Talking Slant: Jesus on Lust, Love, and Fidelity

Note from Rachel: This week’s post is a roundabout examination of some of Jesus’s most challenging teachings. It’s a long one but I felt it needed to stay in one piece. Here we go …

Jesus can be slippery, so that when his words seem most stark, most black-and-white, perhaps they are not stark but slant. Stare at the black-and-white and it becomes something else, one of those 3-D images where you look at a pattern hard and long and suddenly see an unexpected picture.

Or maybe it IS stark, and it is black-and-white, and it’s also unexpected and layered.

Matthew 5:27–30 (and on into 31–32, because the discussion about divorce is all one piece with this passage even though many Bibles split them into separate topics) is one of these slippery passages for me.

“You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery.”

We have heard that, it’s true. It’s one of the best-known of the ten commandments and even today most people would not argue with it. We like to support people’s right to run around in theory, but no one ever told a wronged wife that her husband’s running around is no big deal. We tell her throw the bum out the door and good riddance.

“But,” Jesus says, in one of his usual caveats where you wouldn’t think there would be one—and his audience holds their breath.

Is he going to give them a loophole?

(They thought they had one in divorce; see verses 31–32.)

An instance in which adultery might be permissible?

No, he says, “But,” he says, “I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

How do you break a commandment?

How do you commit a sin?

How do you do a wrong thing?

Surely by breaking, by committing, by doing.

No, Jesus says to all that, it’s not even necessary that you actually DO it; you can commit the most heinous of sins just in your heart.

Jesus was harsh on anger, but even there the judgment required something to have been said. The anger had to find expression before it became something punishable. Here it doesn’t. Here the crime, adultery, the ultimate betrayal, happens in the silence of the eye. The mind. The interior world of fantasy.

If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell! (Matthew 5:29–30

Nothing has been said or done that anyone else can judge, so Jesus puts the impetus for punishment on us: you’re the witness to your own crime, so punish it yourself. Cut off your hand. Gouge out your eye. Whatever caused you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. Better for you to enter life maimed and blind than to be thrown into the fires of enmity with God whole.

Stark. Clear. Jesus’s meaning couldn’t be more plain.


In Christian history whole movements used this passage to demonize sexual attraction in general and paralyzed people with fear of themselves. Some got serious about combating it.

Origen castrated himself.

Most (all?) Bible teachers would say Jesus did not in fact intend that kind of interpretation. This is an example of hyperbole, exaggeration used for effect, to drive a point home. It was never meant to be taken literally.

Really, Jesus? Are you the kind of God who exaggerates?

YOU—Mr. “Let Your Yes Be Yes and Your No Be No”?

Let’s backtrack.

Is the idea of this passage to demonize sexuality?

It has been taught that Adam and Eve did you-know-what in the garden after the fall; THAT was the real original sin.

That’s nonsense. Really, it is; read the Bible. Read Genesis 2. Read Ezekiel 18. Read the Song of Solomon.

Human sexuality is good and beautiful and created by God; human fruitfulness is good and beautiful and blessed by God; beauty and vitality and virility are gifts of God.

That is what the Scripture teaches without doubt.

Jesus is indelibly Jewish. He is a Hebrew of Hebrews. He is not against sex.

And this teaching has nothing to do with feeling attraction toward someone. It has nothing to do with natural drives and desires. It really doesn’t.

The key words are “adultery” and “to.”

First, “adultery.” This isn’t the generic word for messing around with someone you aren’t married to. It’s the specific word for betrayal within marriage.

So this isn’t about a young man looking at a young woman and finding her attractive and finding it’s hard to get her off his mind.

We don’t have to be ashamed or afraid of ourselves.

This is specifically about a man looking at a married woman to lust after her.

There’s the other key word: “to.” This man looks “to lust,” Jesus says; in other words, he’s looking with intention. He’s looking beyond the point of attraction; he’s deliberately feeding desire.

But she’s married, or he is. Or both. Not to each other.

(I hope you can see the indictment of pornography here. “Looking to lust” is the whole point. And yes, that’s a problem even without the marriage piece being relevant, but we would need to discuss other Scriptures to really support that.)

So this isn’t just objectification (which it is) or a dishonorable use of another human being (which it also is); it’s also a betrayal of a marriage covenant.

There’s a third party involved.

Your spouse has a claim to your body, but to your thoughts too.

For Jesus one senses this is a particularly big deal.

(“Thou shalt love me with all of your heart, all of your soul, all of your mind, and all of your strength; this is the first and greatest commandment” … “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I am speaking of Christ and the church.”)

* * *

Sin begins in the mind, generally, then manifests itself in the flesh. What we think about we eventually do, we eventually become. Don’t allow yourself to lust, we’re taught, because you might eventually commit adultery.

Or just don’t do it at all, because the moment you choose to lust after someone who does not rightfully belong to you, who in fact belongs to someone else, the deed is already done.

* * *

So punish yourself. “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into [Gehenna]. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into [Gehenna]!”

You know your own guilt. You’ve caught yourself in the crime. Punish it. Be ruthless. Cut off the source. Identify what part of you caused the sin—the eye, the hand—and cut if off, gouge it out. Away with it. Leave yourself as whole as you can be without sin.

Stark. Clear. Black-and-white.

