After a couple of weeks elsewhere, we are back into our Sermon on the Mount series. We picked up where we left off, in the middle of Jesus’ “You have heard it said…” statements. This week’s passage is Matthew 5:27-30:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
These are strong verses that we’ve likely all heard before in one way or another. The words of Jesus in this passage (and all throughout scripture) are often taken out of context and misunderstood. As we have been discussing for weeks now, what Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is inviting his followers to go deeper, beyond surface-level, law-abiding living that stops short of transforming hearts. A few weeks ago, I wrote,
“He came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love …Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended.”
And in our first “You’ve Heard it Said…” post, Luanne wrote,
“Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.”
It’s important that we keep these things in mind as we continue to explore passages that are sometimes difficult to understand.
Pastor John led us on a word journey through these verses on Sunday, explaining what they meant in the original language and expanding their meanings within the context of this passage. We looked at the words adultery, lustfully, hell, and stumble. I learned a few things… Let’s look at each word before we talk about the passage as a whole.
Adultery, John told us, is something we commit. It is a form of idolatry. When we commit adultery, we are satisfying ourselves; it is self-serving. It is something we first allow, and then give ourselves to. It is not simply about sexual misconduct–our lusts can lead us to be unfaithful and to sin against God, others, and ourselves in a multitude of ways.
Lustfully is a compound word that means to turn upon a thing. It relates to something we long for on the outside of us. It is passion or anger, heat or hate, that boils up and moves us toward what we eventually give ourselves to in the acts of adultery. Pastor John said, “The lust grows from within you, looking to find something to satisfy your heart.”
The word translated hell in this passage is the word Gehenna. Gehenna was a literal place, a garbage dump outside of the city that was always burning the waste and dead animals deposited there. There was no life or fruitfulness in that place of waste.
Stumble comes from the Greek skandalon (where our English word scandal comes from), meaning to trap or ensnare, to cause to offend.
With these definitions in mind, Pastor John read the verse back to us in reverse order, in his own words, that we might hear it from a different perspective:
“From out of your heart comes the action of committing adultery, because you are lusting, longing, desiring, placing all that is within you towards something outside of you. This is what I’m telling you,” says Jesus.
The people Jesus was speaking to knew what the law said. And their teachers had made clear to them what actions to avoid and what the consequences would be should they choose to break those laws. They lived disciplined on the outside, but Jesus implored them–as he implores us today–to look deeper. As we’ve discussed before, surface-level behavior modification is not what Jesus is after. He wants our hearts.
John told us about Saint Anthony of the Desert, also known as Saint Anthony the Great. He is revered for his disciplined life, as he spent 35 years in isolation, many of them living in a tomb. He sought to live away from any distractions, any exterior things that could draw his thoughts away from God. He desired that Jesus be his teacher and influence, and he lived in solitude on purpose. He found that, even while living such a disciplined life, he could not escape the temptations and bad thoughts–because they existed in his own mind. Even in isolation, he took himself with him.
Even without outside influences, the work of cultivating the soil of our hearts in the ways of Jesus takes commitment and a willingness to look deeper…
So what do we make of how Jesus says to handle our adulterous thoughts and actions? Are we to take him at his word and gouge out our eyes, cut off our hands? Of course not. Jesus was speaking in hyperbole. We can look at the eye as the symbol of our thoughts that result from what we take in. The hand symbolizes the actions we take that flow out of the desires within us. Together, Pastor John said, they were thought as a pathway toward sin. The emphasis on the “right” hand and eye refers to what they saw as their “stronger” side. So Jesus may have been telling them to take the things they thought were their strength, and if those things led them to sin, remove them from their lives. What that means for each of us will look different, as adultery plays out in a myriad of ways.
Unfortunately, many of us have heard these verses taught this way,
“If you don’t cut off your hand or gouge out your eye, you’re going to hell.”
Of course, most of us have never been advised to actually take these extreme physical measures. But there are other ways we brutalize ourselves and allow ourselves to be abused by others out of fear of eternal damnation.
Let’s look at Jesus’ words again:
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Taking the context and original words into consideration, here is another way to look at these verses:
If the way you’re seeing things, how you choose to look at them, is setting a trap for your mind and leading you toward sin, let that part of you go so you can see a new way. And if the things you choose to do are manifestations of the heated passions and hateful anger boiling up and spewing out from within you, causing you to turn upon something or someone for self-serving purposes, that part of you needs to be cut away from the fabric of your heart so you don’t lose all of yourself to your idolatry. It is better to change the way you see and to turn away from the things you think you want to do than to end up in the wasteland where nothing lives.
