*Trigger Warning* This sermon makes reference to situations of domestic abuse.
One of the things I most appreciate about Jesus’ teaching is that he faces into difficult subjects and doesn’t avoid them. Last week we looked at the connections between murder, judgment and grudges and this week we look at Jesus speaking very frankly about lust and power. Now let’s address some background issues that will give us some understanding into the culture Jesus is addressing. In Jesus’ time women were considered to be property. They existed to serve men, their life was governed by men and self-determination was a privilege that only men had access to. Women had no say in who they married. Women had little to no actual power and were extremely vulnerable members of society. In the first century it is estimated that 60% of the population were men and 40% were women, and this teaching of Jesus might explain to us why the exact opposite was true in the church in which 60% were women. Jesus decided to address again what he felt to be the root issue that led to problems which if we address it early enough keeps things from getting to the point of major moral failure.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew 5:27-32
Jesus started out with the second biggest no-brainer on the list of commandments, and yes having sex with someone you aren’t married to is extraordinarily unhelpful in maintaining peace and harmony in a marriage covenant. Really simply put: Don’t do it! Jesus could have left it there, but he knew there was a deeper issue that he had to address. We now have a word that describes what Jesus is talking about, and can help us get insight into the underlying problem of lust that Jesus talks about here: objectification. Jesus knew that adultery, like murder, was not the beginning of the sin, but was the tail end of a long process. The beginning of that process is in looking at another human being as a means to an end. Specifically when we look at others as tools to use for our own sexual satisfaction, we dehumanize them. We look at them as objects rather than people who have the same access to the voice of the Holy Spirit that we have. Jesus knew that in God’s eyes every person on this earth is a beloved son or daughter and by addressing the primary sin of objectification Jesus tries to help us see the root of what leads us to breaking our covenants of marriage. When we objectify someone, it implies the idea that we can control them, use them, and discard them when they are no longer pleasing to us. In a very real way I see this as one of the root sins of our society in which the value of a person is determined by net worth or their purchasing power, in which our interactions become transactional in nature.
Jesus is calling our attention to just how damaging this commodifying attitude is at the most basic levels of our most foundational relationships and he compares it to gangrene in which it is vital to remove the infected part of the body before it spreads. He is not advocating removing actual body parts, but is highlighting just how damaging it is to our entire relational framework when we commodify and objectify just one person. That is all it takes to get us started, and if you are having trouble believing that this is the case, remember the testimony Josiah shared about how his porn addiction affected his interactions with others. We like to think they we can compartment off little pieces of ourselves, but Jesus here is reminding us that when one part of us is engaged in sin it affects the rest of us as well. Or to put it another way when we are trying to hit the mark that God has set before us it doesn’t matter which direction the arrow goes when it misses the target we still missed and have to aim again. Our goal is to keep our focus on the mark and when we begin to objectify others we are prioritizing our own pleasure over God and that is idolatry, plain and simple. I have to admit that the more I study the concept of missing the mark, the more I see how every sin is somehow connected to worshipping or prioritizing something other than God and his way of being and doing what is right.
There is something else here to remember and that is the role of control and power in Jesus’ teaching. He is addressing the men who had power in the society and not the women who didn’t. Lust acted upon is definitely a control thing. When we objectify people we have no problem exercising control over their bodies, in many ways the biblical understanding of lust implies desiring ownership over someone, not loving relationship. Lust is a one way control. When we act in lust it is for our pleasure and our desires’ fulfillment, not the good and well-being of the other person involved. We justify this thinking in many ways and try to shift responsibility away from ourselves. In certain parts of our society, women are devalued as lesser and taught that it is their bodies that lead men into sin and Jesus is saying that the sin was already there and that the only person responsible for my sin is me. I can try to shift the blame or the responsibility for my sin elsewhere, but if my heart was pure it wouldn’t matter what someone was wearing, or not wearing as the case may be. If we look at clothing trends and headlines in history we see that it didn’t matter how modestly a woman dressed, when women are viewed as objects everything becomes tempting even ankles. When men are viewed as objects it doesn’t matter what they wear, temptation is still within. Jesus places the responsibility for the way we look at others and act towards them and think about them on us, where it belongs.
