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Matthew 5:27-32

Adultery, lust, and divorce start in the heart.

Tom Faletti

May 2, 2024

Matthew 5:27-30 Adultery and lust


What does the Old Testament say in Exodus 20:14 and Deut. 5:18?


What is lust?


Why would Jesus say a person who lusts has already committed adultery in their heart?


Is there a difference between committing adultery “in your heart” and committing physical adultery?


What is Jesus prohibiting here?

Jesus prohibits not only the action but the intense thoughts that underlie or can lead to the action.


While Jesus is telling us to reject the thoughts that can lead to the action, we need to make a distinction between uninvited thoughts and the thoughts we nurture.  Thoughts pop into our minds all the time.  When uninvited, instinctual desires pop into our mind unbidden, that is not, in itself, a sin.  When we intentionally nurture those thoughts and enjoy the fact that they are arousing our sexual passions, that is when we are embracing the lust that Jesus is telling his followers to reject.  We cannot help looking at people, and our bodies sometimes react to what we see.  But when we allow our eyes to linger so that our desires can be fed, then we have crossed the line.


Why does he prohibit even entertaining the thought of adultery?  What difference does a thought make?

Actions begin with thoughts.  Choosing to entertain the thought of lust means imagining that you are relating sexually with someone who is not your spouse.  To choose to desire something which would violate the marriage commitment, Jesus says, is already a violation of that commitment to have only your spouse.


When we look at another person as someone to have sex with, we are looking at them primarily as a body rather than as a whole person.  We are called to treat all people as being made in the image of God, to treat them as people carrying infinite human dignity.  In what ways does looking at someone with lust violate this principle of human dignity?


In verses 29-30, do you think Jesus is actually recommending that people pluck out an eye or cut off a hand to avoid lust?  (Would that actually solve the problem of lust, or could a one-handed person still lust?)  What is Jesus’s point?

Jesus is not speaking literally here.  He is using the traditional Jewish technique of exaggeration or hyperbole to emphasize the importance of what he is saying.  He is telling us to take our thought life seriously and not to allow our thoughts to linger in places they do not belong.


Jesus clearly takes our inner thought life very seriously.  Daniel J. Harrington tries to explain the thinking behind what Jesus is saying in this way: “The salvation of the whole person is of more value than the preservation of any one part that may lead to sin” (The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 29).  Myron S. Augsburger says, “We should understand these statements attitudinally, just as the previous injunction is addressed to our thoughts and attitudes.  This means taking literally the basic intent of the passage, rather than physically removing the eye. The loss of one eye or one hand cannot in itself prevent a lustful look or thought.  The word-picture is to emphasize deliberate, decisive action in dealing with our propensity to sin” (Matthew, p. 74).


Does our culture take our thought life as seriously as Jesus does?  What is the prevailing attitude regarding thinking about things that would be sinful if acted upon?


Do you take your thought life as seriously as Jesus does?


The word translated “hell” in this passage is literally the Greek word Gehenna, which Jesus also uses in verse 22.  Gehenna was the valley of Hinnom, a valley running along the south and southwest side of Jerusalem that had an ugly history.  More than 700 years before Christ (in the 700s B.C.), it was a place where children were burned in sacrifice to the god Moloch (see 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31-33; and Jeremiah 32:35).  That location later came to be known as a garbage dump where refuse was burned, leading to its being used as a metaphor for hell.


How can we avoid or fight lust and sins that involve our thoughts?

It is a well-known principle that you can’t banish a thought by saying you won't think about it  The more you try to “not think" it, the more you tend to focus on it.  The only ways to get one thought out of your mind is by replacing it with another thought.  So in this case, we need to replace the lustful thoughts with thoughts about good things.  Barclay also suggests that a life of action helps.  He says of the person struggling with sinful thoughts, “[H]e will certainly never defeat the evil things by withdrawing from life and saying, I will not think of these things.  He can only do so by plunging into Christian action and Christian thought.  He will never do it by trying to save his own life; he can only do it by flinging his life away for others” (Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 147).  A life filled with good actions and good thoughts has less room for lust.



