Sexuality…in Context

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church, August 10, 2014)

We’re in this series on the sermon on the mount, and today’s section has adultery, sexuality, gouging your eyes out, divorce…really not many places you can go wrong there, right?

Whose bright idea was this series anyway? If I was a smarter man, I’d have asked someone else to teach on this section of the Sermon on the Mount. 

In the first service, during open worship, I realized I was feeling really anxious. I’ve learned from Eric Muhr, who does this well, to notice the anxiety and then try to figure out where it is coming from. I realized I’m not anxious about talking about sexuality in church. That’s important for us to do. It’s not that. And I’m not somehow embarrassed about what God teaches about sexuality. Rather, I think that God does have some important ways to help us in regard to sexuality.

The part that got me, the part where I realized I am anxious is that…I don’t want to be the guy up front who says things that hurt people.That’s why I’m anxious. I wanted to say that, and say that I don’t want to do that…but of course I can’t promise that I’m going to get it right.

So I’d invite you before I read this text to pray with me and for me. Then I’ll read today’s section.

   ‘You have heard that it was said,’ You shall not commit adultery. ‘ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
‘ It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:27-32, TNIV)

So where would you start with a section like that?

I’ll start with the connection with last week. In this section, just like what we looked at last week, Jesus is deepening teaching from the Hebrew scriptures. Those listening had to look at issues where they thought they were just fine, but now Jesus is causing them to realize they may have things that need to change.

I think these verses are about more than the technical definition of adultery. Now, it’s not a comprehensive teaching about everything we need to know about sexuality, but it is broader than just adultery. These verses also go beyond just the boundaries of divorce, but push us to avoid selfishness and take responsibility for the commitment to care in marriage. I’m not going to take time today to unpack the verses on divorce, except to say that I think Jesus is saying a spouse is not something you throw away like a used up, broken possession. We’ll have to save more for another day.

What was going on in the time and culture when Jesus spoke these words? Marriage was the strong expectation and the norm of the time when Jesus lived and walked this earth. Not many remained single; Rabbis of the time taught that a man should marry at 18, and that if he passed the age of 20 without taking a wife he was disobeying God’s command. Marriage was more prevalent, and it also occurred much earlier in life than is currently the case.

It was common in Jesus’ time for a woman to be married as soon as sexual maturity was reached, with betrothal or engagement often happening even earlier. Today, the average age for first marriage for a woman is 27. In 1990, when I was married, it was 23. In 1960, it was 20. Today, women and men can expect to know many people who are not married; in Jesus’ time, almost every adult you met was married or widowed, which would mean just about any kind of sexual activity outside of your own marriage would fit in the category of adultery. I think correctly bringing this forward to today means we need to apply Jesus’ words to all sexual activity, not just to adultery.

One of the difficult realities of the culture of Jesus’ time as well as the culture of the Old Testament is that women were viewed as property.

Some of the Hebrew words for husband (ba’al) and wife (be’ulah) are literally translated as “owner” or “master” for the husband, and the “owned” for the wife. I believe Jesus’ actions and teaching, as well as many other parts of the New Testament destroy that wrong view of the ancient culture. But we have to acknowledge that it was present. One of the reason those who are young grow up and leave the church is because we don’t acknowledge often enough that there are things in the bible that make our stomachs turn.

Marriage, in that kind of a belief system, is not much like what we idealize today. The laws and instructions around marriage and divorce were less about romance and love, and much more about children and provision and inheritance and respecting others.

So as hard as it is for me to wrap my mind around it, even the teachings of the Old Testament were more empowering to women than in some of the other cultures around Israel. The law of Moses said that a man (men were the only ones with the legal right to end a marriage) had to give a certificate of divorce. Rather than just divorcing a woman  for any reason and giving her no status in society, no ability to marry another, no way to have a place to live and food to eat…the law of Moses asked men to give this certificate.

This was a help which allowed women to have another option after a divorce, another chance to marry and have a home and be able to survive. Instructions about marriage and divorce in the bible are rooted in a sense of responsibility and care for one’s spouse.

I’m bringing all this up because we can’t gloss over the vast differences between how people of Jesus’ time understood sexuality and marriage and divorce, and how we understand them. But I do think it’s worth trying to understand what it meant then, so that we have a way to try and apply it to what it means for us now.

Once again, Jesus begins his teaching with one of the ten commandments. Look again at verse 27.

Last week it was “Do not murder.” Today, “You shall not commit adultery.” From the beginning when God gathered a people and tried to give instructions to them on the best way to live, there is this idea that sex is intended to have some boundaries. The older that I get and the more I talk to people, the more I see that this still applies today. When people don’t put commitments and boundaries around sexuality, pain occurs.

There is quite a bit of evidence inside the bible and outside of it that men faced less consequences than women for breaking this command. One example is in John 8, when a woman “caught in the act of adultery” is brought to Jesus for punishment…but where is the man who by necessity must have also been caught in the act? In the sermon on the mount, Jesus challenges the men, challenges the ones with authority and privilege.