Objectification and denial of personal responsibility are the first steps on the path to what is essentially an abusive relationship. An abusive relationship is one in which one person’s needs are more enforceable than another’s and in which coercion exists. This coercion can take many forms: emotional, physical, spiritual, or mental and is found out by threats. The biggest threat of Jesus’ day was that of divorce. Since women were property, if they were abandoned by their husband they had very few options other than to try returning to their birth family or if that wasn’t possible selling themselves. The divorce that Jesus was speaking out against was an abuse of power for personal gain in which many men of the time would divorce their wives because they could benefit financially or physically by having a different wife. This was especially common if a woman was childless or had only given birth to girls, if so it would be common for the daughters to be discarded with their mother. When people are objects they become disposable.
Jesus made one exception to the necessity for divorce and when we look at it carefully we see a very interesting concept that gets a little lost in the translation and requires a bit of unpacking. The word we have translated as “sexual immorality” is the word “porneia” which would literally be translated “to sell off one’s sexual purity” and has the connotation of promiscuity and idolatry. When we believe the lies that are told us and commodify our bodies and relationships it becomes very easy to break the relational covenant of marriage. When that happens we wound our relationship to a point that only an act of God can heal. I don’t think God’s greatest desire is for us to break our marriage covenants, but God also knows that there are conditions in which we must walk away from a marriage in order to remain faithful to him and protect the vulnerable who are in our care. I don’t think anyone who has gone through a divorce feels like it was the best option and walking away from someone you made a solemn vow before God is not easy. There is a great deal of pain, and Jesus knows that there are points of no return in which the covenant has been so violated that restoration can be beyond us. There is no sin on your part in walking away from a marriage that has become abusive, in which your spouse has decided that their needs are more important than anything else. Let me say again that if you ever feel unsafe, that your life or the lives of your children are in jeopardy walk away now, the covenant is already broken. We can help you find a safe place.
Notice that in talking about remarriage Jesus is not pointing the finger of adultery at the woman with no power, but at the man who comes along to take advantage of someone in a desperate situation. When we try to apply this kind of scripture text we can do a lot of damage if we ignore the biblical and cultural context and must remind ourselves that Jesus is talking to his disciples, most of whom were married, about the behavior and ethics that God expected of them in their marriage relationships. In the last few sermons we have looked at the ways Jesus has raised the bar by taking an interpretation of the Torah that limited itself to actions and reinterpreted the same passage to get at the attitudes underlying the sin that distract us from God and his way of being and doing what is right. Jesus knew that if we could begin to focus on the underlying attitudes of placing our desires ahead of God’s we could begin to keep our aim centered on the mark by eliminating distractions before they grew into destructions. In this instance Jesus reminds us that looking at another human being as a vessel for our own sexual fulfillment is adultery. That this attitude of seeing another person as an object will lead us from inward thoughts that objectify not only the person we were looking at, but our spouse as well, which then lead to outward actions that destroy the covenant of marriage.
Our sexuality is a gift from God. When we harness that gift and use it ways that honor God and others, it is beautiful and is literally life-giving. When we abuse the gift and use it as a means for personal gratification or treat it as the only piece of someone that matters we are entering into that attitude of adultery. Jesus in his teaching on this area reminds us that no person is disposable, that everyone must be treated as a gift from God. The needs that we have cannot truly be met by another person, and we are not made complete or whole by marrying. We are made whole by God’s grace, and can only find satisfaction and wholeness through the gift of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us through the Jesus’ sacrifice. As we enter into our time of open worship take these first 5 minutes to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit and to ask for the strength to resist the seductive messages that tell us there is no harm in using others for our own ends. I don’t know about you, but that first silence in open worship is always the hardest. It seems like my mind jumps to the most distracting and dark places and I wonder if God really wants to present in that. That first distraction is common and by bringing our mind into God’s presence we can allow those distractions and darkness to be burned away in the cleansing light of the Holy Spirit’s fire. That is why I find it so important to spend time with God every day, so that I can be cleansed in His presence. So take this time of open worship as a time in which we can practice together the tough discipline of dragging our frenetic minds into communion. Ask that your eyes will be kept on Jesus, on the mark we are aiming for. And if God grants you words to share with us to encourage us on the journey that help direct our eyes to the mark then stand and share your gift with us. Let us pray.