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Thinking About Adultery

San Williams

July 31, 2011
Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18

07-31-2011 SermonYou shall not commit adultery.

“What was he thinking?”  That question erupted like a volcano from editorials and commentaries following the news of Congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexual indiscretions.  Weiner himself explained his actions by saying, “I wasn’t thinking.” The Congressman was probably being honest.  If he had be thinking—thinking about the hurt his actions would cause, the damage it would inflict on his marriage, the pain it would bring to his children and others, the public humiliation it would cause him, and so on–surely he would have refrained from such damaging behavior. Well, this morning, let’s do some thinking about sexual ethics.  What kind of sexual behavior promotes healthy, enduring relationships; and conversely what kind of behavior demeans individuals and destroys marriages?  All thinking about these matters starts with the 7th commandment.  “Thou shall not commit adultery.”

Let’s begin with the fundamental intention of the 7th commandment.  The commandment against adultery has the same intention as the other commandments that deal with our relationship with our neighbors–thou shall not kill, thou shall not steal, lie or covet.  All these commandments are aimed at promoting the welfare of the neighbor and living together peacefully in community. If the 6th commandment, ‘thou shall not kill’ was for the protection of the neighbor’s life, the 7th commandment is for the protection of the neighbor’s family.  “The point of the commandment in its context and its history,” writes Patrick Miller, “is first of all to protect one’s neighbor’s marriage from encroachment and endangerment by someone outside the marriage.”  So whatever direction our thinking about adultery takes, it cannot stray from the fundamental, bedrock conviction that God requires us to think about and be concerned for the welfare of our neighbor in all aspects of life.   

Now think for a minute about how this commandment against adultery was first understood and applied. What did adultery mean in ancient Israel?  Christians today often assume that there is one unchanging Biblical model for marriage—namely, one man and one woman who promise to be faithful to each other. But actually the understanding of marriage has evolved over time and continues to evolve today. The way marriage was practiced in ancient Israel would be foreign and unacceptable to us today. For one thing, women were essentially regarded as the property of their husbands.  For another, men were allowed to have multiple wives as well as concubines. In its original context, then, the 7th commandment was addressed to the male members of the community, prohibiting them from sexual activity with a woman married or engaged to another man.  Such an act would be regarded as a breach of honor between neighbors, a violation of another’s property, an act that would likely set neighbor against neighbor. So originally, this commandment had a narrow application:  Adultery was defined as a male member of the community taking sexual advantage of another man’s wife. We can appreciate the intention of the commandment even as we acknowledge that it was originally applied in a patriarchal, male-dominated society.

Probably the most dramatic and well-known story of adultery in scripture is that of David and Bathsheba, as told in II Samuel.  Recall how, one day when King David was lounging on his rooftop, he spied beautiful Bathsheba bathing on a nearby rooftop.  Now David was a powerful man accustomed to getting what he wanted, and at that moment what he wanted was Bathsheba, even though she was married to a man named Uriah.  Later, when David learns that Bathsheba has become pregnant as a result of their affair, he panics.  He lies.  He attempts a cover-up.  Finally, in desperation he devises a plan to have Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed on the battlefield.

Later the prophet Nathan confronts David with his sin by telling him a parable about a rich man and a poor man. “David, there were once two men in a certain city.  One man was rich, possessing many flocks and herds.  However, the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb.  Now one day a traveler came to the rich man’s house.  But instead of taking a lamb from his own flock to prepare for his guest, he took the one and only lamb from the poor man.”

When David heard the story, he was enraged at this injustice, this abuse of power. “But David,” Nathan said, “you are this man!”  What was David thinking?  Here’s a story as old as the reign of King David and as current as this week’s cover of Newsweek magazine. The story is similar.  Only the names keep changing–Bill, John, Arnold, Mark, Elliot, Tiger, Newt, Dominique, Anthony. The book of Proverbs offers a harsh but truthful word about the damage that can flow from adultery:  “One who commits adultery is a senseless fool: He dishonors the woman and ruins himself.”   

And because adultery can inflict such pain and suffering, Jesus, too, takes up the subject.  When Jesus thinks about adultery with the mind of God, he goes to the very heart of the matter—the desires out of which adulterous acts can come.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Whoever lusts after woman has already committed adultery in his heart.”  

Writing in the 4th century, a monastic scholar named Evagrius considered lust one of the eight deadly thoughts.  His eight deadly thoughts later became popularized as the seven deadly sins.  But Evagrius considered lust, first of all, a thought and not a sin, because everybody has these thoughts.  We can’t completely stop lustful thoughts, says Evagrius, but we do have control on what we do with these thoughts once they assail us. 

Centuries later, Martin Luther said something similar when he remarked concerning lust that a person cannot keep birds from flying over his head, but he can keep them from making a nest in his hair. In other words, we have choices about what we allow to take root in our imaginations, to shape our thoughts, to govern our actions, and to mold our relationships.  Jesus closely associates lust and adultery because lust, if not tamed, often leads to actions that bring pain and suffering to ourselves and others. Lust doesn’t think about the other person as a human being worthy of respect and care.  Love, on the other hand, always thinks about how one’s actions will affect others.

So if our thinking about adultery commences with the 7th commandment, it culminates  with John chapter 8:  the account of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery.  Remember how one day scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?”  At first Jesus didn’t say anything. He just knelt on the ground, writing in the dirt. Finally, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”  At this the religious leaders looked at one another, turned and slinked away.  Jesus then turned to the woman and asked, “Has no one condemned you?”  “No,” she answered. Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” 

Jesus manages both to uphold the validity of the law concerning adultery and to set the law under the gospel of God’s grace.  Jesus refuses to condemn the woman.  Instead, he lifts her burden of sin and guilt, freeing her to live in the light of God’s overflowing mercy and goodness.  No serious thinking about the law against adultery can leave out this story.  After all, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But Jesus makes it clear that there is no disobedience that cannot be overcome and forgiven.    

Friends, sexual conduct isn’t something the church often talks about. But, like it or not, sex is ubiquitous in our society.  We can’t escape the public scandals, the proliferation of explicit sexual content in the media, the early age at which young people become sexually active, the hot button issue of same-sex marriage, and so on.  People can rightly ask:  What does the church think about sex?  We don’t have to pretend to have all the answers.  Neither can we presume to always know the moral mind of God, as some Christians tend to do. But we can answer that we think sex is good…as long as it doesn’t violate our neighbor’s welfare or marriage…as long as it promotes healthy, enduring relationships…as long as it respects each person’s dignity and worth…as long as is shows reverence for God and care for our neighbor.  That’s what we think!