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Lust and Adultery in the Heart

by Brant Pitre January 17, 2020 0 Comments


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That distinction is also important for the next antithesis.  The second antithesis deals with adulterous thoughts.  This one is often widely misunderstood or wondered about, so let's look at that for just a second.  Jesus points out that in the Ten Commandments Moses forbids adultery, which would be having relations with another person's spouse and breaking the marriage covenant.  Jesus, however, goes further and he forbids even lustful looks.   So he says “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully commits adultery with her [not in the body, but] in his heart,” in his kardia the Greek word is.  In the Bible, heart is a not just the seat of our emotions, but it's even more the seat of our will.  It's where we choose.  It's like the deepest part of a person, it’s where we either choose for or against God, we choose good or we choose evil.  It is where we consent, it is where we give consent.  That's what Jesus means by committing adultery in the heart. 

This is one of those times too where I have found that Augustine is a very helpful commentator because he makes a distinction — and the tradition makes a distinction along these lines as well— that Jesus does not say whoever experiences desire for a woman, because attraction to another person is a natural passion, it is a natural emotion and can come on involuntarily.  What Augustine says Jesus means is that if we surrender to a disordered desire, if we surrender to a lustful attraction either by willing to fantasize about another person or, Augustine says, if we consent to that lustful thought so that if we had the opportunity we would act on it, he said that is where the sin lies, in the consent of the heart, because the person has already committed adultery in the heart, even if it hasn't happened in the body.  That's the deeper meaning, that's the precise meaning of what Jesus is getting at here. 

I bring this up because one time I remember I was teaching this years and years ago and a student said “well this is impossible  It's impossible not to look at a woman lustfully.”  And what he was trying to express was the natural experience of feeling attraction for the opposite sex, and I had to be clear with him that that's not what Jesus is condemning here.  It's not a question of what you experience, of the passion itself, it's then what you do with that desire.  Is it cultivated interiorly?  Would you act on it if you could?  If so then you have given consent to that lustful and disordered desire, and one of things we have to do, and what Jesus is going to call the disciples to do in the new covenant, is we have to struggle against sin not just in the body and in the outward, but in the heart itself, which is where sin originates, in concupiscence, in those disordered desires.  We have to wrestle against them.

Jesus gives us the recipe for doing that with his very vivid imagery.  He says “if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and toss it away.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”  Now this is a great example of how in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses a figure of speech known as hyperbole.  What is hyperbole?  Hyperbole is when a teacher exaggerates in order to make a point.  If you have ever taught a class you know how to do this.  Frequently students don't pay attention, so to get their attention what do you have to do?  You have to exaggerate.  You have to gesticulate.  You have to do something to get their attention in order to help them remember the point.  Jesus obviously doesn't intend for us to take this literally.  He doesn't want a bunch of one-eyed or one-armed disciples running around.  He is not enjoining anyone to actually cut out their eyes or cut off their hands.  Those are metaphors for custody of the eyes with regard to lustful looks, controlling how we look, where we look, at whom we look and with what desires we look; and also to custody of the body, being in control of our members, only doing things in the body that are in accord with the law of God and with the end for which our bodies are created.

Obviously adultery would not be one of those, it would be contrary to the body and to what the body is given to us for.  So Jesus uses these metaphors to basically say “look, do whatever it takes to fight against the sin of lust in the heart, because it is better to lose those limbs and enter into the kingdom of God with one hand or one eye than it is to be cast into Gehenna with all of your body parts.”  That's the imagery he is using here.  So it is a very shocking and memorable image to stress the seriousness of sexual sin committed in the heart.  By the way, Jesus didn’t make this up, this is already part of the Old Testament.  If you go back to the Ten Commandments, the last two Commandments are “you shall not covet your neighbor's wife” and “you shall not covet your neighbor's property.”  So already in the Old Testament God is trying to get his people to see that sin begins in the heart with the will.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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