In the previous passage in the Sermon on the Mount we talked about how Jesus’ teaching is an intensification of the Law: to not get angry is much more difficult than to not murder. Likewise, today, to not lust is much, much more difficult than to not commit adultery. It’s not so much that Jesus is trying to make the Law harder: He’s simply explaining what the Law meant all along.
Sometimes we have a tendency to think of God’s Law as arbitrary. He gave the Law and made up a bunch of laws because He could. These laws are arbitrary shows of force, and there isn’t necessarily any connection between them and our lives, except that He says there is.
The truth is that God’s Law is a natural emanation from Who He Is. The Law is an outward manifestation of God and His loving, holy character, and therefore, the Law and each Law in particular is really about love and right relationships. This love is either love of God or love of neighbor (or both).
We also talked yesterday of how far we are from being able to keep God’s true standard. Not just avoiding outright murder and adultery but also their inner manifestations and motivations: anger and lust. The Law, therefore, is the pillar of cloud of the Israelites: it is a cloud and darkness over our lives in that it hovers over and points to our dark sins. But it is also a light by night in that it also hovers over and points to Jesus Christ, the Just One of Israel who not only kept the Law but also keeps it for us.
With these things in mind, let’s consider Jesus’ teaching on marriage and adultery. In Moses’ Law we have heard the familiar commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” If we rightly understood what adultery actually constituted, we would see it for the horror that it is. But to properly understand adultery, we have to understand not only the sacramental character of marriage but also the nature of God’s relationship with us.
What is adultery, at its heart, once you get past the sex part? It’s fundamentally the human will to eat the forbidden fruit, to choose what one wants instead of what God wants, and to tear apart what God has joined together. There’s a reason that adultery was a capital offense in the Old Testament: God hates it, just like He hates a lot of other things.
Humanly speaking, you might say that adultery is just about sex. What could possibly be so harmful about sex with someone else on the side, since sex is just about pleasure, and sex with someone else might be more pleasurable? That seems to be the message our culture sends. Though we generally still believe adultery is wrong, we don’t think of it in particularly dire or severe terms.
But God does. Typically, women do more than men because they seem to believe more completely that sex is never just about sex but is a sacramental joining together into one flesh. Adultery is not just about sex and not even just about a man or woman choosing to be faithful to each other: it’s also about our faithfulness or unfaithfulness to God. Our relationship with God is pictured in marriage, and so adultery is a terrible picture of what we do when we’re not faithful to God.
Adultery, as we know, wrecks marriages. It doesn’t just wreck them once the innocent party finds out: it wrecks them from the moment the act of adultery is committed because adultery is an act of betrayal toward the two people in life you’ve vowed to be faithful to: your spouse and God.
As an aside, I don’t even think on a human level we realize how devastating divorce is. I can’t tell you how many sullen, depressed, black, Goth, vacant, zombie-like, angry, confused kids I’ve seen come out of divorced households. We blithely go into marriage based on infatuation and even lust and then wonder why predictably a year or 18 months afterward we’re no longer in love and the marriage is on the rocks. As Christians, we don’t take seriously what Jesus says about divorce and assume that if we don’t like the relationship we can always get out of it again.
It would take a book to chronicle the devastating consequences of divorce, and, personally, I believe a lot of our social ills are directly due to divorce and the culture that permits it. These consequences are often lifelong and therefore perpetuated multigenerationally: as one study found: “Little children often have difficulty falling asleep at bedtime or sleeping through the night. Older children may have trouble concentrating at school. Adolescents often act out and get into trouble. Men and women may become depressed or frenetic. Some throw themselves into sexual affairs or immerse themselves in work”
What’s worse is that in this passage Jesus speaks not only of adultery but also of lust. So terrible is lust that Jesus says, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it of and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” I’d like to see a show of hands of those who think they should take every part of the Bible completely literally. Eh? What’s that? Oh, you can’t because all the literalists are already handless!
The point isn’t that we should mutilate ourselves. If we really did this, we’d soon be a race of eyeless, handless freaks! The point is that we should go to any lengths imaginable to make sure we don’t lust. Why? Because God takes it that seriously.
But here we run into a problem. We can tolerate the strict commandment against adultery because there’s a good chance we’ll be able to keep this law. But when Jesus tells me it’s also about lust, suddenly my chances of keeping this law are vastly diminished!
Now all of this would be devastating – and should be – if we take the burden of our sins upon ourselves. But Jesus’ teaching isn’t meant to crush us but to refresh those who are weary and heavy laden. If you insist on ignoring your sins or trying to deal with them yourself – you will be crushed! This is true, of course, for all of your sins, and not just ones involving lust or adultery.
But if you confess your sins to the Just One, He will forgive you your sins. He offers today to take your burden upon Him. He offers true freedom and life – but you’ve got to come to Him and desire Him. In a delightful irony, even our sins, black and deadly as they are, can become the very means by which we are driven to God! My misery in my sins and my own weakness in overcoming them are wonderful means for remembering to come back to Jesus every day.
And so, for the Christian, even our sins should not defeat us, for we are united to the One who has taken them on Himself and defeated them!
This is the meaning of the Law, once again: Jesus Christ, and that we might remember to come to Him today!
Prayer: Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men: I acknowledge and bewail my manifold sins and wickedness, which I from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against me. I do earnestly repent, and am heartily sorry for these my misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto me, the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, most merciful Father; for thy Son my Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive me all that is past; and grant that I may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life.
Almighty God, my heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon me, pardon and deliver me from all my sins, confirm
and strengthen me in all goodness, and bring me to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
- Meditate on the love of God, that He would take away all of your sins, and give thanks!
- Do you have a daily time when you confess your sins before God, that you might be brought closer to Him? Is God calling you to establish one?
Resolution: I resolve to practice confessing my sins before the Lord today that I might receive forgiveness and be brought closer to Him.
© 2016 Fr. Charles Erlandson