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.
-Jesus, in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel
Last week, we talked about murder. I opened my sermon by ruining everyone’s Sunday plans by saying that murder is off the table. Murder, no matter how well justified, is not the wonderful plan that God has for our lives.
So, here I am again this morning to be a killjoy: if adultery was your Sunday afternoon plan, change your plan. Unfaithfulness is also off the table. Sorry, Friends. You can go bowling, if you’re bored, or go for a walk, or go feed some ducks.
Here’s a question that I want to think about this morning, though: what’s the problem with adultery?
There are an awful lot of practical reasons to state, as a rule, that committed partners may not cheat on each other. For instance, relationships in the wider community are sometimes destroyed. Maybe everything comes to light and people feel like they have to pick sides. Maybe things stay mostly secret and there’s just this ongoing sense of unease.
Either way, everyone connected to the cheaters gets hurt- so it makes sense that the community would establish a rule to keep this from happening. It helps to keep the peace. It cuts down on the crime rate.
So, there’s one reason. Another reason, one often cited by lay anthropologists, is about genetics. We have a strong interest in keeping track of exactly whose genes are being passed along to the next generation. The easiest way to do so is not to cross streams, so to speak.
So, to keep the peace, ancient societies decided that cheating would not be allowed. That way, you could know that the kids following Jack and Jane around actually did belong to Jack and Jane.
Here’s another reason not to cheat: it tends to lead to the breakdown of households. That’s not terribly cost effective, if we might be crass for a moment. Establishing a separate life is expensive. So, for that matter, is mending a torn relationship. There are financial costs, and there are emotional costs, and they’re both better avoided.
Having a rule against cheating on your partner might spare you those costs, right?
That’s only scratching the surface, when it comes to all the practical reasons not to cheat on your partner. I’m sure you can think of more. If you are drawing a blank, I suggest that you spend some time watching daytime soap operas. Take in a few weeks worth of them, and the reasons for avoiding adultery will be pretty plain.
The problem with this line of reasoning, though, is that none of these justifications quite explain the rule. Take the question of genetics, for instance. I know that most societies have not had the option of sending away spit samples for genetic testing, but come on. If I were to hold of pictures of Craig’s two kids, you’d be able to tell pretty easily who their father is. And that’s before the kids even open their mouths! Add in all the little mannerisms and behavioral tics, and it’s a slam dunk case.
You can’t really tell me that pre-modern people didn’t notice that tendency. Anyone who has ever bred animals could tell you about that.
I would argue, Friends, that we don’t have this prohibition against cheating because it serves a practical purpose. I mean, it does serve a practical purpose, but that’s not the point.
We shouldn’t avoid cheating on a partner because getting caught would be problematic. We should avoid it because it simply isn’t kind.
A healthy relationship offers the world a picture of what the Kingdom of God looks like. It’s not the only picture of heaven – and it’s not always a picture of heaven – but done right, it’s a pretty good image. Human faithfulness is a representation of the faithfulness of God.
So, let’s start there. On a scale of one to ten, how deeply are you aware that God will never give up on you? How aware are you of God’s faithfulness?
See, there’s this power that spoke the universe into being. There’s this power that swirled cosmic dust clouds and lit them as stars. There’s this power that took the dust orbiting the stars and pounded it into planets. There’s this power that took our planet and gave it oceans and mountains and trees and oxygen and whales and star-nosed moles and you and me.
That power will never stop telling you three things: you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.
More likely than not, over the past week, you missed the mark a few times. I know I did. Most of us probably messed something up this morning.
We should work on that. Maybe next week, we can mess fewer things up. That’s a good goal, right?
But flowing overtop of all that darkness is, as George Fox put it, “an infinite ocean of light and love.” The grace of God is not somehow limited by our failures. When we come up to the surface, that grace is right there, waiting for us.
Listen. You are loved, you are loved, you are loved.
And, what’s more, you will never be rejected. You will never be left alone. Nothing, Friends, can separate you from the love of God.
