From Matthew’s Gospel:
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 5:27-28 (NRSV) – May 16, 2014)
It has been almost 40 years since presidential candidate Jimmy Carter admitted to Playboy magazine, “I’ve looked on many women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me.” Caused quite a stir and, some say, marked the beginning of the erosion of presidential privacy, the start of an era of leadership toxicity in American politics when partisan reporters feel free to reveal any fact or rumor, no matter how irrelevant, if it will hurt a politician of the opposite party or position. I’m not sure that that’s the case; a good argument can be made that the current polarized, hyper-partisan atmosphere started building during the Nixon, or even Johnson, years. That, however, is not what I’m thinking about this morning.
I’m thinking about the impossibility of Jesus’ hyperbolic morality! To be honest, I think Mr. Carter was overstating the “looking with lust” thing. As I understand the Greek used here, epithumeo, what Jesus is talking about is passionate, heated, covetous desire. I can’t imagine that just looking at someone other than one’s life partner, appreciating their attractiveness, and acknowledging one’s own attraction (even with a little wistful wondering….) would rise to the level of “lust.” If it does, then I guess we’re all in trouble, because no one can live up to such a standard.
That Jesus is being hyperbolic is made clear by the fact that he goes on to counsel his followers to cut off their hands and pluck out their eyes if those members cause them to sin! I mean — come on, folks! — does anyone not suffering from a mental illness think Jesus was doing anything more than making a rhetorical point? I certainly don’t. But his rhetorical point, hyperbolic though it may be, needs to be taken seriously.
Thoughts and attitudes are as important as actions, for even if they do not directly control our actions they give them flavor and nuance. A husband may not often be “lustful” towards other women, one may never be unfaithful, but a regular habit of giving thought to the notion is a form of disrespect for one’s wife and may lead to more outright, more visible, and more damaging forms of disrespect. Further, such a regular habit and the attitude from which it springs cheapen the intimacy between spouses. Motives and motivations, and their authenticity, give substance and meaning to our actions; spousal intimacy that is not truly respectful of the spouse has little substance or meaning.
One of my favorite of Jesus’ similes is spoken to the scribes and the Pharisees later in Matthew’s Gospel, and I like it best in the Authorized translation: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” (Mt 23:27, KJV) When inner motivation and outward action are not in harmony, when the action is inauthentic because the motivation dishonest, the action . . . no, the actor is a “whited sepulchre,” lovely in outward appearance but filled with rot.
I believe that Jesus’ hyperbolic language about lust makes the same point, and it applies not just to marriages, but to all human interactions and relationships. It may be hyperbole and it may be (indeed, it is) impossible to live up to it. Nonetheless, we must examine our thoughts and attitudes, our motives and motivations; we must look inside and work on our mindset so that our outward actions are authentic. Why? Well, one reason, as Jesus will shortly remind his listeners in a different context, is that our Father “who is in secret . . . sees in secret.” (Mt 6) A more important reason, however, is that anything less violates the second of the two great commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:39)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.