Lent, Day 10 — Sexual Ethics

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Sexual Ethics

You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery.  But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman [to covet her] has already committed adultery in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into [Gehenna]. And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into [Gehenna].
(Matthew 5:27-30)

  1. Because so much Christian religion has been negative toward the body and sexuality, these verses have been used to do harm. Some people have taken this verse literally and mutilated themselves to avoid lust. Needless shame and guilt have been piled on people in order to make them pliable for religious manipulation, even while religious leaders have been shameless in committing abuse and harassment.
  2. It must be pointed out that Jesus is talking to men. He lives in a patriarchal culture and addresses this from a patriarchal perspective.
  3. I believe the better translation here is not lust, but covet. It’s the same word used for the Greek version of the ten commandments: “Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20:17). Jesus is tying two of the ten commandments together: the commandment against adultery and the commandment against coveting.
  4. If sexual desire itself is a sin, God screwed up, because sex and sexual desire are necessary for life to continue on this planet. I think “covet” makes more sense given his next statement about divorce (which I will address tomorrow).
  5. A recent meme from the #metoo movement reframes this passage: “Remember when Jesus told men that instead of blaming women for wearing revealing clothing, they should just chop off their hands and pluck out their eyes?” I think that’s a needed corrective for the historical abuse of these verses.
  6. Another way to reframe this passage: There’s a lot of feminist scholarship on the way “the gaze” of a male viewer judges, evaluates, and objectifies women. Who has a right to look and be looked at? Who has a right to leer and catcall? Whose naked body is an object of pornography or art, and whose body gets to be a subject who acts, feels, and desires? How does gender inequality and our sexualization of other people affect our relationship with God?
  7. As in the passage about murder, I think Jesus is trying to get listeners to make several moves. It’s relatively easy to avoid murder or adultery. It is much more difficult to change the way we view ourselves in relation to others. Again, Jesus is pointing out the deeper truth to which the Law and Prophets point.
  8. Remember how Jesus is rebuking both the conservatives and liberals of his day? This passage does the same in our day. Our views of sexual ethics and power are deeply warped, and can become obstacles to our spiritual enlightenment and life in God. Neither Puritan nor libertine Christianity will save us from these distortions of human worth.
  9. This is the first place in the Sermon where Jesus mentions Gehenna, which usually gets translated as “hell.” It was literally the trash dump outside of Jerusalem, and while it does connote punishment in the afterlife, I don’t think Jesus meant it the way modern Christians do.
  10. Still, it reflects urgency. We can’t afford to be lackadaisical about sexual ethics. We’ve seen the damage and injustice our current system can do.
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