(Mat 5:27-30 ESV) 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
This passage is found early in Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. And it’s most famous for arguments about what it doesn’t mean. And I agree. Jesus was being a bit hyperbolic: he did not intend that teenage boys blind themselves and cut their hands off as they struggle with lust. Just as was true in Matthew 19, and true to the rabbinic tradition, Jesus exaggerates for effect — but not much.
So what does he really mean? Well, he really means that it would be better to be saved blind and handless than to be lost. Therefore, we should pay whatever price is necessary to be true to God in our chasteness. He really, really means that it’s important for his followers to be chaste because a failure to be chaste is worse than being blind or crippled.
This is entirely consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19, where Jesus uses being a eunuch — castration — as a metaphor for chastity. The point of the metaphor has to be that even if it takes castration to be chaste, be chaste.
He’s not saying that castration is even a serious option, but that chastity is every bit that important (and you ought to have enough self-control to avoid the need for surgical solutions).
Does this sound harsh? Well, only if you believe that chastity is unattainable by mortal man. But not only did Jesus manage it (he lived what he preached), so did 11 of the 12 apostles (according to history, only Peter was married). So have countless other Christians of all ages. We sometimes speak as though human nature has become so degraded that what was achieved by Christians for thousands of years is no longer possible.
I admit that the culture is no longer sympathetic to or encouraging of chastity. That’s undeniably true — compared to the 1950s. But not compared to First Century Greece. In First Century Greece, men were often in societies or guilds that had dinners that concluded with hetairai — high-class prostitutes. Drunkenness and prostitution were not only permitted, but expected in many segments of society.
In First Century Greece, the idea of fidelity to one’s wife simply did not exist for many. Indeed, husbands could not be guilty of adultery except with the wife of another man. Wives were for bearing legitimate children, in marriages often arranged to facilitate politics or business. Few married for love, and husbands felt no obligation to be sexually faithful.
And yet here we have Jesus insisting on chastity in a world where chastity was nearly unheard of.
We have no problem telling our teenagers to be chaste. Nor we mind telling unmarried heterosexual couples to be chaste. We tell our widows and widowers to be chaste. And then some of us argue that chastity is an impossible expectation for homosexual men. If that’s so, then it’s impossible for heterosexual men, as well. And that means it’s just impossible, and Jesus just didn’t understand what it was like to live as a chaste single man.
Given that Jesus was a chaste single man, it’s not an impressive argument.
No, the question can’t be decided based on the supposed unrealistic expectation of chastity. Rather, it turns on God’s will as revealed in scripture.