Reflections on the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:27-30

“You heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.”  But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman for the purpose of desiring her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  So if your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away from you. For it is better for you to lose one of your parts than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away from you. For it is better for you to lose one of your parts than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

Matthew 5:27-30

Maybe you have never seen these verses translated in this way, especially v. 28.  Dallas Willard was the first person that I encountered who suggested this way of rendering them.  He is not a Greek expert, but his reasoning comports with an accurate understanding of Greek grammar.  And it holds out important possibilities for revolutionizing how we conduct ourselves in this super-sexualized society.

You see, Jesus is not saying that lust and adultery are the same thing.  He may not even be saying that lustful looking produces adultery in the human heart.  Rather, he may be saying something even more profound. He may be asking us to consider how exactly it is that we think about one another.  Do we view the women in our lives and on our screens as tools that we can use to cultivate sexual desire, or do we see them as fully human creatures embedded within a complex system of social relationships?

Where the Blame Really Lies

Feminine beauty is under attack in America—both from the Christian right and the secular left.  Christian conservatives view it as an invitation to sexual sin. Secular liberals view it as a social construct that oppresses those who do not possess it.

In both instances, the critics of feminine beauty deny the intrinsically corporeal nature of God’s creation and fail to recognize how feminine beauty makes manifest the glory of God.  We deny its value at our own peril. But that does not mean that we always interpret or appropriate feminine beauty correctly.

Some women use their attractiveness to stoke illicit desire.  They make money off of the longings that they inspire in men, and they gain power by pitting desire-crazed men against one another.  This is an egregious misuse of a precious gift. But it is not the transgression that Jesus takes on here.

Instead, Jesus points his finger directly at us men—the ones whose social power drives the sexual discourse in almost any culture.  I am convinced that Jesus does not here criticize us for things that we cannot help. Rather, he demands that we take a hard look at ourselves, and he gives us a sneak preview of what we will find.

Uncomfortable Presuppositions Produce Uncomfortable Conclusions

Jesus presents us with a scenario that was nearly ubiquitous in his day.  Notice that Jesus uses the term “adultery” rather than the term “sexual immorality.”  The underlying assumption is that any woman a man encounters is spoken for in one way or another.  Indeed, she is defined by her attachment to a father, a husband, and/or a fiancee.

Feminists rightly lament this reduction of a woman’s identity to her male associations, but Jesus’ presupposition is more apropos to our modern setting than we might expect or want to believe.  Just recently, there was a Christianity Today article about divorce in which the author (a woman who has helped other women faced with the loss of a marriage) talked about the identity-defining significance of marriage.  

Whether one lives in an individualistic society like ours or a communitarian society like that of the Greco-Roman world, a person’s identity has at least some of its roots in the associations that he or she has with other people, institutions, and social structures.  When we cultivate desire for someone, especially when we know that the person is already embedded in a significant romantic relationship, we are violating the integrity of that bond. And, in so doing, we are violating the integrity of that individual’s identity.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

And like anything else in our lives, our actions in this area can have unintended consequences.  Cultivating desire for someone that we know we cannot have (either because they are already in a romantic relationship or because they would never consider participating in a relationship with us) does damage to the very core of our being.  

Notice where Jesus says that the “adultery” takes place.  It doesn’t happen in our “mind” (the seat of our intellect), our “bowls” (the seat of our emotions), or in our genitals.  It happens in our “heart”—the place where our will is located and the crossroads between the various aspects of our being.  In other words, we are allowing an act of supreme unfaithfulness to work its way into the executive control center (to use a term popular among some contemporary psychologists) of our lives.

Can such a transgression have anything less than dire consequences?  Even if we are successful in not actually developing a sexual relationship with someone other than our own spouse, we are constantly reinforcing in our own minds that she is not enough for us.  We are communicating more loudly than any words could say that she is not what we want, or at least that we want more than just her.

Obviously, that does a lot of damage to the woman that we are supposed to be loving.  It also does damage to our relationship with God. After all, we are saying that what God has provided to us is not enough for us.  But it also does damage to our soul. Rather than filling our hearts with love for God and love for others (Matthew 22:37-40), we are filling our heart with the poison of sin, self-indulgence, and (usually) unrequited love.  It is a recipe for spiritual decay and emotional dysfunction.

A Call to Radical Action

If cultivating desire for women that we do not know and cannot have violates their identity, denigrates the women that God has placed in our lives, and destroys our own souls, then it is no wonder that Jesus calls for such radical action.  If blindness is the price that I have to pay in order to find wholeness in myself, in my relationship with my wife, and in my dealings with other women, I ought to be willing to pay that price.

Look, I get it.  I am a sucker for a beautiful woman.  But it wasn’t just my wife’s identity that was changed when we got married.  It was mine, too. And it wasn’t just my marriage that changed who I am. It was also my baptism.  Contrary to what our culture screams at us all day every day, we are not our own.  We are defined by our relationship with Christ, by our relationship with our spouses, and by our relationship with the human race.  Those relationships give us a healthy and stable sense of self, but they also place upon us the obligations of faithfulness and justice.  Whether it is an actress in a movie or a woman in my church, I owe it to her, to my wife, to Christ, and to myself not to live a life of unholy and unfulfilled desire.

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation.  Share your thoughts about the dangers of desire, and how to avoid them, in the “Comments” section below.

Published: Aug 7, 2018


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