Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5: 17-32
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out an throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” This is a saying of Jesus that most Christians pass over quickly out of embarrassment. But that’s not my way, for better or worse. I refuse to ignore what makes me uncomfortable. The search for truth compels me to zoom in exactly where the truth seems most cloudy. So I want us to wrestle with this verse today.
And I think it is foolish to ignore such verses, because some people will not ignore them. 15-year-old me did not ignore this verse, when I was just discovering the Bible for myself. I zeroed in on this verse while I was in the hormone-induced throes of discovering sexual desire. We all will recall how at that age we experience changes to our body, but also our personality, that make everything feel out of control. It is so easy to feel powerlessly guilty in adolescence. And here was Jesus, piling it on me. “My goodness, I am committing adultery, and liable to hell fire for it.” Maybe you felt similar at the time. Maybe our youth today are experiencing this now, although knowing them as I do, I suspect that they are healthier and less neurotic than I was at their age.
I cannot ignore this verse, and I cannot affirm it, because it damaged me, abetting me in my own guilt to no good end. So I was impressed with how my friend Peter—also a pastor and very well schooled in biblical studies—dealt with this passage. He first noted that Matthew, the gospel’s writer, seems to be trying to play a game of one-upmanship with the synagogue down the street. You see, by the time the gospel was written, perhaps around 75-80, there was full-blown enmity between the early Jewish followers of Jesus and the Jewish communities that did not believe Jesus was the messiah. So Matthew is trying to show that the Christians are following the law one better than their Jewish cousins. That’s where those sentences from our reading were coming from, and they are found only in Matthew’s gospel: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (the law and prophets)…. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” We’ll show you. So Peter thinks that these passages are more about Matthew’s contemporary rivalries than anything that should concern us.
But my friend Peter also wondered whether Jesus indeed could have said some of these things. We can never be completely sure what of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels actually came from Jesus. Historians often judge that the stranger the saying from Jesus, the more likely he actually said it. And so the saying about tearing your eye out if it causes you to lust is odd; one might conclude Matthew did not put it in there unless he had it on good authority. And while this passage is unique to Matthew, it reminds us of another very strange saying of Jesus from Matthew 19: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” Maybe Jesus really believed that it is better to mutilate yourself rather than commit the sin of lust. I doubt Jesus actually said this, myself; for this saying also is found only in Matthew. Matthew seems to have an issue with lust. But we should be prepared for the possibility that the original Jesus, the historical Jesus from Nazareth, could have had some very strange ideas that we would not want to preserve and follow. Although it makes us uncomfortable, we must remember that we worship the risen Christ, who above all is known in the mystery of the cross. Most of the teachings ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth are wonderful and revelatory, but some of what he thought might have been just human, and weird.
Meanwhile, Peter concluded that we shouldn’t worry about this passage. Christians don’t need to preserve the Jewish law anyway, he believes. He had just preached recently on Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Peter was content that Micah pretty much summed up all the law we need.
Fair enough. Jesus himself could sum up the law very simply: do unto other what you would have them do unto you. Or “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s not too hard to boil the law to something simple. Other Rabbis contemporary to Jesus were doing that too.
But I’m not satisfied with seeing our passage today as just a weird commandment that we can do without. We should at least hesitate before assuming that we can easily judge which of Jesus’ commandments we must listen to and which we can ignore. Indeed, I’m not convinced that giving commandments for his disciples is really what Jesus is up to in this passage. He does tell them to tear out their eye and cut off their hand to avoid sin, but it’s hard to believe Jesus meant this literally. And he does tell them to go reconcile with a brother or sister before you bring your gift to the altar. But otherwise we don’t see him giving commandments in this passage, at least. Instead, he is making his disciples think again about just what imperfection they are still committing even when they follow the letter of the law. “If you are angry with a brother or sister,” even though you don’t kill him or her, “you will liable to judgment.” Or: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust,” even if you never cheat on someone, “has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (I keep wanting to read that while doing my Jimmy Carter imitation, for those who remember that episode.) Or: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.” Jesus could have just said: Thou shall not be angry; thou shall not lust; thou shall not divorce. He could have clearly given commandments like Moses’, but significantly more stringent. But that’s not what he is saying.