I’m going to mostly do the same today, addressing many things toward men. Because I believe there still is an imbalance in our society when it comes to the consequences of sexuality; men face less consequences than women. As I bring challenge to you today, men, remember that Jesus is challenging us to avoid self-justifying behavior. It’s not worth thinking “women do that too” or “other men are worse”. The challenge is to open ourselves to places where we are convicted to live in more faithful obedience to God.

And women, when I am addressing men…also remember that Jesus is challenging self-justifying behavior. Invite God’s Holy Spirit to translate the words aimed at men to your own life, to your own places where God is calling you to a deeper obedience.

On we go then. Verse 28. We’re going to end up spending more time here than any other parts of this section, because there’s so much here to work through. [READ again]

Just like last week, Jesus challenges us to look at our thoughts and attitudes, not just our actions. Murder begins with anger, and sexuality that is out of bounds begins with lust and desire. How we think about others sexually is included with how we act toward others sexually…it’s all included in the things God wants to bring into the light.

I had to think carefully about how I wanted to phrase that. “How we think about others sexually is included with how we act toward others sexually.” Not, “how we think about others sexually is JUST AS important” or “MORE IMPORTANT”. That’s often the way this gets applied, and I think it’s a misinterpretation.

In other words, I do think that there are greater consequences to ourselves and to our relationships when we actually engage in sexual activity that is out of bounds than when we just think about it. Jesus did not say “it’s just as bad to lust after someone as to commit adultery.” What Jesus said was that our wrong thoughts are also sin, breaking God’s intent, just as much as wrong actions are. That’s different than saying they are equal. Two things can be wrong, two things can be damaging, without having EQUAL damage.

So Jesus is not only concerned about my sexual actions. Jesus is also concerned about my sexual thoughts and attitudes. 

Ok then…what exactly is off limits? What is Jesus asking me to guard against?

This one verse has caused a lot of shame and pain, sometimes by how it has been taught. Many men and some women have experienced huge amounts of guilt when they feel sexual attraction towards others, afraid they have broken Jesus’ teaching and have somehow sinned by having sexual desire. Many women have been blamed for supposedly “causing” men to lust by how they dress. That is incredibly ironic to me, when it is crystal clear in this section that Jesus is asking men to take responsibility for their own thoughts! And yet somehow we’ve twisted that.

Because it’s caused so much pain over the years, I want to take a step back and define and say some things that are important. Shame and angst are not what Jesus aims for. Shame is not the same as conviction. Conviction is born out of a desire to live right, to live as we were born to live, in love and wholeness and obedience to God. Conviction is the sense that I have done something wrong and need forgiveness. Shame is something different. Shame is the sense that I am bad, broken, unworthy.

Conviction leads to trying to act differently because we are more valuable than we are currently demonstrating by our actions. Shame leads to believing we aren’t worth anything. I think what Jesus is doing is trying to bring us to a point of conviction, not shame.

I spent a lot of time this week studying the Greek word translated “looks lustfully”. That seems to be the heart of Jesus’ teaching: whatever that is, that’s what Jesus is asking us to avoid. So I started carefully studying that verb. It’s a verb with a basic meaning of “desire”. It’s a Greek word that actually takes different meanings depending on the “case” of the words around it. We don’t even have a “case” in this way in  English, so this can be hard to understand. Basically in Greek the form of the words around this word are different, and it makes the word itself take on different connotations. Just because the same word is used in another part of the bible or another ancient source doesn’t mean it means the exact same thing.

In this form and in this context, it means sexual desire, but it is more than that. It is sexual desire with the intent to use for one’s self. While the word is used 16 times in the New Testament, the closest comparison of the case and the form is actually in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Both use the same verb with nouns and prepositions in the accusative case, for those of you who care about such things.

The closest comparison to this word in Matthew is Exodus 20:17, which reads: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Here the word is translated covet, because it has that sense of not only desiring it, but wanting to have it, to take it to own it.

Now, as I said before, this brings up some of the ugliness of the culture of the time.

That culture thought of women as property. But the clear understanding here is that Jesus is telling us not to desire to have someone that isn’t ours to have. The word has something more to it than just sexual attraction. It’s sexual attraction with the desire and intend to take and have and possess.

I firmly believe that if Jesus were here in the flesh today, he would say loudly and clearly women are not property. Women just as men are created in the image of God. “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free.” And I firmly believe he would still say, your sexual desire shouldn’t lead to a desire to take and have and possess another person. She (or he) is not yours to “have”.

The desire to possess and have another person for our own pleasure-that’s how I would define lust in today’s world. 

So verse 27 begins with the basics. Don’t commit adultery. That fit that culture, because acting sexually outside of marriage was almost always adultery in some way; you’re either breaking your own vows, or someone else’s vows of marriage when virtually everyone is married. In our culture, we have many more ways that sexuality is expressed. We would still say, “Don’t commit adultery.” But I think we also need to say, “Men, don’t rape.” We would also say, “Don’t give someone alcohol or other drugs in order to take advantage of them sexually.” We would also say, “Respect it when someone says ‘no’ or ‘stop’.”

