For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On October 18 we considered the words of the sermon as found in Matthew 5:27-30, while also reading Paul’s words to his friends in I Thessalonians 4:1-8.
There were two things that happened on Monday of this week that would have caused my sixteen-year-old self great alarm.
I speak with 100% certainty that I am not the only man in this room for whom Playboy and its companion publications fueled a fascination, if not a preoccupation, with certain aspects of the female anatomy – a fascination which, I am sure, left some scars and welts on my psyche… Which leads me to the second thing that arrested me on Monday:
I discovered that if I was going to be faithful to my commitment to walk through the Sermon on the Mount this year, I had to stand in front of a room full of people and talk about Matthew 5:27-30. Now, let’s be honest – there are a lot of things in the bible that are not necessarily favorites of 16 year-old-boys, but this is the passage that did the most to scare the bejabbers out of me in the 1970’s.
This passage scared me because it made me think that Jesus wasn’t only down on the occasional pornographic magazine that I was able to acquire, but that it was (from my perspective) a lot worse than that. Just as he did with murder and anger in verses 21 – 26, Jesus seems to be upping the ante here – quite a bit. And my sixteen year old self would stare at that copy of Playboy I’d stashed away, consider all the beauty with which I was surrounded, and then read this passage and think, “Well, looks like I’ll be spending eternity in a warm place, because I am just done. There is no hope for me.”
Let’s take a look.
The common prohibition was simple. “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. The seventh commandment. If it was good enough for Moses, it was good enough for the Pharisees, they thought, and so the traditional interpretation went something like this: “As long as you don’t have sexual relations with a person to whom you’re not married, you’re pretty much in the clear.”
That’s a good rule of thumb, no doubt. It’s convenient, straight-line thinking: Your spouse: a good idea. Anyone else’s spouse: a bad idea. That’s a narrow definition, but it’s pretty clear. And, frankly, that’s a rule that an unmarried 16 year-old boy can live with. No spouse, no problem.
And then Jesus says, “Yeah, but that’s not exactly the point. It’s not deep enough. I’m not saying that Moses was wrong – I’m saying that there’s more to it than this simple, straight-line, yes/no answer stuff. Your sexuality is more intricate and involved than that.”
Oh, for crying out loud, Jesus, why do you have to make everything so difficult??? Come on, do you really mean that if I happen to notice that pretty girl over there, and then spend fifteen or twenty seconds contemplating that beauty, and if perchance I start to daydream a little bit, that I’m headed for hell? Wow. How do I avoid that, Jesus? I’m toast.
If we read the Sermon on the Mount in this way, one that presents Jesus as teaching an impossible ideal, then we have to say that Jesus’ intent was not to change us, but to shame us. I mean, who can refuse to see beauty? Who has not at some point or another looked at someone and felt a spark of attraction – as fleeting or as long as it might be – and then moved on with their day? If we presume that Jesus’ goal here was to tell us that anyone who ever entertained a lustful thought was no different than a serial adulterer, then what’s the point? Nobody can measure up.
Yet shame is, it seems to me, the antithesis of what Jesus was about. So what is he getting at in this teaching about the look, the heart, and the other?
First, let’s make sure that we are understanding the actual text correctly. The sense of the Greek that Matthew uses is actually this: “Anyone who looks at a woman for the purpose of lust has already committed adultery in his heart.” While that is not a free pass to anyone, it does differentiate the casual noticing of the attractive person you bump into in the produce aisle from the full-blown leering that sidetracks you for moments or hours…
Jesus condemns a pattern of behavior that begins with the noticing of beauty or an attraction but then escalates into a fantasy wherein we imagine ourselves with this other person in all sorts of ways that are essentially divorced from the personhood of the other. The lust that Jesus condemns is a type of “relationship” wherein all I care about is what feels good to me, what gratifies me, or what would make me feel strong, desirable, powerful, young, attractive, or sexy. Lust, and the behavior that Jesus condemns in the Sermon, is all about me.
In this teaching, Jesus affirms the Old Testament intent to place sexual activity within a covenantal perspective. We are made in the image of God, and we are created for community, for lives that are integrated in terms of body, mind, and spirit, and we are shaped to live in covenant relationship with other people.
The problem with both lust and adultery is that they focus on the self, and on using another human being for the purposes of making the self feel better. So much of what we think of as sexual sin is rooted in the ways that we commodify other people and we treat those who are made in the image of God as things or tools that can give me fleeting pleasure. And so “making love” becomes “having sex” becomes “doing it.” This outlook reduces another child of God to serving as a functionary tool for my own self-pleasure or self-medication.