Matthew 5:31-32 Divorce


Read Deuteronomy 24:1-4.


According to Deuteronomy 24:1, for what reasons might a man give his wife a certificate of divorce?


There were two great Jewish scholars in the years before Jesus’s time – Hillel and Shammai – who launched two primary “houses” or schools of thought.  The school of Hillel believed in marriage but interpreted Deut. 24:1 so loosely that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, while a woman could never divorce her husband without his consent.  The school of Shammai was far less lenient about divorce.  In contrast, the Greeks and Romans of Jesus’s time had an extremely low regard for marriage and little disapproval of sexual relationships outside of marriage.  Having concubines and lovers other than your spouse was a normal part of society.   In all of these cultures, obtaining a divorce was simple.  In Israel and Rome, a man could have a divorce by simply writing a statement of divorce witnessed by two people.  The Greeks didn’t even require a written statement; a man could simply dismiss his wife in the presence of two witnesses, although the woman at least got her dowry back (Barclay, Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 148-155).


How might Deut. 24:1 have been interpreted more permissively or less permissively?


What impact would the permissive practices of these cultures have had on the security of women?


How does Jesus redefine the law of divorce? How does this transform the thinking about divorce?


Note: Matthew allows an exception in 5:32, which is translated in the NRSV as: “except on the ground of unchastity.”  Older translations of the New American Bible said, “lewd conduct is a separate case,” but the current NABRE retranslates it in a way that more clearly upholds Catholic Church teaching on divorce: “unless the marriage is unlawful.”  The Greek word that is here is porneia, which was used to describe a range of illicit/unlawful sexual activity and might refer to adultery or might refer to other unlawful situations such as incest.  Most Protestant denominations interpret it to refer to adultery and allow divorce in cases of adultery.  Catholic scholars argue that if Jesus had meant “adultery” rather than other kinds of “unlawful” situations, he would have used the more common word for adultery, which he uses later in the same sentence.  In practice, the Catholic Church offers an annulment process for marriages, allowing annulments in situations where the marriage was founded on a misunderstanding of true marriage, and that misunderstanding of true marriage in some cases might be demonstrated in part by an unwillingness of a spouse to be committed to the sexual exclusivity of Christian marriage.


We will hear more about marriage in Matthew 19:3-9.  The New Testament also includes Ephesians 5:21-33, which sees the marriage covenant between husband and wife as an image of Christ’s covenant with his people, the church.


How does Jesus’s new law on divorce change the status of marriage?


How does Jesus’s new law on divorce affect the status of women?


Where does our society today fit on the scale of possible views of marriage and divorce?  How does it compare to the teaching of Jesus on marriage and divorce?


What difference does it make how our society views divorce?


What can we do to encourage strong marriages?



Take a step back and consider this:


Although Jesus’s teachings about adultery, lust, and divorce here could be seen as simply a series of “don’ts,” in the broader context of the Sermon on the Mount these teachings might be better seen as calling for a transformation in a married couple’s thoughts and attitudes toward each other.  In marriage as Jesus sees it, husbands and wives are committed to each other.  They aren’t thinking about having sex with anyone else.  They aren’t looking for a way to get out of their marriage commitments. They are committed to finding their fulfillment in each other.


What might we say or do to help reclaim the vision of marriage as a union of committed love where the desire to stray is never nurtured because the commitment to mutual fulfillment is paramount?


How can we help married couples to keep their eyes on their mutual commitment to love each other, when the marriage is tested and the temptation to “look at another with lust” arises?



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Copyright © 2024, Tom Faletti (Faith Explored, This material may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration, for nonprofit use, provided such reproductions are not sold and include this copyright notice or a similar acknowledgement that includes a reference to Faith Explored and See for more materials like this.

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