Those words of Jesus we just heard are hard words to hear. They are hard to think about. They are hard to preach on.
They are hard because Jesus is talking about two subjects that cause us more pain emotionally than just about anything else. You don’t need me to tell you how much pain there is because of adultery and divorce. The divorce rate in this country is going down. But each year, the proportion of married people who divorce is still over 1%. And each time it happens, it hurts, and the ripples of people who are hurt spread very widely.
I know some of the painful experiences some of you have had in the past, and I know what some of you are living with more recently. And for every story that one of you has been kind enough to share with me, I don’t doubt there are ten more that I know nothing about. These words of Jesus are hard ones indeed.
And yet, precisely because Jesus is speaking about some of the most painful experiences we go through, we can’t ignore what he has to say. We live in a world that is broken, and we pick up knocks and bruises as we go through, and if Jesus has something to say about all that, we need to tune in. If Jesus had nothing to say about the things that cause us the most heartache, he’s not asking us to live in the real world when he calls us to follow him.
Context of Sermon on the Mount
Let’s remind ourselves how we’ve got here. Earlier in the year, we began looking together at the sermon on the Mount, which is what Jesus’ teaching in Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7 is often called. We’re going to pick that up again, now and again after the festival, by looking at the rest of chapter 5 together.
January is a long time ago, so let me remind us what came before this part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is teaching the crowds what it means to follow him, and he wanted to avoid giving them the idea that he was doing something really new. The Old Testament isn’t something to throw in the bin now that Jesus has come. Rather, he’s come to fulfil it. The Old Testament pointed to Jesus, and now that Jesus has come, we go below the surface and ask what it means to keep its requirements from our hearts. We still need to read and listen to the Old Testament, but we keep it in a fuller way than the people who lived before Jesus ever could.
At the heart of Old Testament law is the ten commandments. And commandment number seven is: You shall not commit adultery. You shall not commit adultery. So Jesus unpacks that. He says: If you’re going to follow me, the seventh commandment still applies. Adultery is still out. But the commandment itself is a bit brief. Let me show you what it pointed to. Let me show you how you can keep it in the fullest possible way.
Before we look at how Jesus takes us to the heart of the commandment on adultery, we need to deal with the fact that it all sounds so negative. You shall not commit adultery is a negative commandment. You shall not. And some people hear that and don’t like it because they think Jesus is being negative. And others hear that and misunderstand it because they think Jesus is being negative about sex.
In fact, the opposite is the case. Jesus develops his teaching more thoroughly in chapter 19, and it’s clear there that what underpins all of his teaching on sex and marriage is the fact that both are part of God’s good creation. God created marriage. And God created sex. And he looked at all that he had made and said that it was good.
No, Jesus has an extremely positive view of sex and marriage. So much so, that he wants us to use them in the way that God the creator intended. They are too good to use for the wrong purpose. And all that the commandment about adultery is then saying is something we know well – your most precious possessions are the things that you don’t share with anybody else.
So let’s see how Jesus unpacks this commandment. If you follow the Old Testament’s line of thought when it prohibits adultery, where does that take you?
And Jesus says: If you’re serious about avoiding adultery, there are two other things you need to stay well away from, because they will lead to adultery unless you’re very, very careful.
Lust can be tantamount to adultery
The first thing Jesus says is that lust can be tantamount to adultery. Lust can be tantamount to adultery.
Verse 27: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I says to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Jesus is saying you don’t have to commit physical adultery to break the seventh commandment. The lustful look that wishes you could sleep with someone who is not your husband or wife amounts to the same thing. In your heart. In the real you.
The person who eyes up a man or a woman they are not married to, and starts to plan how they could arrange something, who imagines things working out with them,… Jesus says: You’ve just committed adultery – in your heart. You may not have done anything with your body, but that’s just a lack of opportunity.
Now, Jesus is not saying that it’s wrong to look at someone of the opposite sex if they are attractive. He’s not saying it’s wrong to be attracted to someone. Good looks are also part of God’s good creation. But he is saying that there’s a big difference between looking and lusting, we all know the difference, and that lusting can be tantamount to adultery.
