexual satisfaction, and it encourages sexual fantasy.
Not every act of lust degrades a woman and turns her into an impersonal object. It can also happen between friends or colleagues when sexual attraction is reciprocated and encouraged. It can grow into lust and from lust into adultery.
Does sexual attraction always equal lust? No. It is completely proper in some situations. Between a couple, for example, either married or engaged. Sexuality itself is an expression of our humanity. It is how God made us. It is OK to admire the good looks of another person created in the image of God, to enjoy their friendship and company. It is only lust when we move from appreciation to desire for sexual possession.
This illegal desire for sexual possession is what Jesus condemns.
It is a standard that our society singularly fails to meet. We fall spectacularly short of this standard. Yet in trying to be faithful disciples we are not called to see all sex as dirty and sinful.
Jesus only addresses the issue of men who look on women with lust, but that is not to suppose he is allowing women to look with lust upon men.
This teaching also raises another question for us. Are we responsible for stirring up lust in others. How many times have we heard a man accused of rape using the excuse that the woman asked for it by the way she dressed. It is beyond contempt for a man to try and blame a woman for his crime by saying she provoked him. Or for any of us to blame the way another person is dressed for our sins.
In strict Muslim society the solution is to force women to cover their whole body so that the men are not tempted to lust. At the same time the men are free to wear whatever they want. This is not a fair and just system. It is extreme sexual discrimination.
In some places there are dress codes to preserve modesty, but they seem arbitrary. No sandals may be worn in some churches in Spain, for example. Or no shorts or bare arms.
Surely we can agree though that it is not right for people to be provocative. Some of the fashions we see are intended to be provocative. Some of the people wearing these garments intend to be provocative, and enjoy the attention they get.
Jesus states the general principle of rejecting lustful thoughts and adultery.
Then he teaches two applications of this principle in verses 29 and 30.
First: If your eye causes you to lust, pluck it out.
Second: If your hand makes you lust, chop it off.
Origen, a theologian from Egypt in around the year 200, castrated himself because of this teaching. He was not alone, and in 325 the Council of Nicea had to expressly ban such behaviour.
Please do not mutilate yourself. Jesus uses these examples to show how seriously he takes sexual sin, and how seriously we must take sexual sin.
We are not free to fantasize about sex outside of marriage any more than we are free to actually have sex outside of marriage.
God judges our hearts, the place where no one else can see. He sees your heart and he knows when nobody else knows, if you indulge in fantasy. When the temptation to sexual immorality comes, as it does all the time, how will you react?
The temptations to lust are everywhere – on television, in magazines, in books, in videos, in music, in films. We cannot avoid them, even if we avoid the places that sell lust such as bars and nightclubs.
Just as in Jesus time, most people today think lust is normal and healthy. They see nothing wrong with adultery. But we are called to be more righteous than Pharisees. We are called to a different standard.
Although Jesus talks specifically about men lusting after women, this applies to anyone lusting after anyone else of any gender. It applies to homosexual and heterosexual.
We walk an extremely difficult path between rejoicing in the beauty that God created and rejecting the temptation to lust. We have to practice never allowing lustful thoughts to set up home in our hearts or our minds.
We are called to purity of thought. Purity of heart. Purity where no one but God can appreciate it.
Lust is essentially selfish, about satisfying my desires and sacrificing yours.
We should instead love each other and help each other remain pure, and part of that is surely not being provocative.
Don’t think it doesn’t matter. Don’t think this is old fashioned. Jesus thought it was as important as murder. He rates it as destructive to your relationship to him as murder. He rates it as destructive to your relationship to other people as murder. So please don’t allow yourself to entertain lustful thoughts. Don’t behave in a way that would encourage another person to entertain lustful thoughts.