Do we really need commandments from Jesus? Are you genuinely in the dark about what actions are good and bad for Christians? I bet you already have a pretty good idea of what a truly Christian character looks like; we have some wonderful examples here in this congregation. We don’t need commandments to have a general sense of Christian virtue. Now sometimes, we genuinely don’t know what to do. There are very difficult questions of how to apply Christian love and justice, especially in the social or political sphere. But commandments from 2000 years ago are unlikely to settle those questions for us. So what is Jesus doing in our passage, if he is not giving us commands to obey, and we don’t really need them anyway? Let’s consider a few possibilities.
The early and medieval church thought that Jesus’ strict words were part of the “counsels of perfection,” intended only to apply to monks and nuns who took on a special path of holiness. But we Protestants no longer recognize a spiritual elite distinct from us amateurs.
Speaking of Protestants, Martin Luther thought these strict commands of Jesus were a kind of exercise in breaking our will. We are supposed to flounder under the demand to never be angry, never lust, and so on, until we realize that we can never be perfect by our own efforts. Then our striving to prove ourselves worthy of God’s love collapses, and we throw ourselves solely on the mercy and grace of God. But I think that Luther’s interpretation of these sayings of Jesus seems unlikely: he’s saying that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said.
I don’t think Luther had it quite right. Like I said, I don’t think Jesus is giving us commands, exactly. Instead of saying, “do not lust,” he is prompting his disciples to consider what our actions look like under the gaze of the burning, absolutely righteous God. This is a dimension of God’s being that is very real, even though we’ve gotten accustomed to thinking of God as a big Softie. God loves us because we’re just so special and wonderful. Well, that dimension of God is real, too. But God’s love cannot stand without affirming the holiness, the justice, the righteousness of God, before whom even our best efforts look suspect and imperfect. And so Jesus is training his disciples to see our actions—even the perfectly permissible ones of being angry, lusting, divorcing—as still morally compromised and sinful.
So let’s think about what we can learn and take away from these strange, uncomfortable sayings. First: Jesus is taking commands and pushing them beyond the way they normally work. He is making commandments weird. Consider how we normally think of commandments in the Bible. We take them to be like a deal God makes with us. I’ll tell you what I expect, says God, and if you do it, I’ll reward you. If you fail, I’ll punish you. That’s exactly what we heard in Deuteronomy, and our open Psalm as well. We are comfortable with seeing God this way. We look for the commandment so we can know exactly what we need to do to get our reward. It’s like when a child during dinner asks how many bites he has to finish to get dessert. We want to make a deal with God, we want to enter into a contract. But the problem with any deal is, the me negotiating the deal is never really challenged or altered. I remain a sovereign negotiator, sitting across the table from God. But God doesn’t want to make a deal with us. Nor does God want us to cower and submit as if before a tyrant. God wants us to be joined in a bond of love. No one comes to love someone else by way of making a deal. Deals will only get you as far as prostitution.
