As Jesus continues his commentary on the surpassing kingdom righteousness he expects his followers to embody, he turns to the seventh commandment: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’…”
After the children of Israel were delivered from the promiscuous culture of Egypt, this command was set before them to set them apart unto God’s standard of holiness. They were to be monogamous. They were not to adulterate, or corrupt themselves, with additional partners. As the LORD is uniquely One, their spouses were to be uniquely one, a practice to help shape the people into a unique people, a kingdom people. The seventh commandment would safeguard these sacred spouses and standards.
But by the time of Jesus, the command may not have been considered so much a safeguard of sanctification as a pinpoint to alert people of how close to the line they could play without actually crossing it. Lines get played with all the time, especially with the sexual. We make satisfaction a priority of the flesh. We steal glances, we ogle, we linger; we pine and yearn, we daydream and fantasize, we flirt and tease. We make jokes, add playful commentary, we read and emotionalize novels; we watch and masturbate to videos. And the whole time we tell ourselves “at least I’m not crossing that cheating line”.
Jesus understood the real struggle happening within our hearts; he knew our tendency to negotiate those lines. So he clarifies what counts as adultery: “…but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Looking is not the problem; we all naturally look at people to either acknowledge, address, or be aware of them. The problem is lust, that craving that extends the initial look and continues long after. It is lust that corrupts us, adulterating our hearts which God has reserved for his holiness.
Jesus has already premeditated this conversation in his beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We all want to perceive God’s presence. But first we must understand the condition of our hearts shapes the substance of our vision; if we are to perceive God’s presence, we must cleanse our hearts of contaminate lusts. Purity paves our perception of God’s presence. Cleansing our hearts of contaminate lusts creates clarity to behold and be formed by Christ’s holy character. Purity is necessary because if we cannot perceive God’s presence, we will not perceive God’s purposes; as with the original recipients of the seventh commandment, that purpose is to be his kingdom people whose lives are reflections of his redemption.
Jesus then emphasizes the importance of purity, saying “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”
It is often debated whether Jesus is employing hyperbole here for the sake of emphasis or is actually promoting an extreme level of devotion occasionally exemplified in eunuchs (see Mt 19). Sometimes I wonder if this continued debate is precisely what Jesus wants; while we continue struggling in our hearts and lives with how far we can or should play with the lines, the prolonged discussion of Jesus’ words continue to set his seriousness for purity into that struggle, strengthening and sanctifying us to enduringly go the distance in following him, embodying his kingdom righteousness with each obedient step. No matter how long we struggle for satisfaction, Jesus’ words are always right there shaping us for sanctification.
What is not debatable in this discussion is that when it comes to purity and holiness, Jesus is serious. He is serious about tearing out and cutting off whatever is hindering his holiness in our hearts. He is serious about his followers embodying a kingdom righteousness that surpasses our proclivity for satisfaction and presses forward into his priority for sanctification.
Jesus understands this struggle, how it often seems insurmountable. It is not. Jesus preaches purity because he wants to set cleansed clarity into our toxic chaos; Jesus wants us to see him clearly. To see him as God with us; to see his footsteps form the way of escape, the righteous way that sanctifies us to not only endure this struggle, but surpass it.