adulteryJesus also extends the seventh commandment to include far more than sex outside of marriage. His method is generally the same as for murder in the previous section. It is not just the action of adultery that is the problem but the thought process behind it. If murder starts with an angry heart, adultery starts with a wandering eye. Adultery does not happen by accident, there is a period of temptation that occurs before the actual action itself.  Jesus points to that and says that the thinking itself is a problem, and is worthy of the same punishment as the action itself.

Other Second Temple period writers discussed the problem of adultery and also concluded that the eye is where adultery starts. For example, in the Testament of Issachar, the writer says on “I am a hundred and twenty-two years old, and I am not aware of having committed a sin unto death.  “I have not had intercourse with any woman other than my wife, nor was I promiscuous by lustful look” (T.Issachar 7:1-2). The Wisdom of Ben Sirach makes a similar point, but also offers a number of expansions on the Law to help the young man avoid adultery.

Sirach 9:1-9  Do not be jealous of the wife of your bosom, or you will teach her an evil lesson to your own hurt. Do not give yourself to a woman and let her trample down your strength. Do not go near a loose woman, or you will fall into her snares. Do not dally with a singing girl, or you will be caught by her tricks. Do not look intently at a virgin, or you may stumble and incur penalties for her. Do not give yourself to prostitutes, or you may lose your inheritance. Do not look around in the streets of a city, or wander about in its deserted sections. Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not gaze at beauty belonging to another; many have been seduced by a woman’s beauty, and by it passion is kindled like a fire. Never dine with another man’s wife, or revel with her at wine; or your heart may turn aside to her, and in blood you may be plunged into destruction.

Jesus’s teaching here is simpler: if you are inclined to lust, do even look at a woman. This does not apply only to “another man’s wife” but to women in general. In fact, Jesus’ words should be read as applying to both men and women, married or not. God’s people should live sexually pure lives.

It is not a very popular verse in our modern society for the exact same reasons that it was not popular in Jesus time, and it has led to some horrible oppression of women by sinful and stupid men. But that was not Jesus’ point at all! Since it is impossible to know what someone is thinking, we imagine our impure thoughts are private and have no real effect on anyone. Jesus explodes this myth by comparing private thoughts to the act of adultery itself. In the first interpretation of the Law Jesus says God’s people ought to control their anger, here he says they ought to control their lust.

A critically important observation is that Jesus is not condemning sex. He stands within the tradition of the Hebrew Bible that marriage and sex are created by God and ought to be enjoyed fully (e.g., Eccl 9:7-10). He is also standing within Wisdom tradition by warning people to avoid adultery (e.g., Prov 5:15-20). He is saying it is a man’s responsibility to guard his thoughts so that he does not begin adultery in his heart; it is a woman’s responsibility to guard her thoughts so that she does not begin adultery in her heart.

How does a person control their lust? Jesus uses some very strong language to describe how we are to handle this problem. If this is taken literally there would be a lot of blinded men running around. “If your eye offends you pluck it out” is hyperbole, an exaggeration. A blind person can still lust. This verse does not, however, teach self-mutilation as a cure for sin. Jesus is saying, in effect, “don’t let your eyes make you sin.” Just as an alcoholic must avoid locations where they might be tempted, so too someone who lusts ought to avoid places where they will be tempted.

Is Jesus being repressive in this extension of the Law? Is it really important to guard one’s heart so that even our thoughts are pure, free from anger and murder?