Commentary on Matthew 5:27-32
Sermon on the Mount (cont’d):
Today Jesus takes two more texts from the Old Testament to continue illustrating his attitude to the Law and its meaning.
Another of the Ten Commandments says: “You must not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). Adultery is here understood as a sexual relationship between two people at least one of whom is already married to someone else. But, for Jesus, for a man even to look at another woman with lust (he does not say whether either of them is married) is already to have violated the spirit of the commandment and the kind of relationship that he expects between people. We would need to distinguish here between a man finding a woman particularly beautiful or attractive and, on the other hand, looking on her as an object for sexual gratification. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with the former. We might also add that what is said here of men applies equally to women. If women are not mentioned it is because in ancient society the initiative for sexual activity seldom was available to the woman.
This commandment, in fact, is not primarily about sexual acts; it is about the inviolable dignity of each person. It is about the deep respect that people ought to have for their own bodies and the bodies of others. Other people cannot be used simply for one’s personal pleasure or to satisfy one’s sexual appetites – not even in the secret recesses of one’s mind and heart.
Jesus puts the situation rather graphically. He says it would be better to go physically maimed through life rather than allow oneself be led into a situation where another person could be so dishonoured. In human beings, our sexual powers have a double purpose: to express a deep and genuine love between two people and for the procreation of new life.
Related to this, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy (24:1): “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ.” The original text reads as follows: “Supposing a man has taken a wife and consummated the marriage; but she has not pleased him and he has found some impropriety of which to accuse her; so he has made out a writ of divorce for her and handed it to her and then dismissed her from his house; she leave his home and goes away to become the wife of another man.” The text goes on to say that, if this woman then is divorced by her new husband, her first husband may not take her back “now that she has been defiled in this way. For that is detestable in the sight of Yahweh” (cf. Deut 24:1-4).
Two things seem clear: it is men who can initiate divorce and on the flimsiest of pretexts; it is the woman who is guilty of adultery by marrying another man, which is why she cannot be received back by her first husband. (So, most men would want to marry virgins and it explains the pathetic plight of the widow in Scripture.)
Jesus challenges both of these traditions. The Jews accepted divorce but Jesus is ruling it out. The only exception for a marriage to be dissolved is on the basis of porneia (porneia). There is much discussion on the meaning of this term but it seems that it refers to a special situation in Matthew’s community. Certain types of marriage between Jews were regarded as incestuous but were allowed in the case of a Jew marrying a Gentile. But Matthew is saying that in the case of a Gentile becoming a Christian (and marrying a Jewish convert), such exceptions would not be allowed and divorce should not take place. Jesus says further that a man who marries a woman who has been divorced commits adultery.
Jesus is first of all putting men and women morally on an absolutely equal level. He is making the marriage contract something to be taken very seriously with grave responsibilities on both sides. This issue will come up again later (Matt ch. 19) and cause some dismay among Jesus’ disciples.
In our day, the whole question of marriage and the family is fraught with serious problems. Among them are divorce and adultery, although the problems here are somewhat different from that of Jesus’ time. The kind of divorce that Jesus speaks about is of a unilateral decision by a husband who wants to be rid of his wife, often for trivial reasons. In modern society, it is more often the result of the painful breakdown of a marriage relationship. While emphasising that nowadays each case must be treat with great pastoral sensitivity, we do need to remind ourselves of the fundamental values and attitudes that Jesus is underlining in this passage.