Let's Not Talk About That (Adultery)! Reflections on Exodus 20:1-17

Lectionary Reflections
Exodus 20:1-17
March 8, 2015
Third Sunday in Lent

Sometime in the season of Lent, the compilers of the lectionary toss us the entire list of the Ten Commandments. This is a problem! No human preacher should ever — I repeat, ever — try to preach on all ten of these things in one sermon. But here are all ten in one lump. Well, better said, in two lumps, since we get two lists of the Big Ten, this one in Exodus 20 and the other in Deuteronomy 5. I have suggested earlier in these scribblings (perhaps "bytings" is more up to date, but it sounds rather dangerous when put that way) that the preacher needs to choose only one of these commandments and focus attention there for a sermon. In a book I wrote some years ago (The Ten Commandments from Abingdon Press), I tried to help the preacher make that choice and to avoid the folly of all ten on one Sunday. You may find perhaps more than you need to know about all this in that book, and I do not intend to repeat it here.

What I do intend to do is to choose one, and have at it for a while. The one I have chosen for this discussion is almost certainly the one least chosen among them, the one that raises the most embarrassed questions and the lowest humor, the one that is maybe the most broken of all the ten. I, of course, refer to adultery, number seven in at least one of the numberings of the ten. (For other possible ways to number them, see my book.) Recently, I received an email from a friend, a preacher of another faith, who opined that she had never heard and certainly never preached a sermon on adultery. She represents a tradition, Judaism, that is hardly fearful of taking on controversial and dangerous topics, so I found her admission telling.

And then I asked myself the same question: had I ever heard or preached a sermon on adultery? Answer: no. That fact that this was the truth for me, too, was especially surprising since I was once an interim minister of a large church where the minister who preceded me in that pulpit was accused, and subsequently found all too guilty, of sexual predation, which by its very nature involved adultery. In fact, I had a member of that congregation confront me one Sunday after church and demand that I preach against adultery, an action that his previous pastor had so grievously engaged in. I refused to do so, telling him that I did not think the congregation, still grieving their pastor's eighteen-year ministry now ended in shocking fashion, needed or wanted to hear railings from the pulpit against behaviors that the Bible so obviously condemns. In fact, in two places in the Hebrew Bible, adultery is named a capital crime: both parties are to die for their actions (Lev. 20:10; Dt. 22:22). Why is it that I felt such preaching was inappropriate in this situation?

I admit, now twenty-one years later, that I still ponder that decision not to speak of adultery. I sense that my pastoral instincts were correct, but I remain ambivalent about my refusal to address the subject at all. I said to myself and a few chosen others that the pastor's predatory behavior against numerous women over many years was far more terrible a crime than the adultery he committed against some of their marriages along with his own. I still believe that to be true. But if adultery cannot be named in that situation, when can it be named? Can it ever be named?

I have little doubt that more conservative theologians than I am have no problem naming adultery as sin. I imagine they proclaim this truth from their pulpits with some regularity, warning their members that such behavior is against the will of God and is destructive of the covenant of marriage, the care of children, the bonds of friendship and on and on. I believe all that as they do. But I have not and do not say it. Why? I fear that I will hector and not preach. I fear that my use of the Bible as a club with which to bash the evildoer runs the real risk of making me moral arbiter rather than announcer of the good news of the gospel. And yet, is not adultery a curse in our communities, a disease among too many of us who just cannot keep our eyes and hands off of persons other than our own spouses?

I do not think I need to prove that adultery is a plague among us. Statistics are often startling: 40-50 percent of marriages end in divorce, and adultery is the most common cause. Thirty percent of men, even after marriage, have a minimum of five to ten other sexual partners, while 30 percent of women, doing slightly better, have three to five such partners. Open marriage used to be a responsible way to conduct human relationships — books were written about the necessity of men and women having multiple partners, since it was finally against nature to confine oneself to one person only. Surely, the old commandment was out of date, not "with it," not conducive to full sexual needs and pleasures.

12/2/2022 9:10:34 PM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.