What does that mean in practice? Jesus says it means being utterly ruthless with sin. Verse 29: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away.
A few people throughout history have taken Jesus literally, and mutilated themselves. That’s not his point. I suspect that all those people found was that it is not the eye or the hand that causes us to sin; it’s the heart, and that’s something we can’t cut out.
No, he’s not saying we should have our limbs amputated. But the fact he’s not saying that does not mean he’s saying nothing. What he’s saying is quite clear, actually, isn’t it? We must be absolutely ruthless. If there is something that would cause us to trip up, to sin, we don’t do it.
So, if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out, translates as: If looking at something would lead you to sin in your heart,… don’t look!
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off, translates as: If doing something that is good in and of itself might cause you to sin, … don’t do it!
If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off, translates as: If going somewhere might lead you into sin, … don’t go there!
Years back, someone told me of a friend of his who had understood this. He knew that the posters beside the escalator on the Underground may be just adverts, but that the extent to which they were sexually explicit would tempt him to lust, and the products they advertised would tempt him to covet. So every time he went down to the platform or back to the surface, he did so with his eyes closed. It’s tempting to laugh, and the tube is busier than it was 20 years ago, so it might not work today. And Jesus says “if”. If your eye causes you to sin, which means that we’re all different and we each have to work out what it means for us. But before we laugh, that friend of my friend took these words of Jesus seriously. He knew what they meant for him.
Which means, for some of us, that it may feel that we are mutilating ourselves. There may be things we could do, places we could go, but we decide not to because we know they could lead us into sin. Perhaps a film you decide not to watch. Perhaps an art exhibition you choose not to go to, even though friends of yours see no problem. It may be fine for them. You mustn’t judge them, and they mustn’t judge you. But if, if you think something might cause you to sin, Jesus says, don’t do it. Maybe there are certain websites we don’t visit, certain physical locations where we don’t browse the web. I heard of somebody else who, whenever he had to travel for business, asked the hotel he was staying in to remove the TV from the room.
And Jesus’ logic is irrefutable. In your determination not to sin, Jesus says, you may lose out. But nothing you might lose even compares to the total lostness of hell.
Lust can be tantamount to adultery.
Divorce can be tantamount to adultery
The second thing Jesus says that the Old Testament law on adultery points to is more surprising. Jesus says that divorce can be tantamount to adultery. Divorce can be tantamount to adultery.
And I say “can be”, because we need to look very closely to see what Jesus is saying, and what he’s not saying.
Let’s read those verses again: It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
In the ancient world, a man could divorce his wife for just about any reason. The Old Testament regulated that in a number of ways, and one of them was by saying that the man had to give his wife her divorce papers. He had to give her a certificate that said she was free to marry any man she chose. He’s not just to let her go, without giving her the paperwork to find a new husband and a new home. He must do it properly.
Jesus says that if you look at the whole of the Old Testament, it points to the truth that marriage is permanent. It’s till death us do part. And so he says it’s possible for a man to divorce his wife, to give her that bit of paper, and yet if she marries again it would be adultery. In other words it’s possible to give her a certificate that says she’s free to marry, and for that certificate to be a lie. She isn’t free to marry again. If she did so, it would be adultery. And that can only be because she’s already married to someone else.
You see, imagine that someone sets up a website that sells divorces. It hasn’t got any judges or solicitors on its staff, just an entrepreneur. He knows how to word an English law divorce decree. And for £99.99, they will send you a document like that with your name printed on it. That paper is worthless. It’s a fake. Buying that piece of paper doesn’t make you divorced. A piece of paper like that only has any value if you are divorced.
So it was in the ancient world. Jesus says the husband could write his bit of paper if he wanted, but that wouldn’t make him and his wife divorced. The paperwork was a statement that a divorce had taken place; it didn’t make it happen.
That raises a big question, does it not? If the Old Testament points to the fact that God’s intention for marriage was for it to be lifelong, does that mean that there is no such thing as divorce? That divorce is always pretend?