So Jesus is telling us that, if we want to negotiate a deal with God in terms of commandments, if we want to make ourselves equal sovereigns with God—since you can only negotiate with someone if you are on the same level as that person—then we need to realize that God’s demands are absolute. So being angry merits eternal punishment; a casual glance is equivalent to adultery. If we want to negotiate, we’ll find that God doesn’t give us much leeway. Luther might be right: we need to approach God as the one who frees us by grace, not the one who drives a hard bargain. [The commands were never meant to be a way for us to secure our personal relationship with God. They were meant as a path to establish a holy people, and just community. ]
When we are freed from negotiating, freed from trying to establish our own deal with God, we are then ready to turn outward. God wants to direct us to our neighbor, especially the neighbor who is close but whom we have pushed far away, because he’s foreign or not one of us. That was the intent of the original commandments. They weren’t about proving myself worthy, but establishing justice within the community. But why has Christianity so constantly turned inward, as if God only cared about our secret thoughts and desires? Why have we been so obsessed with sexuality? We need to stop naval gazing into the murky realm of our secret desires and start paying more attention to how we treat one another every day, and to how our society treats God’s children. We are well on the way to causing wide spread human and natural calamity because of human effects on climate, and still many Christians sit in their rooms and fret about masturbation. We need to grow up and face the real impact of our actions. Our passage today is just about the only passage where Jesus expresses a concern about personal sexuality. If this passage causes you to stumble, to turn inward in anxiety over meaningless private struggles, then tear it out and throw it away. Better to lose one passage than to forfeit the kingdom that the whole Bible points to.
But if it won’t distract you too much, then take a moment—just a moment—to contemplate with the eyes of God’s burning perfection the nature of lust. What are we doing, when a guy lusts after a girl? “What’s the big deal,” the guyz will say. “I was just looking. Hey, I paid her a compliment, when I cat-called.” Or my favorite: “I don’t hate women; I love women. That’s why I tell people I’ve never met how hot I think they are.” No, you do hate women. You are making them an object of your desire; you are making them into your sport. You are making someone younger and smaller than you feel intimidated, or feel ashamed. You can’t deal with the fact that your vulnerability to desire makes you feel weak and out of control. So you strike back, trying to reduce her to your object. Not only is this lust adultery, it is akin to murder, to making someone an dead object rather than a living human being. God sees this.
And God sees how our entire consumer marketplace, which none of us can escape from, trades on lust. In hocking their products, our industries are constantly stimulating our appetites, training us to see the whole world, and all the human beings in it, as objects of desire. Women are sexualized wantonly by advertisements, of course; and more and more, so are beefcakes. Our consumerist society is cranking up lusts so we will want to buy lots of stuff, and then we’ll work hard to make the money we need to do so. This is the American way. It wouldn’t exist as it does without lust. And none of us is pure and clean.
And then we start to internalize this lustful gaze upon everything, the gaze that our advertisements model for us. We start to value ourselves as possible objects of lust. We feel empowered when we can inspire lust in others. So we obsess about our abs, or our killer stare, or we get all tarted up. (Ok, maybe that doesn’t apply to the seniors among us, but I can’t be certain.) We dehumanize ourselves, reflecting the dehumanization of our lusty system. And then we feel so disdainful to Amish, Muslim, and other cultures when they want nothing to do with all of this, when they resist it all with strict codes of modesty, which they typically make women bear the brunt of. Women bear the brunt one way or the other, it seems.
It’s not such a bad idea to take a minute to recognize all of this. Not that there is a commandment to follow and make it all better. That’s not the point of what Jesus is doing in equating lust with adultery or anger with murder. He is breaking us of the habit of thinking that my salvation is something I can choose and control by resolving to follow the rules. Our little choices to follow this or that command might do some good, or they might just make us feel self-righteous, but they will not bring about the topsy-turvy Kingdom of Heaven that we talked about a few weeks ago—where the meek inherit the earth and the righteous who are persecuted are blessed. We remain totally dependent on God to bring about this Kingdom, and if we are going to experience even a little bit of that Kingdom, we need to depend on each other also, allowing ourselves collectively to become an alternative culture, one where anger and lust begin to be banished, not by repression, but by the overwhelming positive power of human love and mutual regard. And above all, this alternative culture is where God’s grace is respected as our true lifeblood, what saves us from all the sin and disorder that we spend most of the time pretending not to see. Let us consecrate ourselves not to our own personal holiness, but toward living a life together, turned outward toward our neighbor and God’s Kingdom.