Matthew 5:27-30 (New International Version, ©2010)
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. 28But 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.
Love is a glorious thing. It would seem very appropriate to talk about love today, the day before Valentine’s Day. But we will not be talking about love today. We will be talking about lust, sex, adultery, pornography, and strip clubs. What a romantic message!
Some sermons are intended to make you leave on a spiritual high. Some sermons are intended to make you feel good about yourself. Some sermons are intended to get you excited about getting out there and serving the Lord. Today’s is not one of those sermons. Today I have two points I want to get across, and if you leave today with these two points in mind, I will have considered our time together a success. I want us all to take seriously the destructive power of sin and I want us all to take seriously the wonder of God’s grace and mercy.
Like we have seen in previous week’s scripture, what Jesus is doing here is affirming the Old Testament teaching on adultery; he never does away with that law. This was one of the 10 Commandments, and it is a timeless ethical teaching that is just as relevant today as it was 3300 years ago when God gave Moses the 10 Commandments and the rest of the Torah. The point seems to be that we are to take our wedding vows seriously as well as taking other peoples’ wedding vows seriously.
The Bible affirms both marriage and singleness. Marriage is not for everyone. Jesus was single, Paul was single, and Peter was married. Marriage has its beginning early on in the biblical text. Genesis tells us that God created the first woman by taking a rib from the first man and created both man and woman in God’s own image. We know these people as Adam and Eve. God then gave them to each other to be companions and helpers. Jesus affirms this relationship in a text that is often referenced in wedding services when he said in Mark 10:7-9, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
When we become married, we still maintain our individual identity, but yet we also take on a new identity. We take on the identity of a married couple. We share a home, we share pets, we share bills, we share family members. An entirely new identity is formed when we get married. My wife was addressing a card this week to my brother and sister-in-law, whose names are Chad and Sandy. And totally by accident, she addressed the card to “Chandy”. Yes, they are still individuals, but now their lives are united. They are two and one at the same time, forming some kind of binitarian relationship. Adultery takes away from that union by competing with one of the married individuals for that binitarian relationship.
I hope that I don’t need to convince anyone here that adultery is wrong. It destroys marriages, it destroys families, and it destroys lives. I am sure that we can all think of people whose marriages have survived adulterous relationships, but I would assume that most fail. And even those marriages that don’t break up are going to be stressed and the level of trust will not be the same for a long time, if ever.
Jesus, in his infinite wisdom, knew the pain associated with adultery. So in a similar way to how he instructed his hearers to cut off anger before it could fester and progress to the point where it can lead to murder, Jesus is calling his hearers to cut off adultery at its roots so that it cannot progress. He calls his hearers to avoid lust in order to prevent it from moving toward adultery.
When we think of lust we often associate it to a strong sexual desire. But lust is really a strong desire for anything, good or bad. We can lust for a new, shiny car or a tall ice cream cone. We probably wouldn’t use the word lust to refer to our longing for ice cream, but grammatically speaking, it is a correct usage. A friend of mine pointed out this week that the struggle in Egypt over the last couple weeks has really been over a lust for power.
I really would have preferred to talk about lust for power or ice cream today, but in the context of today’s text, we can clearly see that Jesus is referring to sexual lust. In verse 28 he says, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus was speaking of men lusting for women who are not their wives. But just because Jesus is speaking about men looking at women with lust, I think we can assume that this teaching applies to women and to single people as well.
So again, Jesus is saying, cut out lust, and adultery will not be an issue. But he goes a little further in saying that if you do lust, it is practically the same thing as actually committing adultery. Cutting out lust isn’t just an adultery prevention tactic. Cutting out lust is a way to maintain healthy relationships in marriage and outside of marriage.
It seems to me that lusting for another person is becoming more and more acceptable in our culture. As long as we don’t cheat on our spouse or significant other, we let it slide. Strip clubs, internet, print, and video pornography, all seem to be forms of acceptable lusting in our society. I think I am coining a new phrase as I call these things “lust accelerators.” I realize that it is usually the men that partake in these forms of lust accelerators. But while I have never read a romance novel, I am told that they can be so verbally graphic that they lead to lust as well and that romance novels might be the female’s preferred method of lust accelerator.
