(Mat 5:27-30 ESV) “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.”
We all know that this passage was written to terrify teenage boys into abstinence … except that it speaks of adultery rather than fornication. Jesus was actually speaking to the married.
You see, in the First Century, Jewish girls married shortly after puberty. Jewish men married at around age 20, putting off marriage until they could complete an apprenticeship. (This is one reason there were so many widows despite a high rate of death due to giving birth in an age without Cesarean deliveries or antibiotics.) Hence, premarital sex was not nearly the issue then that it is today.
While Jesus doesn’t address premarital sex in the SOTM, he is, of course, opposed to all forms of fornication (Mat 15:19). That’s just not the topic for today. Rather, Jesus is discussing how we should understand the Seventh Commandment.
And just as Jesus spoke regarding “You shall not murder,” the command “You shall not commit adultery” necessarily implies that we should not do those things that lead to adultery. Hence, a married man may not “look at a woman with lustful intent.”
The Greek for “lustful intent” is epithumeō. The meaning is easily seen in this passage from the Apocryphal book of Susanna (sometimes combined with Daniel) —
(Dan 13:7-12 NJB) 7 At midday, when the people had gone away, Susanna would take a walk in her husband’s garden. 8 The two elders, who used to watch her every day as she came in to take her walk, gradually began to desire her. 9 They threw reason aside, making no effort to turn their eyes to Heaven, and forgetting the demands of virtue. 10 Both were inflamed by passion for her, but they hid their desire from each other, 11 for they were ashamed to admit the longing to sleep with her, 12 but they made sure of watching her every day.
The didn’t just find her beautiful or attractive; they desired to have her for sex and they dwelt on that desire.
Notice the words of Jesus: “has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus declares it just as wrong to commit adultery in one’s own heart as to commit the actual act. Again, he’s being hyperbolic. After all, if you were Susanna or her husband, you’d far prefer that the two elders of the city only commit the sin in their hearts! Jesus isn’t saying that one is just as wrong as the other — or else, once you’d lusted, you’d not compound the sin if you actually engaged in adultery.
Rather, Jesus’ point is that to desire to commit adultery is also a very serious sin that violates the Ten Commandments. Flirting with the temptation is how we become adulterers, and you owe your wife sexual fidelity not only in fact but in your heart.
On the other hand, we do have to distinguish temptation from sin. Some wish to treat the temptation to engage in adultery as just as wrong as yielding to temptation, but that creates a truly impossible standard. The difficulty isn’t the temptation per se but in dwelling on the temptation, enjoying the thought, even anticipating the opportunity. In fact, if the only reason that you’re not an adulterer is that the opportunity never presented itself, you are nonetheless a sinner, both against God and your wife.
Jesus therefore calls on us all to discipline our desires as well as our behaviors — to put certain thoughts out of our minds. As the Torah teaches,
(Deu 5:21 ESV) ‘And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’
Or as James teaches,
(Jam 1:14-15 ESV) 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Temptation is not sin, but it gives birth to sin when we don’t flee from it.
Just as insults and name calling dehumanizes a person, making it easier to kill him, looking at a woman lustfully dehumanizes her, making it easier to commit adultery without regard to the consequences to her or her husband. Sex is thus disconnected from love and becomes an act of selfishness.
In both passages, Jesus is condemning objectifying a person, so that rather than being a beloved brother or sister created in the image of God, they become an object to satisfy selfish desires with little concern for the other person. And this is why Paul can say,
(Rom 13:8-10 ESV) Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
We might paraphrase Paul as saying, “Love does not objectify a neighbor,” because it’s when we treat people as objects to be used that we become sinners. And this can happen in far more ways than murder and adultery. It could be treating employees as units of production without concern for them as people. Or treating church members as “giving units” and so treating the rich as more valuable than the poor in God’s household.
As N. T. Wright explains,
When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance and worship to that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship, not only back to the object itself but outwards to the world around.
Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it, and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners or customers rather than as human beings.
Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories), and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects.
Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it, and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors or pawns.
These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 194–195 (paragraphing added).
In short, to objectify a fellow human is not only a path to sin, it reveals us to be idolaters and reshapes our worldview — our perceptions — so that we no longer think as God thinks but as our idol thinks.