Friday 26 March 2010

Looking to Lust (Matthew 5:27-28)

You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.'
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Matthew 5:27-28

1. Sin of sight

Most preachers will apply these verses as Jesus' warning against pornography. Rightly so. Adultery is an offence to God - not simply the act but even the mere thought of the act of adultery is in view. Jesus says that anyone who looks lustfully has already broken the 7th Commandment (Deuteronomy 5:18) in his heart. Pornography combines the two elements of passion (here the NIV translates the Greek epithumeo as "lust", elsewhere words like "desire" and "longing" are used; or even "coveting" - which lead some commentators to conclude that the 10th Commandment is also in view) and sight - effectively drawing the same penalty for the sin of adultery according to Jesus. The ensuing verses advocate extreme measures to remove temptations to this sin. "If your right eye causes you to sin, 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." (verse 29). Notice the re-emphasis on sight. Many a suggested application include severing that broadband internet line or cancelling a cable TV subscription.

2. Adultery and idolatry

Yet Jesus' words on lust have both a sharper focus and a broader application than this, and it is worth thinking about the example Jesus himself has given us before supplying our own. Jesus addresses adultery - marital unfaithfulness. The "woman" in verse 28 could very well be translated (another man's) "wife". It is worth noting that the very next issue Jesus deals with is divorce, the severing of the marriage partnership - so serious a matter in God's eyes it is only permissible on the grounds of sexual misconduct (verses 31 to 32).

At least that is what Jesus starts with in verse 27. God explicitly and repeatedly warns the Israelites not to break their marriage covenant - through the commandments given to Moses - and in various other passages in the Old Testament. Adultery, or the breaking of the marriage covenant becomes a picture of the Israelites unfaithfulness to a faithful God.

Another thing you do: You flood the LORD's altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, "Why?" It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.
Malachi 2:13-14

Judah has broken faith. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the LORD loves, by marrying the daughter of a foreign god.
Malachi 2:11

3. Looking to lust

But Jesus does not end with adulterers; his words are directed towards all his hearers - he is speaking to us. "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully". My study bible is careful to outline that this means lustful intent. The Greek (pros to epithymesai auten) literally means "for the purposes of lusting for her". And this is important as it distinguishes malicious action from natural reaction. What is in view is not sexual arousal or attraction - These are pleasures given us by God as part of our physical senses.

Jesus is speaking to the person who looks in order to lust. It is the series of actions taken for the very purpose of pursuing this pleasure - the lingering look and the feeding of the fantasy. Again, pornography fits the profile as a very relevant application for our culture - its prevalence driven by the convenience afforded by the Internet.

However, there is possibly an even sharper interpretation of verse 28 - which could well be translated as "looking in order to get her to lust" (the verb 'epithymesai'-lust modifying 'auten'-her). The action of "looking" is still loaded with the intent - but it is carried out with the sole motivation of arousing a sexual response within the other person. In a word, it's flirting. It is casually chatting up the girl at the bar. It is dressing provocatively. It is toying with a girl's emotions or getting a guy's attention. It is looking in order to get the other person to lust.

Here is a seriousness in appropriately relating with members of the opposite sex. When speaking of divorce, actual physical sexual misconduct would be the only permissible (even so, not necessarily prescriptive) grounds of separation. And yet here Jesus deals at the level of intent - simply causing arousal. Not just within oneself, but externally and intentionally drawn from the other person. It is irresponsible. And it is foolishness. Moreover the real danger according to Jesus - is that it is damnable (Hell is mentioned twice in the ensuing verses 29 to 30)! The question is why?

4. Relationships, not rules

If your right eye causes you to sin, 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.

And if your right hand causes you to sin, 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.
Matthew 5:29-30 (Compare this to Matthew 18:6-9)

I have already alluded to the various interpretations applying these verses to situations involving pornography and sexual temptation. Many are looking for practical steps, and these words provide the motivation to translate thought to action. Yet, I would argue that this isn't enough. In fact, I think this is far from what Jesus is saying. You can't scare someone out of sin. Neither is Jesus giving us a step-by-step guide to avoid the temptation to sin.