The cosmic goal, here, is that heaven and earth will be one- that God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. This is the endpoint of the universe: complete union with God. No forsakenness is allowed here.
Listen. You are loved, you are loved, you are loved.
That, Friends, is why we don’t cheat on our partners. It’s not because the emotional pain of dividing up the CD collection is too great. It’s because faithfulness gives us a unique opportunity to bear witness, with our lives, to the God who is always faithful.
It’s because when you choose faithfulness, even when your partner is being a bit of a dip, you are showing Christ’s love to your partner. Your partner makes mistakes, and you choose not to forsake him or her.
So, yeah, don’t commit adultery. Or – flip it around – choose to be faithful. Choose to repeat the refrain of the universe: you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.
So. That’s well and good. Look again at today’s passage, though, because I think Jesus wants us to take this further.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
That Jesus guy is kind of a radical, amirite?
Okay, so let me stop here and make a few notes. First, I think this is one of those unfortunate times when those of us who are not so inclined to look at women with lust need to assume that this is about us, too.
Second, one common misperception about this passage is that it applies to women to whom the male listener is not married. That is, Jesus is saying that it’s sinful to look with lust at someone other than your wife.
That’s not actually what it says, though. There’s no parenthetical phrase excluding your wife from consideration. Looking at your partner with lust would seem to be included within Jesus’ definition of adultery.
Third, lust is not the same as desire. This passage is not a condemnation of desire. Lust, in this context, is more like coveting. It’s wanting to own something that isn’t yours.
Think of it this way. God created you as fully human. You are created in God’s own image.
And therefore, God always sees you as fully human. When God looks at you, God sees the pain that you’ve been through, the grace that you’ve extended, the mistakes that you’ve made, and the obstacles that you’ve overcome.
We can do likewise, if we so choose. We can look at people and see that wholeness, whether or not we know the details. Or, we can look at people and see only what we want to own.
That’s the difference, you know, between lust and love. Lust is a way of treating human beings like resources. Lust takes, but love gives. Lust appraises, seeking worth to steal, but love simply praises the human worth already present. Lust feeds on people, while love nourishes them.
You can do that within your own marriage, you know. You can look at your spouse with an eye toward what you can take, rather than seeing what you can give. That, I think, under Jesus’ definition, would count as adultery.
It’s also true, though, that you don’t have to be in a committed relationship for this to apply to you. You don’t have to have a romantic partner in order to see people as fully human. If you’re not married, right now: this sermon on adultery is still for you.
Married or not, what if we were to walk cheerfully through the world, bearing this message to each person that we meet: you are loved, you are loved, you are loved?
I want to take a page, here, from the great theologian Mr. Rogers. In 1997, he was given an Emmy for Lifetime Achievement. He used his acceptance speech, in typical Mr. Rogers fashion, to focus the gratitude of his captive audience on those who had befriended them along their paths.
He put it like this: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being.”
That’s just such a great image, to describe people as loving us into being.
Mr. Rogers gave the attendees at the Emmys that year ten seconds to reflect on the people who had loved them into being. I’m wrapping up, here, and when I’m done, you’ll have more time than that. If you’ve been party to a good committed relationship, I’d imagine that your partner would be on the list of those who have loved you into being.
I’d also imagine, though, that your spouse wouldn’t be the only person on that list. Perhaps you would list a parent, or a best friend, or a child, or a sibling, or a mentor. Hopefully, many people have planted seeds of life in the soil of your life.
You don’t have to be married in order to love someone into being. Marriage makes one aspect of that calling a little more obvious, but it isn’t the end-all and be-all of life. You don’t have to be married in order to remember that the people around you are worth more than what they can give you on any given day.
You don’t have to be married, in order to remind someone that they are loved by the power that pulled the universe together.
We are the servants of a God who, every moment of every day, is loving each one of us into being. We are called, as servants, to guard the humanity of our fellow travellers. We are called to live faithfully with one another, to be kind to one another, to write no one off as forsaken.
You are loved, you are loved, you are loved. Who has been faithful in saying that to you? To whom could you say that today?