You know, as you read through the Bible, there are a few ways to approach it. You could take a shotgun approach where you just open the Bible up randomly to a few different places, read over them, and call it a day. You end up with a pretty wide spread of the word, but you don’t get much depth this way. You could also take more of a rifle approach where you focus really intently on a single place and learn everything about it before going on to anything else. But, whatever approach you take, eventually you are going to come across some pretty tough parts. There are some passages in the Bible that are just hard to deal with. This is not the same as passages that are hard to interpret like some places in Revelation. Many of these hard to deal with passages are fairly straightforward in their meaning and that’s the problem. We know what they are saying and we don’t like it. This morning, as we continue our journey through the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, we are going to encounter just such a passage.
One of the really fun parts about being a pastor is that I get to perform a lot of wedding ceremonies. Although I still have a long way to go before I could say I’m a pro, I’m up to eight weddings with number nine coming up here in a few weeks. Weddings are a lot of fun because they result in marriages which are inherently God-honoring things…when they are done right. You see, not all marriages are done right. In fact, at least in this country, many aren’t. The last time I heard the numbers, the rate of divorce in the U. S. is somewhere near 50%. The only reason it has fallen in the last few years is that so many couples are getting disillusioned with the idea of marriage and opting instead to simply live together. This is not a pretty reality, but it is the reality for a lot of people, including a lot of people in the church. A complicating part of this reality is that the Bible speaks to this issue. And a good bit of what it has to say is hard to deal with. Yet, deal with it we must because it is a valid part of the word of God which can lead us to live more successfully the life we are called to live as followers of Christ. Because whether we are single, married, divorced, widowed, or remarried, if we are going to take up the life of a follower of Jesus, we must be ready and able to heed the call of Jesus’ greater righteousness wherever we’re at in life.
This greater righteousness is what we have been talking about now for the last two weeks. We began by establishing just what Jesus meant by “greater righteousness.” It does not mean we are to walk around as “holier-than-thous,” shaming the people around us who don’t live up to our standards. Instead, it means that in this bland, dark world where everyone is forced to live in the same broken mold, we are to be salt and light. We are to bring life and vibrancy and hope and to wake people up to the truth of the world around them: Jesus is Lord and there is no other. We can accomplish this when, with the Spirit’s help, we perfectly live out the Law’s demands as they are understood through Christ. With this introduction to the topic in place, last week we looked at one example of an area in which this greater righteousness might be lived out: our relationships with other people. Specifically, we need to live with the people around us in a constant state of reconciliation and not let our selfish, unrighteous anger lead us to murder them; whether physically or in any other way.
This morning, we are going to deal with the next two of Jesus’ six antitheses. In these Jesus addresses the issues of adultery and divorce. Here is the reality we face each day: we inhabit a world and a culture that does not value the institution of marriage as revealed in the Bible. There are a myriad of challenges facing a couple who is considering taking up the journey of marriage. There are easy annulments and no-fault divorce laws if one partner decides they want out. The current tone of federal welfare laws rewards individuals who remain unmarried more than those who get married. The definition of marriage as revealed in the pages of Scripture is under constant attack from those who would see it broadened to include a plethora of unbiblical options. Add to all that the rampant sensuality—all geared to entice lust and to encourage partners to not limit their relational fulfillment options to a single person for the rest of their life—that characterizes most of our media, and you have the makings of a perfect marriage-wrecking storm. And yet, to sit back and simply let the winds blow is not the way of the greater righteousness. The greater righteousness of Jesus calls us to something better. It calls us to embrace a radical faithfulness to God (if we have been called to a celibate singleness) or to God and our spouse (if we have been called to marriage). If we are going to do either of these, but particularly marriage well, this radical faithfulness is a must. Let’s broaden this out, though. Not only is marriage made right by this radical faithfulness, all of life is. Life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness.