Adultery is one of six real-life examples Jesus uses to illustrate not merely the breaking of regulations from God, but our fallen relationship with God; in turn, mirrored by our broken relationships with one another. In each instance, he starts with a religious rule only to end with an examples of personal relationships - between two brothers (verses 21-26), between members of the opposite sex (verses 27-30), between a husband and his wife (verses 31-32), between a victim and his oppressor (verses 38-42) and ultimately between man and God (verse 48).

So much so, that when Jesus speaks about hell and judgement, he paints it as the response to a relational offence.

Anger: But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement. (5:22)
Murder: But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (5:28)

The Old Testament King David, who was guilty of both adultery and murder, wrote these words of repentance in Psalm 51:
Against you, you only, have I sinned. (Psalm 51:4)

Meaning: all offences are relational - and all sin is ultimately against God. Until we see this, we will not have truly repented. Until we know this, we will never have the power to deal with temptation to sin; nor be able to face the devastating effects of living in a sinful world.

Jesus draws the line from our struggles with sin - anger, pride, lust, hate - connecting the dots right up to God's righteous judgement over our sin - hell, fire (5:22). On the surface, Jesus is starting to sound like another one of the religious teachers - framing his arguments in categories of and terms like "holiness", "perfection" and "righteousness" - the language of the law; the language of rules given by God and revealed to Moses. But just before you recoil in fear or disgust - just look again at how he defines these terms.

According to Jesus - love for our enemies becomes the true measure of godly perfection (verse 44), forgiveness and reconciliation take precedence before worship (verse 24); and patient suffering becomes a righteous response to personal injustice (verses 38-42).

Jesus helps us to recognise sin as sinful. He opens our eyes to God's righteous judgement over our sinfulness. But he does all this so that we can can fully appreciate God's final response to our sinful condition - love, forgiveness and reconciliation through the cross. God's last word on sin is not simply judgement but Jesus.

6. Reconciliation and restoration

On the cross, Jesus bore the full weight of God's punishment on our sin. He did this to fulfil all the requirements of the law (Matthew 5:17). The cross is the supreme declaration of God's righteousness - judgement for the sins of the entire world is poured out full strength on this one man. It is the most glorious display of God's mercy and love - the Son is sacrificed for us while we were powerless and undeserving (Rom 5:8-9).

But more than just declaring the righteousness of God or displaying the love of the Father, the cross does one more thing. It draws us to Jesus.

Meaning: Christians are empowered in their struggle against sin, but are also eager to live out their lives in Christ. This is why Paul can say: (God) condemned sin in (the flesh), in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:3b-4). The law is fulfilled in Jesus on the cross; the law is fulfilled in those who live for Jesus (according to the Spirit) and no longer according to sinful desires.

For the Christian struggling in sin the cross means we are not simply emptied of our desires and freed from guilt, but filled. Filled with renewed zeal to seek God's holiness; filled with thankfulness in response to his love shown us through Jesus; filled with the righteousness that comes from trusting in Jesus' death on the cross; and filled with the Holy Spirit who helps us at our time of need and prayer.

When engaging with sexual sin in particular - the bible doesn't just expose its shame, the devastation caused to marriages, the impairment of self-image and human dignity, the hardening of conscience or the deepening of addition. But the bible shows us how we are desperately seeking to fill our need for approval and love from some place or person other than God. The gospel - the good news of forgiveness through the cross - points us to a deeper joy and fuller life only Jesus can give. By emptying himself on the cross, he fills us with his righteousness. By taking our shame, he frees us to come into the full acceptance of his Father in Heaven.

Paraphrasing Romans 8:3-4 again: The righteous requirements of the law are fully filled in Jesus at this death so that Jesus might fully fill us with his love in our lives.

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