The problem with these lust accelerators is two-fold from my perspective. One, they turn the people in magazines or on stage into an object. No longer are we looking at Janice, Joyce, or Judy. We are now looking at that hot redhead. The person looking back at you from the magazine or the computer screen is someone’s daughter, and they are children of God, created in his own image. The objectification of women and men is robbing them of their personhood.
The other issue that I have comes right down to our marriage vows and the becoming of one flesh. These lust accelerators can tear a marriage apart in much the same way as adultery.
I had a friend in Seminary that had what he called an addiction to internet porn. He was serving in a church in a leadership role while he studied part-time. And he got caught looking at a website that he shouldn’t have been looking at by his wife. And sure, she was mad at him. But she also became mad at herself. She began asking all sorts of questions like, “Why does he need them? What am I doing wrong? Why doesn’t he love me?”
I respect the decision that this friend made, though I don’t know if it was entirely necessary. I respect his decision to take a year off from Seminary, resign from his job, and work on his family. He began meeting with an accountability partner, set up firewalls on his computer, and made the decision to put his relationship with his wife and with God before this fake relationship he had developed with images on his computer screen. And today he is serving as a pastor, as a husband, and a father.
My friends, there is nothing wrong with pornography and strip clubs if you can look at these people and not lust or view them as an object. But that is the point of pornography and strip clubs, isn’t it? They are intended to make you lust, and Jesus says that is just as bad as committing adultery.
Our society is so caught up in sex that we have gotten to the point where we can’t even appreciate an attractive person without sexualizing them. In college I had a friend jokingly say that he wished he could get a pair of horse blinders to wear as he walked across campus so he wouldn’t have to look at the pretty girls. I believe it is okay to look at a person and appreciate that they are attractive and that doesn’t have to lead to lust.
Part of the problem with the way that we think of lust in the church today comes down to the complicated nature of translating Greek into English. I think that the King James and the NKJV do a better job of translating verse 28 from our text for this morning. “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (NKJV) The phrase “to lust for her” seems to imply that there is something active in the sinfulness of the lusting process.
If you see someone and you appreciate their beauty, that isn’t a sin. If I see an attractive woman walking in the park, it isn’t wrong for me to notice her. It might make my wife jealous, just as it might if she found another man attractive. But the truth is that there are a lot of men who are a lot more attractive than I am in the city of Staunton. For us to appreciate another person’s beauty is one thing. But the problem comes when we move from appreciation to temptation.
If I see an attractive woman in the park, it is not a sin to appreciate her good looks. The problem comes when I try to run into her again. If I start taking mental notes of where I saw her, what day of the week she is there, what time she is there, and so on, that is a problem. When I actively seek to see that person, when I make sure to be wearing something nice when I see them, even if I have no intention of having a relationship with that person, I am lusting for him or her and therefore sinning. I will have moved from an appreciation for her attractiveness to temptation. It is when you make that conscience choice to actively seek someone out that you make the move to sin. It is then when you have committed adultery in your heart.
We, especially men, don’t seem to be able to separate appreciation from sexual impulses. I don’t know if it is something that we learn from other men, if it is the advertising industry, the music industry, or some combination of a number of factors, but men don’t seem to be able to appreciate the beauty of another person without sexualizing it.
Take for instance the way women are free to talk about other women. If women are together watching a movie, reading a magazine, or even just walking through the mall, they can say to one another, “She is beautiful. I wish I had her eyes, her legs, her hair…” Women are even able to say to one another how attractive they believe each other is. Men just don’t do this. When was the last time that you heard a straight man talking about another man like this? I think the closest we come to complimenting another man is when we see a man with a well-developed physique on the football field, we might refer to them as a “beast” or an “animal.” We are unable to appreciate another man without sexualizing things. And I am afraid that it is mainly out of some sort of homophobia. I don’t have any problem with saying that I think Brad Pitt is a beautiful man. I don’t have any problem with saying that I think certain athletes like David Beckham have amazing physiques. And what I wouldn’t do for the hair of Troy Polamalu! We need to learn how to appreciate another person’s looks without sexualizing and lusting for them.
