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.
There is a lot to think about in these words. In my bible, this section has the heading ‘Adultery,’ but I think that a lot more than adultery is being spoken about in these verses.
It is too easy to be caught up by the aspects of legalism and literalism and so miss the meaning of these verses altogether. And even worse, legalism will lead you into bondage, and any to whom it is taught.
We have seen already, from the saying of Jesus earlier in the sermon, that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, how really it is impossible to please God through obedience to the law alone. How we can never be good enough in this way, and even how we will fail to please god because legalism is so often linked to literalism, and Jesus shows that there is also the spirit of the law which demands even greater perfection than that which is written.
And so it is today. The law says not to commit adultery, and yet Jesus says that even to look lustfully on a woman is adultery for the man. I would quickly add that this is not only a male sin, and it is equally possible for a woman to look lustfully at a man. Yes, it might be his physical appearance, but it can also be knowing about his success in life, or the fact that he is very rich, or very strong, or any other number of reasons. And so a woman who is already married may see the other man and think of the larger house, or the better car, or the more exotic holiday that could happen, if only her husband was like that man. Yes, this is also lustful adultery – if you accept the kind of interpretation of the spirit of the law as revealed by Jesus.
And, as before, this is to show us how we all fall short of the standards and not one of us can please god through works alone. We would all fall short of the standard that is required. There is only one in whom all the law and the prophets is fulfilled and that one is Jesus.
So, to move away from the literal interpretations that would bring bondage, we can see that this passage is once again to point us to Jesus, through whom we can gain entrance to the kingdom and in whom we are acceptable before God.
The rest of the passage is very interesting. It is one of a few passages that suggest to scholars that Jesus was associated with the sect known as the Essenes. As with most sects within Judaism, the sect is a male activity. But in this sect most of the men would never marry. They would even take drastic measures to remove temptation from their lives. This included self-castration (which earned them the nickname among the invading Romans of ‘testicle tossers’ and even worse… If you find the military histories, which are available in some libraries, you will find some recorded information about the Essenes which is both revealing and interesting) so that, as eunuchs, they would be free from the usual temptation towards the female sex. There is also recorded the self-mutilation of the plucking out of an eye. I don’t know about the chopping off of a hand…
So it is very understandable how some scholars came to think that Jesus was associated with the Essenes. But really, whether or not He was so associated, the real question here is whether to accept these verses literally or not.
We have all heard in the news how, in certain countries of the world, there is a very real physical consequence to some crimes. How that thieves may have a hand removed, or blasphemers have their tongue removed. I don’t know about you, but my reaction to such things is absolute revulsion. Does this come from the fact that I was born and raised in England? Or does it come from deeper than that, because I belong to the Lord? This is not such an easy question to answer…
From literalists, I often hear the argument that God is not a man and we should not judge his words or thinking by human judgement or logic. But then, I would ask why we are hearing these words from Jesus who is with us as a man, walking and living as our example? And then, let’s really consider the consequences of literalism. I, and I am sure many of you, would have to wonder at how much of our bodies would remain if we really were to take these verses literally.
OK, I noticed that pretty girl in the skimpy bikini on the beach. She was to my right, and so I pluck out my right eye so that this does not happen again. Oh dear, now there is a topless girl to my left – really beautiful and my body begins the natural male reaction. So out goes my left eye. What a relief! No more visible temptation! But my brother causes me to be angry and I say some bad words. Out goes my tongue, never to enter my body again and cause me such problems. And so it would go… Then there is the self-castration, the losing of one hand or the other. What about removing a leg – because nearly all children have kicked out sinfully against their parent or another child. Before long we would all be torsos without arms or legs, and with a depleted head on top without eyes and tongue. Who knows, maybe some heads would even be without an ear or two…
Frankly, I think literalism completely falls apart when you begin to apply it to this passage of scripture. So what’s going on?
As with the start of this passage we should see that there is much more than adultery or the literal aspect. This is yet more to show us for what we really are: fallen mankind. Full of sin and sinfulness, without hope of entering the kingdom of God without drastic measures being taken.
And here is the good news: those drastic measures have already been taken! Not only is Jesus the one who fulfils the law and the prophets in his life, but in his death he takes the punishment that is deserved by each and every one of us on himself, although He was completely blameless.
In one sense the eye has already been plucked, the tongue already removed and the hand already chopped off. We have not lost parts of the body, but the whole body was put to death on the cross. Do we need to put a part of the body to death a second time? In no way! Jesus said that the work is finished. The work of salvation is done!
So what are we to do when reading these verses? It brings to mind many passages of explanation by the apostle Paul in his letters to various churches. For instance, in Romans, he writes that whoever has died has been freed from sin. There is quite a long passage in this letter where Paul writes with great frustration and regret about the fact that he repeatedly falls into a particular sin. Even saying at one point, ‘who will rid me of the body of this sin?’ Was he asking for someone to kill him? Of course not. But he was using all of this as part of the teaching of how we need to identify with the sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross.
So if your eye causes you to sin, with envy or lust, then reckon this eye to be dead on the cross with Jesus and ask for the power of the new life, by the Holy Spirit, to be granted to your mind and that he will to help you overcome envy and lust. And if you do something sinful with your hand, then again identify with the sacrificial offering of Jesus. And now see that nail driven through your hand as it is forced onto that rough wooden cross…
Feel the pain that you have caused our Saviour to receive and was part of putting Him to death.
Let these scriptures not lead you into negative thoughts, into self-hatred, into legalism, or anything that would bind you again in chains. Rather let these scriptures point you to the cross of Christ and His wonderful work of salvation for each and every one of us. Amen.