And then when your left eye causes you to sin, gouge that out too. And when you sin with the stump of your hand, hack it off at the wrist, and then the elbow. When your foot carries you into a sinful place, saw right through the bone. Piece after piece, limb after limb, into the fire to spare the rest of you.

Jesus would rather have you disfigured and hideous than not at all.

Or is that not what he’s saying?

Presumably the disciples sinned, with eyes and hands involved, and not one of them ever cut off a hand or gouged out an eye. (Peter cut off an ear, but not his own, and Jesus promptly put it back.)

Jesus isn’t recorded once reprimanding them for daring to walk around whole when they were clearly sinners.

Is Jesus talking straight, or is he talking slant?

Is the point here that your eye DOESN’T cause you to sin; that your hand ISN’T the problem; that the problem is deeper, in your heart and soul where you can’t gouge it out, and since you’ll never work your way into God’s good graces by hacking things off, you’ll have to come and be made new and whole entirely?

Justice won’t get you where you need to go; you’re going to need forgiveness.

* * *

Or is this, after all, hyperbole used for effect? Is the point not punishment but getting serious, zealous, about cutting ourselves off from sin?

Is the point here that the porn addict should throw away his cell phone and give up his Internet connection; that like Joseph in Potiphar’s house, sometimes we need to run-not-walk away from the source of temptation without hanging around to see whether we can withstand?

Is the point that sin is truly awful, and eternity truly matters, and we need to stop making excuses and treat sin like our mortal enemy because it is?

* * *

Maybe the point is both.

Maybe neither.

Maybe Jesus is very slyly and subtly pointing to a completely different problem: the age-old tendency of human beings to throw one another under the bus.

In particular, historically speaking, for men to throw women under the bus.

The principles of fidelity and purity and chastity surely apply to men and women alike; but in Jesus’s example it is a man lusting after a woman.

Whole movements of Christianity have used this passage to demonize sexuality; then they used it to demonize women.

If a man who wants to love God lusts after a woman, it is surely the woman’s fault.

Her neckline is too low. Her skirt is too short. Her hair is too long, too loose, or too pretty. Her form is too feminine. Her face is too beautiful. Her voice is seductive.

So it’s her fault.

You think I’m kidding, but history can attest: in many cultures, many places, many times, the answer to the problem of lust has been to control, shame, and ostracize women.

And if that didn’t work, stone them.

Women cause men to sin, after all.

John 8: Jesus was in the temple when the Pharisees brought to him a woman caught in the act of adultery.

Just the woman.

Not the man.

You cannot catch ONE person in an act of adultery.

“Teacher,” they said, “Moses taught us that such should be stoned. What do you say?”

Jesus told them to let the sinless one throw the first stone; then he, the Sinless One, released her from their trap.

In his culture, his time, men caught in compromised circumstances were far too quick to say, “She has caused me to sin; cut her off and throw her away, for it is better for me to enter life without her than for us both to be thrown into hell together.”

That’s why Jesus turns to the subject of divorce—cut her off and throw her away—next.

It’s an endless pattern.

Jesus will have none of it.

* * *

I don’t know what Jesus is saying. Maybe some of this. Maybe all of it.

Maybe something else.

Jesus is considered the greatest moral teacher of all time, not necessarily the most straightforward.

From Jesus’s words I draw several conclusions I can apply to my life.

1. That fidelity is precious, and it matters as much in my thoughts as in my actions.

2. That sin is heinous, even when it’s “just” in the mind, and zeal can be required to fight it.

3. That the real problems are in my heart, not my hand or my eye or my DNA or my habits, and I need Jesus to fix them.

4. That it’s not okay for me to blame anyone else.

Oh, and something else too—that women as a class can’t and must not be blamed for the sins of men as a class.

I find that comforting.

That old pattern hasn’t actually died out, and I’ve felt its pressures and its shaming too. I’m glad Jesus doesn’t agree with it, even if you think I’m reaching with this interpretation. And of course it goes both ways: I can’t blame any other group of people (men, terrorists, Democrats) for my sins.

Jesus never excuses any sin on the basis of it being some other person’s fault.

He wants us honest.

We are the bride of Christ. He wants us faithful, He wants us real, He wants us whole.


(This is Part 47 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)


Photo by Jordan Koons on Unsplash







6 responses to “Talking Slant: Jesus on Lust, Love, and Fidelity”

  1. John Sinclair Avatar


    This is a great read and encouraging to have more zeal for my convictions.

    Thank You


  2. Michele Avatar

    I have lived in a part of the world where it is unbelievable how blatantly women are blamed and punished for the lust of men. I have never thought of the way this passage may be addressing that, but it makes so much sense to me. Thank you. I am new to your blog and books, but you are quickly becoming one of my favorites!

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thanks for this, Michele! I’ve seen this happen (a lot) myself. I know it’s a “maybe” interpretation, but it does make a TON of sense to me, especially connected with the way Jesus addresses divorce in the next two verses.

  3. Micaiah Thomson Avatar
    Micaiah Thomson

    I’m so glad you’re back. I missed reading.

    1. Rachel Avatar

      I’m glad I’m back too! Thanks, Caiah!

  4. Micaiah Thomson Avatar
    Micaiah Thomson

    I’m so glad you’re back. I missed reading.

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