Jesus points to the truth that relationships – and particularly the marriage relationship – are intended to be a blessing not only to those who are directly involved (that is, the couple themselves), but to the greater community – any children the marriage might produce as well as neighbors and the more-vulnerable in our world. The traditional understanding of the marriage vow in both Jesus’ world and in ours is that two people are brought together to share intimately in order that we might become stronger, healthier people in order that we are better able to fulfill our baptismal vows and be of service to Christ and the world for which he died. Adultery and lust certainly diminish our ability to live into those kinds of relationships – and so we need some ways to get past adultery and lust and towards God’s best for us.
And just as he did with anger and violence, Jesus offers here a way to transform the situation – a practice, or a set of practices, that will allow us to move past that which will diminish the power of God’s image in us and into a place from which we can more easily dwell in God’s will.
Here’s the practice: If you eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
Ooooooh, Jesus, that is harsh. Not to mention gross.
Is Jesus seriously advocating self-mutilation as a path to discipleship? At first glance, it would appear to be the case. And throughout history, several well-known spiritual leaders have followed that path. Perhaps the most notable was Origen, a man who was an influential theologian about two hundred years after Jesus. He was so concerned about being pure in the Lord’s eyes that he allegedly castrated himself so as to make it easier to follow Christ. Yet history, and the church, have repudiated this strategy. Dallas Willard was a Professor in the Philosophy department at USC, and he wrote
Of course being acceptable to God is so important that, if cutting bodily parts off could achieve it, one would be wise to cut them off… But so far from suggesting that any advantage before God could actually be gained in this way, Jesus’ teaching in this passage is exactly the opposite. The mutilated stump could still have a wicked heart. The deeper question always concerns who you are, not what you did, do, or can do. What would you do if you could? Eliminating bodily parts will not change that.
The Sermon on the Mount invites us to consider this question: how can we grow into people who are shaped by a desire not to own, grab, possess, control another person, but rather the desire instead to be attentive to another child of God who is actually present with us in all of his or her beauty, woundedness, attraction and scars? How do we participate in life and relationships that are covenant-affirming and full of integrity?
It does make sense, thank you very much Jesus, to pay attention where we direct our eyes. We live in a sexually-charged culture. The reason that Playboy is not publishing nudity any more is because it’s irrelevant. Naked bodies are everywhere – and no longer shocking. Pornography is ever-present in our society, and it is affecting the ways that we think about relationships, sexuality, and each other. One way that we can train ourselves to be those who desire God’s best for our lives is to choose to disassociate from those images that push us towards seeing someone else as an object created for my personal use or gratification. Are you offended when Jesus says, “If you eye causes you to sin, cut it out”? What about when Pastor Dave says, “If your iPad causes you to sin, unplug it”?
We have to be careful, however, that we don’t become so narrow and restrictive in our definition of “sin” that we wind up as prisoners of fear. We train ourselves to be able to participate in relationships that are not characterized by manipulation, selfishness, or permissiveness. I have a colleague, for instance, who is so concerned about the impact of lust or sexual brokenness in this world that he categorically refuses to be alone with a woman (other than his wife) anywhere, any time. He won’t drive alone with another woman, he won’t meet her in a public place – he simply refuses to be with women. That model seems very faulty to me, as it appears to be rooted in the expectation that proximity to a potentially attractive person will lead to lust and that will lead to sin. Yes, he is not in a position to sin in that way; however, the result is the same: his world is characterized by alienation and a loss of community.
On the other hand, I have another friend for whom sexuality appears to be a purely physical exercise. There is nothing spiritual about his gymnastics with other people. He would say that it’s just an expression of his physical being, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with his spirit. In holding to this belief, I fear, he has diluted the Creator’s intent that we see ourselves and each other as essential unities of body, mind, and spirit.
Maturity in Christ is learning to engage for and with the other. Those who are formed as Christ’s disciples are people who neither hide from other people nor seek to manipulate them. Instead, the faithful follower of Jesus will be able to engage other people. Isn’t this what the Apostle Paul is getting to in Thessalonians? We are to avoid exploiting or misusing another person, and we seek instead to honor and serve them.
Is there beauty? Then give thanks to God for the existence of that beauty. And present yourself, as a servant of God, to all those who cross your path as one who is motivated by the opportunity to move more deeply into community, service, and love. In some ways, that’s a lot scarier to the 55 year-old me than Matthew 5 was to 16 year-old me. But it’s not scary because it’s a threat: it’s scary because it’s a huge and wonder-filled invitation, and I am wondering whether I am worthy to follow Jesus like that into a world that is not filled with narrow interpretations, but rather faithful, covenant-affirming, life-giving interactions with each person I meet.
The Pharisees wanted easy answers and straight-line thinking.
Jesus, however, seems intent on challenging them – and me – to negotiate nuance, to be aware of the power of both sin and hope, and to keep my eyes fixed firmly on him. In my experience, that can be messy sometimes – because I don’t always get it right. But I think it’s the invitation we’ve received in the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll be a better Christian if you hold me to that – like I’m trying to do for you.
 The Divine Conspiracy (Harper and Row, 1998, p. 167), italics original.