As we get into the text this morning, I want to break it up into two parts. We’ll deal with each part separately and then come back to talk about some of the issues we have raised. If you have your Bibles with you this morning, open them to Matthew 5, find verse 27, and follow along with me as I read. “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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
So let’s talk about adultery for just a minute. In Jesus’ day, adultery was not thought of as a primarily moral crime, but as a property crime. Wives were considered the property of their husbands. If a man slept with another man’s wife, he was guilty of damaging the property of the husband. If a married man slept with an unmarried woman, however, he might have been a cad, but no crime was committed. Thus, one of the first things that Jesus’ audience would have heard when he started talking here was that he was broadening the definition of adultery to include any kind of extramarital sexual activity. For Jesus, the moral issue was far more important than the civil issue because adultery was a breach of the scared covenant of marriage. As with the command to not murder, people were taking the command to not commit adultery, noting that they had not had intercourse with another person’s spouse, and putting a big checkmark in the “righteous” column. The problem with this is that none of God’s commands are about condemning isolated events. They are all about commending a heart-set that seeks to assign God and His standard of living first place in every category of life. Life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness.
In light of all of this, I want to jump straight into some practical applications of this text. If what is considered by most the “act” of adultery isn’t this issue here, what is? Well, what did Jesus say, again? “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” That’s tough. But maybe not quite as tough as it sounds at first glance. The key thing here is this phrase “lustful intent.” What is this? Well, to be frank, it’s sleeping with someone else in your mind. It is elevating the desire for another person to the place of God and forgetting the commitments and covenants we have made with someone else. I know we are tempted to say, “So what’s the big deal? I didn’t do anything.” Yet as we saw last week, physically doing something wrong is merely the logical extension of what has already happened in our minds. When we look with lustful intent at someone other than our spouse, we are giving license to see a desire fulfilled there that should only find fulfillment in one place: marriage. And let’s be really honest here for a second: the way Jesus phrases what He says here speaks specifically to men. Men, we are visually stimulated creatures. This is how God designed us. Marriage is an awesome place for this trait to find its fullest expression, but because of our sin-brokenness it can cause a lot of problems if we direct it anywhere else. This whole idea of ruthlessly rooting out the lustful look from our lives is generally more necessary for men than it is for women. Men, if you allow yourselves to experience heightened desire by looking at any other woman you have crossed the line. This means guarding carefully everything that we allow to reach our optical sensors. It means following in the footsteps of Job who said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” There’s simply no reason ever to do this and if we do whether unintentionally or with great intentionality, Jesus is clear on what we’re doing. We need to do whatever it takes to stop this. If it takes getting rid of magazines, do it. If it takes getting rid of television, do it. If it takes getting rid of the internet, do it. Whatever it takes, do it. Let’s repent and repledge ourselves to faithfulness. Life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness.
On the other side of this, though, is a challenge more specific to women. Our culture has crammed down the throats of women that in order to be enough, in order to have that fundamental question answered in the ways you seek, you have to be sexy and alluring and otherwise attractive. As a result, one of the things women in this culture learn early on—and more often in recent years than even a half-generation ago—is the sultry look. This is when you look at someone else with the intent to incite lust in them. You know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, find any picture of a woman in any advertisement and look at the way she’s looking at the camera. Because adultery is a two-way street, Jesus has this attitude in His crosshairs here as well. Not only is looking with lustful intent a precursor to physical adultery, but looking with the intent to incite lust is as well. Now, since women are not wired like men, the sultry look is not employed primarily for visual stimulation, but rather for the promise of relational intimacy which is a far more common driving force for women. In other words, husbands, if you want your wives to be excited about you, 1,000 things need to be right. But, if you know your wives, you can know what these are. Wives, if you want your husbands to be excited about you, you just have to show up. Yet just as husbands seeking arousal by looking at another women crosses a line, wives seeking relational intimacy from other men crosses a line. This is not the way things should be. Life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness.
Now, so that we’re clear, Jesus is not saying here that husbands and wives need to stop looking at people of the opposite gender entirely or stop even noticing the physical attractiveness of another person. We can’t put a stop to that. We really would have to poke out our eyes. Instead, He is talking about the second glance. And you know what I’m talking about. There’s a scene from a bad Adam Sandler movie (I know, some of you are asking if there’s any other kind but bear with me) called Click that demonstrates this. In the movie Sandler is given a universal remote that actually controls the universe. Soon after receiving the remote and figuring out exactly what it does he drives past a woman jogging. After seeing her once, he hits the rewind button on the remote to watch her pass again in slow motion. And the whole time she’s looking at him with sultry eyes. That’s the second look. And according to Jesus here, that’s adultery.
