Christ pivots to the heart in this key text in Scripture:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)
Just two sentences from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, but Pope John Paul II (JPII) spends over 35 weeks unpacking its meaning (TOB 24-59). That’s thirty-five consecutive sermons on just a couple of sentences. I remember wondering how Protestant pastors can spend 45+ minutes on just a single passage in Scripture, but I guess they have nothing on JPII.
While I’m still only at TOB 53 and have yet to finish JPII’s exegesis of this specific passage from the Sermon on the Mount, I think I can at least share some of what I’ve learned. I’m surprised to find it has been almost three weeks since I last posted. I was lost in Scripture (praise God!), but it’s time to strike camp and take a breather. Reflect and share what I’ve been seeing in His forest. What I saw was an ugly side of myself that I managed to keep well-hidden. Thanks be to God, the light of the Holy Spirit shined into the cobwebbed parts of my soul.
JPII focuses on this particular verse in Matthew because “Jesus brings about a fundamental revision of the way of understanding and carrying out the moral law of the Old Covenant (TOB 24:1).” I was surprised to learn that despite the severe punishments for adultery in the Old Testament, there were loopholes for men. (No exceptions for women.) For example, the prostitution trade back in OT times were mainly operated out of temples (cf. Gen 38:13-21; Job 36:14). There were “sacred” female and male temple prostitutes. While it was a sin for a married man to use a prostitute, an exception was made for unmarried or widowed men who used unmarried prostitutes. This was not how it was “in the beginning” (Gen 1 & 2, before Original Sin). Christ actually exhorted his fellow Jews to do even better than the law, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). These loopholes for adultery happened because the meaning of the original commandment willed by God suffered deformation (TOB 24:4). “[T]he history of the Old Testament is clearly the theater of the systematic defection from monogamy” (TOB 35:2) because of the desire for numerous offspring.
Adultery is understood above all (and perhaps exclusively) as the violation of the man’s property rights regarding every woman who was his legal wife (usually one among many); adultery is not understood, by contrast, as it appears from the point of view of the monogamy established by the Creator. (TOB 35:4)
Interpreters of the Old Covenant permitted polygamy, concubines and cohabitation with slave women. They were not by God’s original design, but became exceptions over time.
With the phrase “[every man] who looks at a woman with lust,” Christ shifts the center of gravity to man’s interior disposition. There’s already a basis for this shift to the inner heart of man in Proverbs 6:25 and Sirach 9:8. When you lust after someone, you are reducing them to an object that could satisfy your sexual desire. This mere act destroys “the stupendous spousal meaning of the body” (TOB 40:4). So, not just the physical act of adultery was a sin, but my imagination, my fantasies of adultery were sins!
JPII then sets the stage for the moral whopper: “It is significant that Christ, when he speaks about the object of this act, does not stress that she is ‘another’s wife,’ a woman who is not one’s own wife, but says generically, a woman. (TOB 43:2)” Adultery committed in the heart is different than adultery committed in the flesh because it goes beyond interpersonal relations and into the heart of man, where sin can hide. Christ, in using the generic term “woman”, includes all women — including a man’s legal wife:
Adultery “in the heart” is not committed only because the man “looks” in this way at a woman who is not his wife, but precisely because he looks in this way at a woman [emphasis original]. Even if he were to look in this way at the woman who is his wife, he would commit the same adultery “in the heart” (TOB 43:2).
Wow. That’s a whopper. All this time, I was committing adultery against my wife because I desired her as a sexual object. I was using her to satisfy my own urges, stirred up because of some gratuitous nudity in a movie I watched, or simply from my lustful imaginations. Even when I was focused on my wife, could I honestly say to God that it was not out of lust? When did I ever truly appreciate the spousal meaning of my wife’s body? Rarely, if ever. It’s uncomfortable to admit, but the Holy Spirit was shining his light on these cobwebs of sin that have grown in my interior castle. Instead of being embarrassed, I marveled at how long this sin was kept hidden, how easy it was to miss. I could’ve lived for years thinking I was a good husband, a good father, without ever realizing that when it came to sex, I am as guilty of violating God’s original intention as any other non-believer.
In case my ego wanted to resist being embarrassed, JPII continues with his logic that I found hard to resist:
The concupiscence that arises as an interior act on this foundation changes the very intentionality of the woman’s existence “for” the man by reducing the wealth of the perennial call to the communion of persons, the wealth of the deep attraction of masculinity and femininity, to the mere satisfaction of the body’s sexual “urge”. Such a reduction has the effect that the person becomes for the other person above all an object for the possible satisfaction of his own sexual “urge.” In this way, a deformation takes place in the reciprocal “for,” which loses its character as a communion of persons in favor of the utilitarian function. The man who “looks” in the way described in Matthew 5:27-28 “makes use” of the woman, of her femininity, to satisfy his own “drive.” Even if he does not use her in an external act, he has already taken such an attitude in his interior when he makes this decision about a particular woman. Adultery “committed in the heart” consists precisely this. A man can commit such adultery “in the heart” even with his own wife, if he treats her only as an object for the satisfaction of drives. (TOB 43:3)
Christ’s words opened up the innermost recesses of my heart so that the Holy Spirit could fulfill the law as it was originally was intended by God. Our bodies have a spousal meaning. My wife is an image of God, a living gift to be cherished. While my broken nature may have a tendency to reduce my wife to a mere sexual object, I can always turn to the Holy Spirit to increase my awareness.