Verse 28 broadens the command. “Don’t look at a woman with the intent to sexually possess her or use her as you desire.” We would also say today, “Don’t escape with pornography and teach yourself that sexuality is just for you.” Pornography replaces a flesh and blood partner who has emotions and will and thoughts, and replaces a real person with an object under your control.

Evidently we also need to still say today, “Do not cat-call and say things to strangers on the street that make a woman feel like an object you want to use.” And be people that when you hear those kinds of things said, we stand up and say “Stop!” There was a campaign on twitter called #yesallwomen, where women around the world shared the types of things that are said to women. I also saw a collection of pictures where women held up posters of actual things that had been said to them by men on the street, things so crude I couldn’t show them here in church… but most of you women know exactly the kinds of things they say. ( and also this excellent article

I am not exaggerating when I say that reading all of those things made me sick to my stomach. Evidently we still need to say out loud, “Let’s stop this.”

What Jesus said long ago still fits. Those awful comments are not said without the first step Jesus talked about. Sexual abuse does not happen without the first step that Jesus talked about.

The first step down the path to all of those hurtful things is inside us, when we desire to possess or own or use another person for our own sexual gratification. Men and women…pay attention to how you think and act toward others. Men and women…God’s good creation of sexuality is distorted when we allow ourselves to think of another person or even our spouse as something we possess or use for our own pleasure.

Thinking wrongly doesn’t always lead to us acting wrongly. But Jesus is reminding us the thoughts are damaging. Jesus is reminding us that the wrong actions don’t come without the wrong thinking coming first.

What do we do with the section about plucking out eyeballs and cutting off hands?

Looking around, I don’t see many who have taken this literally. The placement of these verses here has led people to hate anything related to sexuality. Gouge it all out! Don’t let these bad things lead you to hell! There are people in church history who have physically abused their own bodies in a desire to get it under control.

Which is so ironic and completely missing the point. Jesus said with adultery and with murder, the problem is your heart. The problem is your brain. The problem is your underlying attitudes. Cutting off body parts doesn’t fix that, does it?

This is classic hyperbole used for effect. This is Jesus reminding us to take our attitudes and thoughts seriously. If your attitudes and thoughts are what cause you sin, do something about it! Lose the bad stuff!

Don’t minimize. “It was just a compliment. I was just saying she’s really hot, she should appreciate it.” No. You’re seeing her not as a whole person, but as someone who brings you pleasure, someone you want to have, who only exists for your desire.

There’s something that the Spirit laid on my heart during first service to add at this point. I think there’s another way we try to cut all this stuff off. Here me carefully if you would.  There have been times in my journey toward sexual wholeness, the journey to make my thoughts more in line with what God desires for me…there have been times where I have drawn really strict boundaries for myself about what I would look at and watch, what I would put before my eyes, who I would and wouldn’t meet with alone. I was trying to remake and retrain those thought patterns, and I needed to take those steps. I want to say that there is a time and a place for those kinds of boundaries.

But I also want to say that I don’t think that is God’s intent or goal for us. I don’t think God’s goal is for us to be in separate male and female worlds, never interacting with each other. I think what that actually does, is that it actually furthers this idea that the only way you relate to someone of the opposite gender is with sexual attraction. Which is baloney.

As God has done that work of healing in me, the gift has been whole, right, open, honest friendships with women. I think that actually can help us get the attitudes adjusted and right…seeing people as people, not only as sexual encounters.

All right, it was hard to know where to start…now, where do you end a message like this?

“But what if I’ve tried and I can’t control it? My thought life just makes me feel like a horrible human being. I get defeated again, and again, and again.” What do we do, if that’s where we are? We go back to the beginning. We go back to God’s deep love for us, no matter what. We remind ourselves that “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation! The old has gone, the new has come!”

This kind of brokenness…this kind of awareness that we can’t do it, can’t control it…this is the kind of repentance that leads to the new life that God wants to bring. I’m walking testimony of someone who can say that over a lifetime, we can come to many places of brokenness and repentance and renewal in our lives with God.

Perhaps today is one of those opportunities.

The takeaway isn’t hate your body and sexual desire. The takeaway isn’t that we are ruined forever if we get any of this wrong.

The takeaway is our thoughts and our actions both matter when it comes to sexaulity. When we let desire develop into an intent to possess or use or own another person for our own pleasure, it hurts us and our relationships. All sexual activity that crosses boundaries begins with thinking that is wrong.

Take our thoughts and intentions about sexuality seriously. Come to God in humility and repentance when you are at the end of your rope. Ask for forgiveness and new life! This is the hope we have, the hope beyond teaching, beyond will power, beyond getting stuff right ourselves…the hope of God’s transforming power. That hope is available today for the asking. I’m going to give some space for those of you who may be at that place, that place of forgiveness…to fall into the open and loving arms of God, and ask for healing, change, and forgiveness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s