Jesus’ solution to this problem? It’s even more radical than His reinterpretation of it. Whatever it is that causes you to sin, get rid of it. If it’s an eye, gouge it out. If it’s a hand, cut it off. Whatever it is, get rid of it. Really? I mean, I know that some of the early followers of Christ practiced a radical asceticism, but I’ve never heard of anyone gouging out their eyes for the sake of the kingdom. Are we all just deliberately ignoring Christ’s command here? No. This is Jesus using more figurative language to make His point memorable. And I’d say it worked. The point is that this greater righteousness that gains one access to the kingdom is worth any price. No sacrifice is too small to keep the sin that would keep us from it at bay. Although Jesus does not literally figure on anyone dismembering themselves in order to keep sin at bay, He does want His followers to understand how serious sin—like adultery—really is. The greater righteousness calls for something different: life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness.
Let’s keep dealing with reality here, though. Reality is that of all the problems wrecking havoc in marriage, adultery is merely one of the worst. Although adultery is perhaps far more common than we’d like to think about (particularly given Jesus’ redefinition of it), many marriages fail without its corrupting power. Having some guidance on what to do in this case would be really helpful. Thankfully, Jesus speaks to this in our next section of text. Keep reading with me in v. 31: “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.”
Okay, I take it back. That really wasn’t helpful after all. In fact, that mostly just muddied the waters. I want to make this as clear for you as I can, but first we need to understand some background information. In Jesus’ day, wives could not divorce their husbands. Husbands, on the other hand, could divorce their wives, depending on the rabbinical school to which they subscribed, for reasons so paltry as burning their food or even not being pretty enough. Way back when Moses was still leading the people, divorce was every bit as common and was as easy for husbands as announcing their intent to divorce and throwing their now-ex wives out the door. This was a horrible situation for women. God really wasn’t a fan of any of it, but He was particularly concerned about the women and children who were being tossed to the gutter without recourse. As a result, He had Moses give the command that husbands must issue their wives a certificate of divorce before it could become official. By doing this, God was not giving His approval for the divorce prevalent in the Israelite society. Instead, He was making it more complicated and public in hopes of seeing or shaming pathetic men who wanted to be playboys man up and fulfill their duties as husbands and fathers. By Jesus’ day, however, instead of God’s intention for marriage being carried out, groups like the scribes and Pharisees had streamlined this command so that divorce wasn’t much more difficult than it was when Moses gave the original command.
Here’s the deal with all of this: God loves marriage. He loves single people, but He loves marriage. He invented it. As I said a bit ago, there is something inherently God-honoring in marriage. The marriage relationship itself is a reflection of God’s relationship with His people. It was designed as such. And in marriage, two people make a covenant with each other that at its inception was intended to be just as strong as any God has made with His people. When two people are joined in holy matrimony a bond is erected between them that is spiritual, emotional, relational, and physical. This bond is not easily broken. In fact, unless something is done to break the bond—and some examples here would be sexual immorality, abuse of any kind, having the non-believing spouse walk out if a believer is married to a non-believer—a simple piece of paper and a judicial declaration doesn’t do it. I don’t say this to seem hard-lined or unloving, but merely to shed light on the spiritual reality gleaming behind where we often look. Some of the ties of marriage are simply not ever broken. And in Jesus’ day, when adultery was a serious crime (but only if it was committed by a woman), Jesus used the mindset on adultery to shed some light on the realities of marriage. If the bonds of a marriage have not been broken (and again, a simple piece of paper doesn’t do the trick), for someone to make new bonds with another person before the first are severed is to transgress against the first. And given that the bonds have not been broken, for someone else to seek to make marital bonds with a person whose first bonds are not broken would make them an adulterer as well. But let’s push things just a bit further. Although Jesus’ contemporaries almost certainly would not have pursued legal action against an adulterer under His new terms, the penalty for adultery was death by stoning. So, if a husband divorced his wife for reasons other than sexual immorality, he makes her an adulterer when she remarries (which is assumed in this case). Adultery is a crime for which the penalty is death. This would make him guilty of another crime: murder. This is serious business. It is serious business that can be completely avoided if we pursue the call of Jesus’ greater righteousness: faithfulness. Life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness.