I think that we can better understand lust by looking at one of the most famous passages in the Bible: the story of David and Bathsheba. This is probably one of the two most famous passages in the Bible about David. People know this one and they know the story about David and Goliath. It is easy to understand why people like the story of David and Goliath: the underdog defeats the giant! We like our heroes. We need people to look up to, to strive to be like, to emulate. So when I hear the story of David and Bathsheba, I can’t help to think that this story strengthens my belief that the Bible is inspired by God and not simply the work of men. Jewish men wouldn’t include a story of the failure of one of their greatest heroes in the Bible. And this is a catastrophic failure.
This story is found in 2 Samuel 11. King David is walking around on the roof of his palace in the evening. And this isn’t as weird as it might sound to us. The roof of a home in those days was made flat and was like another floor to the home. Often times a person would sleep on the roof during the hot months because it would be cooler, and it is possible that David was walking around on the roof as he was preparing for bed.
As David was walking around, he happens to look down and see a beautiful woman bathing on the roof of a home below the palace. Now David could have seen her and been like “Oopps, I didn’t mean to see you there. Sorry about that.” And I don’t think that would have been a sin on his part. He was attracted to her, but the sin came when he began to pursue her; when he acted on that impulse. He found out who she was, Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. And he sent for her, slept with her, and she became pregnant. If he would have cut off things when he saw her, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But he allowed his lust to control him.
So when David finds out that Bathsheba is pregnant, he sends for Uriah, who is fighting in a battle with the Ammonites. David asks Uriah how the war is going and then says, “Go home and spend some time with your wife.” Wink, wink, right? But Uriah doesn’t feel right going home while the rest of the men are out in battle. So he spends the night with the troops that are protecting the king’s castle.
David finds out that Uriah didn’t go home to his wife so he tries another plan. He tries to get Uriah drunk first and then send him home. But again, Uriah refuses to enjoy the comfort of home while the other soldiers are out in battle. One commentator said that Uriah drunk is more noble than David is sober.
So finally David decides to have Uriah moved to the front of the battle field, making sure that he would die in battle. And that is exactly what happens, allowing David to marry the widow Bathsheba.
People have said some interesting things about this story which I think we should consider now. It has been questioned why Bathsheba would have been bathing on her roof when she knew that there were other houses around hers which were taller and would provide a vantage point to see her in all of her nakedness. The question that is asked is “Was she trying to get King David to notice her and take her for his wife? Did Bathsheba seduce David?” Bathsheba was a bit of a tricky lady, we find that out later in the text. But the Bible never puts any of the blame for David’s act of lust and adultery on Bathsheba.
Others have wondered why Uriah refused to go home to his wife after spending all of this time away from her in battle. Maybe that marriage was in shambles anyway and it was only a matter of time before it fell apart on its own. But again, the Bible doesn’t put any blame on Uriah or on their bad marriage. The Bible is pretty straight forward is placing all of the blame for David’s shortcoming solely on the shoulders of David himself.
We cannot blame our lust or adultery, if it gets to that point, on any external factors. We can’t blame lust on our society which uses sex to sell us everything from cars to corduroys. And we can’t blame other people’s bad marriages for pushing them into our lives and into our beds. We are responsible for our actions and we are called to avoid situations that will lead us to lust. Because anyone that looks at a woman to lust for her is committing adultery with her in his heart.
The last thing that I want to lift out of the story of David and Bathsheba is what I believe to be the pinnacle of the entire story. The prophet Nathan comes to David and he shares a story with David about a man who had one single sheep and he loved it dearly. But another man came and took this man’s single lamb and added it to his large herd of lambs.
David replies in outrage, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.” And Nathan’s response is so powerful when he says, “You are the man.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we all need our Nathans. We need someone in our lives that will tell us when we are making mistakes, when we are ruining our relationship with God and with others. We need accountability partners that will tell it to us how it is, and then, like Nathan, help us in our reconciliation with God and with others.
That is the good news in this. As soon as Nathan gets done confronting David of his sin, David repents. He says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And immediately Nathan says “The Lord has put away your sin.”
We need to take sin seriously. It destroys our relationship with God, and it destroys our relationship with others. But God provides grace and forgiveness.
(Thanks to Bruxy Cavey from The Meeting House for giving shape to this message without even knowing it. Listen to his message at http://themeetinghouse.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=121&Itemid=3 Kings Gone Wild from Aug 1, 2010.)