Monday, November 21, 2016

Adultery: The Seventh Commandment

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." (Matthew 5:27-30)
What Jesus taught about murder in Matthew 5:21–26, He now teaches in a directly parallel way about adultery, in Matthew 5:27–30. He defines it first, teaching that lust or any other impure sexual thoughts are the equivalent of adultery, just as anger or scornful talk is the equivalent of murder. Then he teaches what can be done about it, saying that whatever causes a person trouble in this area should be dealt with radically.

Is adultery wrong? Yes, that is what Jesus teaches. Is sex outside of marriage wrong? Yes, that is clear too. But Jesus is not just picking on people who have fallen into open sexual sins, as so many in our day have. He is probing deeper into the meaning of this commandment, and what he is saying is that the root of the problem is in the impure desires of the heart. It is there, in the heart, that something is radically wrong.

I recall the section of Mere Christianity in which the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis is discussing ethics and comes to the Bible’s teaching about sex. He says that the appetite is in ludicrous excess of its function. Then he illustrates.
You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate onto the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?
The common argument against this idea is that sex is a problem but that it has become so only because it has been hushed up, as the Victorians are supposed to have done. But that was a century ago. In our day sex and sex-related matters are not hushed up. Nor have they been hushed up for decades. They are discussed without end in magazines and on radio and television, not to mention their treatment in movies. Yet we have more outright perversions, more adultery, more divorce, more illegitimacy, and more downright misery and confusion in this area than at any time in our history. Hushed up? As Lewis says, it is probably the other way around. People hushed up sex originally because it had become such a cesspool, and it may happen again as our present promiscuous age gives rise to a new Victorian temperament.

In the meantime, what should be done? I suppose Jesus was thinking of people living in an age such as ours when he prescribed the radical treatment described in verses 29 and 30. As many people know, these verses led the early church father Origen to obey them literally by having himself castrated. This is not what Jesus is teaching here since he explains himself in Matthew 18:7–9, where hands and eyes stand for “things that cause people to sin” (v. 7). 

So the meaning is this: Get rid of whatever is tempting you to sin. Suggestive movies, especially the kind you can watch privately? Pornography? Even the daily talk shows that wallow in sexual dirt almost endlessly? Yes, indeed. All of the above. Get rid of the poison. Shut the shows off. Protect your mind from such defilement. Doubt me on this? You'd be surprised how several people have shared with me that the series Game of Thrones incites their lust for pornography. I always reply to them, "You know why, don't you? Because Game of Thrones is pornography." They never seem to believe it though.

Of course, in the final analysis, the answer to the problem is not merely to escape the temptation, especially today when it is nearly impossible to avoid all perverse sexual stimulation by our culture. The real answer is a biblical understanding of marriage and of joyful sexual experience within it. But that is something developed elsewhere in the New Testament and for another post.