The following is taken from a sermon series preached at The Southeast Project. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page at www.wearesoutheast.org
Every one of us is passionate about something. We are passionate about our jobs. We are passionate about working out. We are passionate about food. We are passionate about having the best looking yard in the neighborhood. This list could go on forever because we are all passionate about something.
But what I know to be true is that all of these passion comes from the most basic desires of our hearts. We desire safety, respect, admiration, responsibility, and purpose and all of those desires get funneled into the things we do, the people we hang out with, and the focus of our money, our time, and our hearts.
I believe all of these desires come from God. I think they are part of what makes us human. But there is a tension in these desires. Because while they come from God they can become distorted, obsessed over, and abused. The reason for this is because the tension with these desires is true of all of them: our desires are never fully satisfied.
At first that sounds like a really bad thing but this tension is a good tension when we focus the desire on the right things. When rightly focused these desires that are never fully satisfied lead us into deeper relationship with God and into deeper relationship with each other.
But when these desires are pointed in the wrong direction the balance tips and the gifts become burdens that you no longer own, but now the desires own you. And all of us have been there. All of us have found ourselves owned by our desires. And what was meant to drive us closer to God and others ends up driving a wedge between the people we love and the God we serve. And the further we walk down the road of satisfying that desire the bigger the chasm seems to grow to the point that we end up feeling more distant, more isolated, and more alone than ever before.
Now there are some desires that are so strong, so to central to all of us, and so much a part of what it means to be human, that Jesus couldn’t ignore them. So as he stands before this incredibly diverse crowd of people teaching them about what it means to truly be human, he leans in and Jesus begins to talk to them about the desires of love, intimacy, and sex.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Now, I’m convinced that all of the teaching of Jesus was meant to bring life. Matthew 5:27-30 doesn’t seem to focus much on giving life at all. What it appears to do is condemn a small group of people, throw even more people in that bucket, and cause all of us to feel like we will never be able to be good enough. Let’s be honest, that’s how most of us feel about the relationship between God and sex.
If you grew up in church, you might have grown up with silence about sex or shame about sex. If you didn’t grow up in church you might see the church as repressing sex or claiming a moral high ground that it doesn’t really seem to have anymore. And, you’re probably correct. The church hasn’t done real well in talking honestly about sex.
But maybe you grew up with parents who talked about sex and gave you the gift of a positive understanding of it. Or, on the other hand, maybe your most basic understandings about sex came from friends, college, and mistakes you wish you had never made. No matter you got here, let’s lean into this passage and see what Jesus is trying to teach us.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
So just like last week, Jesus begins with one of the ten commandments. And, at first glance, it doesn’t seem that there is a lot to discuss. This is about adultery. But I want us to understand what it meant in Jesus’s day because it helps us understand why Jesus said what he said and what that has to do with today.
So, you have the Ten Commandments and then you have all this discussion and all this teaching that goes along with it. The Pharisees, teachers of the law, and rabbis like Jesus interpreted the law and helped people understand how to keep it. Somewhere along the way adultery becomes very specific about a married woman and a married man that leads to all these crazy loop holes. Adultery ends up looking less like sexual sin and becomes more and more about property rights.
Property right? Yep, property right. Let me explain.
In the ancient world a woman was owned first by her father and than by her husband. Arranged marriages included dowries that made sure a father got what his daughter was “worth.” So when a man had sex with the wife of another man the violation was of the other man and his property.
Now I get that this sounds crazy and it’s repulsive to us today because women are supposed to be valued, not owned. They are to be loved, not used. Women are daughters of God, not cattle to be sold. This is why what Jesus says next is so powerful. It’s so revolutionary and countercultural. But so easy to miss.
28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Did you catch it? Did you see what Jesus just did? I totally get if you didn’t see it because it’s so easy for us to miss. But for the first century audience, Jesus just dropped a bombshell.
If we go back into the scriptures we find all of these explanations of the law and all these additions to it. People wrote about it, experts discussed it, and Rabbis interpreted it. So when Jesus said, “You’ve heart it said you shall not commit adultery” there were all these other things would have come to mind for the first century audience that was listening to Jesus. We find one of these passages in Leviticus 20:10.
If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.
And this makes sense to what we talked about earlier. This is about property. This is about who owned who. The punishment seems extreme but the crime is clear. It’s about a man stealing from another man.
But when Jesus talks about adultery in Matthew 5:28 he doesn’t say “another man’s wife.” That would have been expected. That was the way Leviticus 20:10 was interpreted. But Jesus is going beyond the way things had been understood in the past and the way things had been interpreted before. Jesus once again moved away from the objective law, raised the bar, and forced his listeners to look deep inside their hearts.
So instead of saying “another man’s wife,” Jesus simply says “a woman.” And this is huge because what Jesus is saying is that this is no longer about what it does to another man when adultery physically takes place but what it does to a woman even when it doesn’t. The object of lust is actually a she. And she is a daughter of a king, made in the image of our Heavenly Father. A leering eye is a violation, it’s degrading, and it’s dehumanizing.
But lust doesn’t just dehumanize the other person. It also dehumanizes you. That reality leads Jesus to say this:
29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
I’ve talked about before how the word for Hell is the word Gehenna, which is a valley south of Jerusalem. This valley was like an incinerator full of burning trash. So, while Jesus is concerned about your eternal fate, that doesn’t seem to be what he’s talking about here.
In this incredible use of metaphor and hyperbole, Jesus is telling us lust tears at us and rips us apart until there is nothing left but a life that is consumed and controlled by desire. And if we continue to go down that path our life will end up in a living hell. And that is not how God created us to live.
It’s so powerful how Jesus simply stops here. I wish there was another verse where this could end on some kind of positive note. But there isn’t. I think the reason Jesus stops with the word hell is because he is telling us that lust and adultery are so damaging and so ugly that the only word you can end with on this path is hell.
So is there any good news?
The good news is this. The brain is wired for sex. It’s the way that God created us.
Science has taught us that the spiritual beauty is mirrored by physiological truth.
All that’s good about sex releases a cocktail of chemicals to our brains that that tells us that the person we are with is ours. But the danger is that this bond is created every time a human has any kind of sexual experience. Feelings of guilt and dirtiness are your brain saying I’m confused. Hearts are wired to brains and brains are wired to hearts.
God has created desire and sex for marriage because in that bond commitment can flourish when desire is given to that one person. And that desire is created to never be fulfilled which doesn’t make married sex boring, it makes it perfect. The way it was meant to be.
Now, I’ll be honest with you that that may be the most churchy thing I’ve ever said because, let’s be realistic, nobody’s life looks like the way it was “meant to be.” We are all walking around with guilt, shame, and grief which is why “a woman” isn’t the only bombshell word in this passage. Another powerful word that Jesus said in this passage was “ANYONE”. It means that none of us are on this road alone. And to that end we are told this:
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
No matter where your story is found in what you’ve heard today, know this:
You are a child of God and through Jesus you are valued, forgiven, and made new.