So that’s what’s going on in this passage. Let’s talk about what all this means for us. First a hard truth: divorce is a messy, messy thing. There is simply no such thing as a “good” divorce. There are sometimes necessary divorces in which the marriage bonds have been completely broken and even where there is a threat of physical harm to one partner or another by remaining in an already-broken marriage, but let us not pacify or otherwise fool ourselves with the silly notion that divorce itself is ever a positive good. Let us not fool ourselves. Life done well is rooted deeply in a radical faithfulness. We live today in a culture that all but encourages divorce as a solution to marital problems. I have yet to encounter this in my own premarital counseling practice (which is good as I would put an immediate halt on the whole proceedings), but I have heard stories of brides or grooms commenting that if this marriage doesn’t work out they can always get a divorce. Such a mindset is ridiculous and betrays a total lack of understanding of what goes on in a divorce. Divorce should not be a word that frequents our vocabulary. But for some extreme situations of abuse or impenitent infidelity, it should be an absolute last resort sought only after heaven and earth have been moved to preserve the marriage bonds. The problem is that our culture is cynical of marriage and unfortunately not without good reason. A whole lot of people have experienced this tragic reality as either active participants or as innocent bystanders. And if you’ve lived it once—whether as a participant or as a bystander (kids), it’s a lot easier to walk again. As a church, we should offer deeply sensitive ministry and care to anyone who has walked this road. Let us not fool ourselves: life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness.
But, neither let us fool ourselves in the other direction. Just because someone has walked this road does not mean they are now written off as far as God is concerned. Too many self-righteous fools carrying the banner of Jesus Christ have reduced to the status of object both divorce perpetrators and divorce victims. This is no less of a sin and perhaps a greater one than those which were involved in seeing the divorce happen in the first place. Let us take to heart the full measure of Christ’s words here for there is no doubt that a life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness. But let us also remember that we serve the God of reconciliation and redemption who sent His only begotten Son to earth to suffer and die the most horrendous death ever conceived by people in order that a people otherwise lost to sin might be able to have a relationship with Him. Do you think there is any chance in this world that this same God is going to let something like divorce keep Him from achieving the object of His quest? If you buy that one, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.
Here’s the glorious truth: a life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness. Here’s the important corollary: there’s no rules on the kind of soil in which such a planting process needs to begin. It need only be fertile. And we serve the Great Gardener who can render rich and fertile even summer soil north Texas. Jesus isn’t interested in condemning you for your past. He’s interested in redeeming you from it. He’s interested in redeeming it regardless of what’s there—even if it’s colored by divorce or the kind of sin that can lead to it. A life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness and that faithfulness (radical because it’s uncharacteristic of the world) can begin wherever you are even if you don’t like how you got there. You want the evidence of this? Look at the number of people serving faithfully in churches across this country who have experienced adultery or divorce. Some of you know exactly what I am talking about. This church wouldn’t be complete without your ministry. Indeed, this church is a place where people can belong regardless of how they’ve gotten here. This is a place where people matter, whoever they are, and are empowered to engage their world for Christ. A life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness and as a church we help each other live out such faithfulness.
Let’s be clear: Jesus’ words here are tough. They’re so tough that a lot of people have turned from Him because of what they understand them to mean. But here’s the deal: these words are aimed at insiders, at people already following Him. If you are following Jesus, this is the standard. This is how to be salt and light in a bland, dark world. This is the greater righteousness played out. It’s a high bar, but regardless of how you have come to follow Jesus, He is ready to help you clear it. It makes absolutely no difference if you are single, married, divorced, widowed, or remarried. This life of radical faithfulness can start where you are now. And when you start doing it, it will be a life done well. A life done well is rooted in a radical faithfulness.