by Robert Jacobs
“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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:27-28 (ESV)
In response to the 2011 World Health Organization’s charge to “pay greater attention to the shorter life expectancy of men,” Brown University’s B-Well Health Services Program announced that they would offer a new initiative for their male identified students titled, “Unlearning Toxic Masculinity.” According to the description of the program found on the university webpage, current cultural expectations of masculine behavior encourage risky conduct and an unwillingness to seek help when overwhelmed. (Baker et al., 2014) Brown University Health Services goes on to note that “the way that young men are conditioned to view sex and their need to be dominant and have power over others also [contributes] to instances of sexual assault and other forms of interpersonal violence on college campuses.” While I am reluctant to fully agree with the University’s vision for masculinity, I can with confidence say that the kind of possessive, aggressive, and self-serving sexuality they describe has been a problem long before the advent of the western university system. Jesus, in fact, addresses this very problem in Matthew, Chapter 5.
Jesus tackles our perversion of God’s holy standard for sex by showing how we twist and distort His Word. During His teaching, Christ turns to the law of Moses, a text that would have been exceedingly familiar to his audience. Many of the religious leaders of the time opted for an extreme literal interpretation of the law. Thus, when it states “You shall not commit adultery,” many religious leaders narrowly interpreted this command as simply a prohibition of extramarital intercourse. By definition, then, it would be permissible to “look but not touch,” as it were. We hear this kind of logic all the time in our culture when people lust and then excuse it, saying things like, “I’m married, not buried,” or “I’m only human.” As Jesus later points out, this kind of textual interpretation is not God’s intention because it leads to a life where we “honor [God] with [our] lips, while [our] hearts are far from [him].” (Isaiah 29:13 ESV)
Jesus demonstrates the original intention of the commandment on adultery by providing what at first appears to be an extension of Mosaic law. Christ follows his quotation of Moses by stating, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” While many biblical scholars note that this passage demonstrates our inability to meet God’s righteous requirements—signifying our dependence on Christ’s sacrifice— it also speaks to our perversion of the good gift of sex. The Greek word for lust (ἐπιθυμέω) means more than a sexual attraction. According to the Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon, the word means to “set one’s heart upon a thing, long for, covet, [or] desire.” The word includes a sense of possession, a longing to own the object of the desire and to consume it in order to gratify that desire.
Consequently, Jesus does not add to the Mosaic law, but instead reinforces the divine truth in the original command. As Christ indicates, when we lust after others we seek to possess and consume them. I have found that we typically believe that this kind of consumptive sexuality will satiate a hunger that we feel in our souls. However, the key to satisfying all of our soul longings can be found in the foundational first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3) When God commands “you shall not commit adultery,” he indeed means that we should not have extra marital affairs. However, he also indicates that we cannot look to anything else to fulfill us. When we do, we commit adultery against Him.
The next time you feel the desire to lust after another person, ask yourself, “What hunger am I trying to meet in this moment?” Perhaps it is a hunger for love that God desires to meet through intimate time with you or through his Church? Maybe it is a hunger for significance that he demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice his Son? Whatever it is, we must be willing to turn to Him to fulfill our hungers rather than hunting and consuming others. If we do not, we will, in the words of the prophet Haggai, “eat, but never have enough.” (Haggai 1:6 ESV)
Baker, P., Dworkin, S., Tong, S., Banks, I., Shand, T., & Yamey, G. (2014). The men’s health gap: Men must be included in the global health equity agenda. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 618-620.
A Greek-English Lexicon: With a Revised Supplement, Ninth Revised Edition.
Edited by H.G. Liddell, R. Scott. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. s.v. ἐπιθυμέω.
“Unlearning Toxic Masculinity.” B-Well Health Promotion: Brown University. https://www.brown.edu/campus-life/health/services/promotion/general-health-emotional-health-mens-health-sexual-assault-dating-violence-get-involved-prevention