Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

55. Lust is Adultery (Matthew 5:27-30)*

The Ten Commandments forbad adultery, and here again the rabbis were content to be strictly literal in their understanding and application of the precept. As one commentator has pithily expressed it: “Moses said it truly. The interpreters said it with altered meaning.” Yet it must have been evident to these acute minds that in this area of human sinfulness especially, the desire and intention are themselves guilt. But a court of law cannot sit in judgment on a man’s frame of mind, so they were quite content to stop at emphasis on the evil act itself. They could have gone further, and have bidden every man arraign himself before the bar of his own conscience, with his own God-given power of self-examination as chief prosecutor. But now in the time of Jesus these religious leaders were so many unjust stewards basely adulterating the principles of men’s obligation to God, all for the sake of their own standing before the people.

So Jesus bade his disciples cease concern with outward conformity to the law of God. Their target must be not a spiritual respectability in the sight of men but the peace of mind which only the satisfied scrutiny of an alert and educated conscience can impart.

The Modern Worship of Sex

“I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her (or, looketh on a man to provoke him!) hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” The words have wrung a cry of despair and almost of protest from the soul of many a sincere, well-intentioned disciple. Human nature being what it is-and with some more than others- how is guilt to be avoided? In a sex-ridden twentieth century there is a positive barrage of incitement (by book, newspaper, radio, television, advertisement, dress) to think in terms of sex almost every hour of the day and night. In such an environment what followers of the Lord with a normal equipment of human nature can feel anything but guilt and wretchedness? One would surely need to be literally without eyes and ears to avoid the bombardment of solicitation which today at every turn parades and screams the gospel of sensual self-indulgence. How the young people growing up in such an age are to be pitied’ But not the young people only. It is specially significant that the Lord used the word “adultery”, not “fornication”. So his warning was addressed to married people also, specially to them. The temptations of an earlier generation were bad enough, in all consicence. Then what is to be said about society not only permissive, but expressive, apparently set on making Sodom appear like kindergarten innocence?

Evil Thoughts made welcome

There is perhaps a crumb of comfort in the fact that the words of Jesus mean: “whosoever looks on a woman with intention to lust after her...” The alluring thought is not a sin in itself-else Jesus himself stands condemned for his state of temptation in the wilderness. It is the tempting thought given welcome and hospitality which is the fundamental sin, whether it matures into evil action or not. Paul infers the sinfulness of lustful thoughts from the Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7)

But this is not to say that there is no essential distinction between the lustful desire, savoured illicitly in the imagination, and the active expression of such concupiscence. “Jesus is far too much of a realist not to know that there is a vital difference between the act contemplated and the act committed-just as there is a wide difference between hard words and murder. But that difference is in the injury suffered by the other person; and Jesus has in view the effect on the sinner rather than on the one sinned against. Not the man’s act but his state of mind erects a barrier between himself and God.”

The same writer (L.G. Sargent in “The Teaching of the Master”) very trenchantly adds: “This being so, what will the judgment of Christ be on a civilisation in which immense industries connected with publishing, the theatre and the screen, are so largely engaged in playing upon the weaknesses of human desire?” Those words, written in 1950, were a very restrained commentary on post-war society. Then with what shade of ink do they need to be re-written today?

Aids to Holiness

If ever there was a time in the history of God’s people when there was need for self-discipline in the use of the eyes and also of the imagination, the television screen of the mind, it is today. Yet in large degree this has been always true. Was there ever a time when men-and women-did not have “eyes full of adultery”? (cp. Job. 31:1).

Hence the wholesome wisdom of the Mosaic injunction that the people wear fringes or tassels of blue in the borders of their garments - “that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring” (Num. 15:38, 39). This wearing of “the livery of heaven” was to be a constant reminder, to those who cared to be reminded, that they belonged to the Lord and must eschew all things incompatible with His holiness. The modern counterpart to this might be to inscribe on every Christadelphian television receiver: “Whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely...think on these things: (Phil. 4:8). Or, if this is too long, “Holy to the Lord”.

Drastic Self-Discipline

In all the Sermon on the Mount there is only a handful of negative precepts. So the Lord’s warning here is all the more emphatic: “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” The figurative nature of this drastic precept is immediately obvious, for what a man can see with his two eyes he can see almost equally well with one. The evident meaning is that there must be no flinching from the severest se/r”-discipline, if such is needful, in order to avoid the overpowering temptation by which the fire of lust makes inevitable the fire of Gehenna.

There must be no half-measures about such self-discipline. To emphasize this the Lord’s instructions are dramatically pleonastic: “Pluck it out, and cost it from thee.” Once rooted out of its socket that eye is powerless for good or evil. So “cast it from thee” underlines the lesson-and how true it is!-that if a man would be rid of his lust he must want to be rid of it, nothing less.

Negative and Positive Action

The practical measures involved might mean a complete cessation of “looking” or “listening”, a clearing out of all books and journals which may be in a literary sense respectable, genius even, but which are spiritually unclean and defiling. The wisdom of Christ counsels a clean sweep. In issues of this kind it is certainly best to err on the side of severity. It was not for nothing that Paul counselled Timothy: “Flee also youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22). In another place he was even more explicit: “Mortify (put to death) therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence...” (Col. 3:5).

All will be unavailing, however, except there be positive action to fill up one’s time and thought with better things. It was when David was loafing in his palace in Jerusalem instead of leading his army in the Ammonite campaign that he suffered the greatest defeat of his life. Accordingly Paul’s counsel to Timothy continues: “but follow after (pursue) righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” Positive activities and wholesome association! And in Colossians: “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.”

With all this good counsel it still remains true that the price of liberty from the thraldom of the flesh is eternal vigilance.

Notes: Matthew 5:27-30

To lust. Gk. middle voice emphasizes self-indulgence; and the aorist forbids even the first deliberate glance (or exercise of imagination).
Thy right eye. Is this choice of phrase an allusion to 1 Sam. 11:2, thus bidding the disciple treat both eye and imagination as personal enemies?

Pluck out. The same stringency in Pr. 5:8. In effect, this parable says: You would be ready enough to sacrifice a gangrenous limb to save your life; then how much more readily should you give up an animal appetite to save yourself for life everlasting?

For v.31, 32 see Study 145.

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