No. Both the Old Testament and Jesus recognise the painful truth that things don’t always work out as God intended. There are things that can break a marriage. Jesus says as much, doesn’t he? Verse 32: I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. If one partner in the marriage is unfaithful, then that can break the marriage in God’s sight. Then the piece of paper is real. And the rest of the New Testament would add a couple of other situations where a marriage really does come to an end. It is tragic, when it happens.
Jesus’ concern is when you’re not in one of those situations. If you’re not in a situation where God says that the marriage is broken, then it’s not. You can get a solicitor, a magistrate or a judge to give you any piece of paper you like, but to remarry would be to commit adultery. Which is why divorce can be tantamount to adultery. Getting a lawyer to certify that your marriage is over doesn’t make it over.
…Let’s remind ourselves why Jesus was saying all this. Remember that he started with the ten commandments, and is unpacking for us what the command not to commit adultery points us to. And one of the things that command points to is the need to avoid the casual attitude to divorce that regards marriage as no more precious than a TV set – if it gets old and tired you throw it away and find a new one. Jesus says marriage is far more precious than that, so if you would avoid adultery, you need to avoid casual divorce.
And for those of us who are married, this means that if we would avoid adultery, we need to work at our marriages to make sure that they are as strong as they could possibly be.
Those are the two things Jesus says when he wants to spell out the commandment on adultery. Lust can be tantamount to adultery. Divorce can be tantamount to adultery.
Affects us all
When Jesus is dealing with personal and sensitive areas like this, it’s hard to hear him. For many of us, it hurts. So as we close, there are 3 brief comments I need to make to ensure we haven’t misheard him.
The first thing to say is that what Jesus is talking about affects all of us. I’m not just saying that we all know somebody who is affected by adultery or divorce, although that’s almost certainly true. Rather, what Jesus has said has opened up the seventh commandment so that it is relevant for all of us.
When we hear the commandment not to commit adultery, it’s something that it’s easy to dismiss. “I haven’t done that.”
Jesus widens avoiding adultery to get to the heart of the matter. Ruthlessly avoiding anything that might cause us to lust, and working at our marriages so that we never end up with a doubtful divorce – these are things for all of us, and they are areas where we all have failings to confess to God.
The broken realities of divorce and adultery may not be equally painful for all of us. But we all play our part in causing the pain that comes from ignoring God’s plan for sex and for marriage.
Be Perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect
The second comment to make is to remind ourselves that the high, high standard Jesus is setting here is not something he plucked out of thin air. Matthew chapter 5 ends with these words: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In short, if we are children of our heavenly Father, we should carry the family likeness. People tell me that you can see the resemblance between me and our 3 children. People should be able to see the resemblance between us and our Father in heaven. And one of the qualities of God is perfect faithfulness. So he calls us to be faithful, and that includes being faithful in marriage. That is where this comes from.
So the answer to all the brokenness and pain we see and feel is the faithfulness of God. And we can become part of that answer as we start to resemble God in his faithfulness. Think about how faithful he’s been to you and to me. We let him down, again and again, and he sticks with us, and never gives up. That is wonderful faithfulness, and Jesus invites us to be like him.
The Poor in Spirit
The final comment is to remember how chapter 5 started. Hearing Jesus spell out God’s perfect standards of faithfulness is enough to make anyone with a sensitive conscience feel small and inadequate.
God doesn’t love us according to how much faithfulness we are able to show. Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount by pronouncing God’s blessing on those who are poor in spirit – who feel they’ve failed and have nothing to give to God. So if thinking about this commandment makes you feel very small before God, you are someone Jesus came for and someone God wants to bless.
He gave God’s blessing on those who mourn – those who know their sin to be tragic and wish their lives had turned out other than they have. It is for people like that that Jesus came. And if that’s you, Jesus promises you real comfort. The kingdom of God is a place where we can enjoy the forgiveness of sins and the help of God’s Holy Spirit.
And he promised God’s blessing on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. If you long for a better world. A better world inside your heart, and a better world to live in, Jesus says that longing will be satisfied. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.