Jesus wants his followers to live in such a way that brings his kingdom to bear on earth. That’s his whole point in the sermon he gave on the mount. Behavior modification wasn’t changing the world then, and it isn’t changing it now. Fear of judgement didn’t change hearts then, and it doesn’t change hearts now. Outward expressions of worship disconnected from the heart are not what he desired then, and he’s not impressed with them now. He wants us to know his heart for people, for the world, and to follow him so closely that his heart becomes our own. He wants undivided hearts that worship from the inside out, and undivided lives given fully to him and not split between other desires. He doesn’t want us to waste our lives on what will never satisfy, but to live in a way that makes a difference for his kingdom. It begins in our hearts and moves outward. It never works when we try to do that backwards.
How can your words be good and trustworthy if you are rotten within? For what has been stored up in your hearts will be heard in the overflow of your words!
(Matthew 12:34b, TPT)
As water reflects the face,
so one’s life reflects the heart.
You will find living within an impure heart evil ideas, murderous thoughts, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lies, and slander.
So above all, guard the affections of your heart,
for they affect all that you are.
Pay attention to the welfare of your innermost being,
for from there flows the wellspring of life.
You have heard it said…but I say…
I think it’s wise to sit with that phrase for a while. Jesus, in this sermon, doesn’t change what’s been said or what’s been written; what he makes clear, however, is his people– his followers, have misunderstood the intent of those words. He is taking them deeper and teaching the correct interpretation of the law. As Laura highlighted above, it’s not about behavior modification. It’s about the condition of our hearts. It always was, and still is about being rightly related to God and to others–loving God and others authentically, creating a world filled with God’s shalom in which all people can flourish and become all God made them to be.
Jesus began the sermon on the mount with the beatitudes–the heart condition and way of being of his kingdom people, leading to such a radically different way of living that they will be salt and light in the world. We mustn’t “chunk” up the sermon on the mount into verses that come under subheadings; the entire sermon is connected and built on the foundation of the beatitudes.
This week, just like in the previous “you have heard it said” sermon that Pastor John preached, Jesus again moves through the action word (murder, adultery) and goes to the deeper heart issue (anger, lust). Outward actions, outward words are indicators of our heart’s condition and our thought lives. Too often our way of being in the world is more a reflection of our own thoughts than the Spirit-filled beatitude way of being.
Adultery, the action of being unfaithful, begins within. We can be unfaithful to God and others in a myriad of ways, and each way is an indicator that our heart center has gotten off course.
The words that define the inner workings of lust are strong words: Passion. Anger. Heat. Hate. Without a doubt, if left unchecked these inner experiences and inner emotions lead to Gehenna where we burn up our own lives.
I can think of a few biblical examples of this right off the bat. I referred to Cain a couple of weeks ago, and will refer to him again…
God said to Cain “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen 4:6-7)
Cain did not rule over sin, murdered his brother, and was banished from his land and people. He lived in Gehenna and murderous violence became part of his lineage. (See Gn 4:23-24)
King David (who was home when he shouldn’t have been) lusted over Bathsheba which led to sexually abusing her; she became pregnant, he tried to cover it up and eventually killed her husband. (2nd Sam 11-12). In Psalm 32 David recalls what it felt like to live in Gehenna when he wrote: When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. (Ps. 32: 3-4)
Judas had an issue with money. Chapter 12 of John’s gospel informs us that after a female worshipper poured expensive perfume on Jesus, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (Jn 12:4-6) . As we know, he later betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (was it the money that he lusted after, anger at Jesus, or something else?). After Jesus’ arrest, Judas, in Gehenna, took his own life (Mt. 27:3-5)
When Stephen was stoned, Saul (Paul)–a defender of the Jewish faith approved of their killing him… Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8: 1 & 3). Paul does not give us much insight into his Gehenna; however, in 1st Corinthians 15:9 he says I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
Cain and Judas suffered hard consequences, King David and Paul acknowledged their sin, experienced God’s grace, left Gehenna and went on to live in the presence of God.
We learn from Paul, that staying out of Gehenna involves a thought battle and how to fight that thought battle so that our hearts and beings can be formed by the Holy Spirit. He writes: So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1-2 The Message)
Written another way: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (NLT)
Paul also tells us: Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. (Romans 8:5-7)
Our actions follow our thoughts; our thoughts reflect our hearts. We have heard it said don’t “do” certain things. Jesus says look deeper- it begins in your being, in your heart.
Jesus tells us A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart. (Luke 6:45 NLT)
God is the creator of new hearts. Every moment of every day he is willing to give us one. If our own thoughts, our own actions, our own words are showing us that we are headed to Gehenna, let’s look deeper. What have we given ourselves to? What are we lusting after, and why? If we’re currently in Gehenna, let’s repent, let’s change the way we think and let God restore us. If our way of being looks like our culture rather than God’s kingdom, let’s explore that. If we are not seeing God, let’s investigate what it is we are seeking instead–what has our hearts? Let’s take the time to go deeper.
Heavenly Father, Create a new, clean heart within [us]. Fill [us] with pure thoughts and holy desires, ready to please you. (Ps. 51:10 TPT)
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God…
God, we want to see you.