The deeper truth behind “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”.
By Timothy Kieswetter
The Scripture verse in question is Matthew 5:28 that says: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” This is one of the most quoted verses on the topic of sexuality. Unfortunately, I believe that our understanding of what Jesus is trying to teach us is here, is blurred with old prudish and anti-sex Victorian-era view on sexuality. That is why we cannot quote any scripture out of its context without having it tinted by the glasses we are wearing at that time.
So let us start by putting this specific verse, where Jesus is so clearly addressing the lustful eyes of the sexually charged male, into context and see what I believe the true message of Matthew 5:28 is.
We begin with verse 28 were we find the transgression: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Is Jesus speaking here as he usually did? If so, then the meaning of what He is trying to convey, is much deeper than just the literal interpretation of his words. Jesus largely spoke using parables without offering His interpretation to them, but leaving the listener with something to ponder over. Examples of Jesus’ figurative manner of speaking are:
- If you have faith as small as a muster seed you’ll be able to move mountains. Matthew 17:20
- The Son of Man has no place to rest his head. Matthew 8:20
- It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than what it is for a rich man to enter heaven. Mark 10:25
- Upon this rock you will build my Kingdom. Matthew 16:18
- First remove the bulk in your own eye before helping your brother with the splinter. Matthew 7:4
To know if we must look at Matthew 5:28 literally or figuratively we have to look at the punishment for this literal or figurative offense. And that we find in verse 29 – 30: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”
How many of you would interpret the punishment for lusting after a women to be literal? I do not see any one hand, one eye men walking the streets. Thus one of two things can be concluded.
1) Jesus’ is speaking like He often speaks, in parables, using symbolism to convey a deeper truth, or
2) we all are in deep trouble for only obeying one part of what Jesus is saying.
It looks to me that we want the act of desiring another woman and so committing adultery to be meant literally, but the punishment of removing an eye or hand, to be meant figuratively. But this only proves that we do not grasp the full meaning and truth behind what Jesus is saying.
So let us take a closer look at what Jesus is saying.
Original meaning of the words used in this verse
We need to review the Greek meanings of these words if we are to understand this verse correctly. In the past, we have taken this verse at face value, believing the translation. It is only fair that we review their original meaning and see if there can possibly be a different interpretation.
The Greek word for woman here is guné (goo-nay’) which specifically refers to another man’s wife. So it is the position and wifely qualities that Jesus is referring to here and not the sensual beautiful woman that Job 31:1refers to.
The word ‘lust’ is a very loaded word in the Church and needs to be understood without the Victorian era’s tainted glasses. The word ‘lust’ originally referred to pleasure and delight. It is only after 1520 when the church attached a sexual connotation to the word, thus turning a normal and healthy feeling into a sin and something we must suppress. The Greek word for ‘lust’ here is epithumeõ (ep-ee-thoo-meh’-o) meaning ‘set the heart upon, long for, strong desire for’. Interesting that this exact same Greek word epithumeõ is used in Luke 22:15 where Jesus is again talking: “And He said unto them, ‘With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.’” Jesus is emphasizing how strongly he has longed for, and looked forward to eating Passover with his disciples. However, this time, the word is translated into ‘desire’ and not ‘lust’ because Jesus cannot be associated with that word. Yet it is the same word! I suggest that because Matthew 5:28 is referring to a man’s sexuality, we use the word ‘lust’ and immediately the deeper meaning of the verse disappears behind the very negative connotation attributed to that word.
The Greek word for ‘heart’ in “committed adultery with her already in his heart” is kardia (kar-dee’-ah) meaning (figuratively) the thoughts or feelings (mind); also (by analogy) the middle: – (+ broken-) heart (-ed). In counseling, we see that often divorce and adultery occurs when chemistry (sexual attraction) is found outside the marriage when it is no longer in the marriage. The thing is, the sexual spark is not something that you can leave and hope it will be there between you and your wife forever. The flame of passion is something that needs constant fanning.
The original word for “hell” is geenna (gheh’-en-Nah.) Of Hebrew origin ([H1516] and [H2011]); valley of (the son of) Hinnom; gehenna (or Ge-Hinnom), a valley of Jerusalem, used (figuratively) as a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment: – hell. So, we see that Jesus did not speak of Hades, the actual hell as we understand it, but instead a metaphor for eternal pain and punishment.
So, we can see that “lust” can in fact be interpreted as “desire”. ‘Heart’ can mean feelings and thoughts. And “hell” means constant punishment. Woman also specifically refers to a married woman.
The Broader Context
A verse can also not be studied in isolation, yet this verse is often quoted singularly to condemn a man’s behavior. The broader context of the look-and-lust instruction, is found in verses prior and proceeding the misdemeanor and penalty.
Matthew 5:27 “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:”
And Matthew 5:31,32 “It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” Here we can see that the context is divorce. Jesus is teaching on divorce and outlining when divorce is permitted and when it is destructive.
After we study the wider context and review the original meaning of the words in question, it becomes clear that Jesus is addressing the unhappily married man, searching for a reason to divorce and pursue a relationship with another woman. When such a man looks upon another marriage, sees the wife of another man and desires her for himself, then he is committing adultery in his heart. Possibly, he is unhappy in his marriage and blames his wife and regrets that he has married her in the first place, thus seeking a reason to divorce. Now, Jesus, seeing into the hearts of men, addresses this unhappily married man, thinking another woman can satisfy him beter, and gives him a deeper truth:
That if he will only be willing to pluck out his eye and cut off his hand (in other words, be willing to change himself, work on his own personality) and stop thinking that it is the woman’s responsibility to keep him happy, then he will not have his marriage cast into “hell” – (place of constant pain and punishment). Could Jesus be saying here that an unhappy marriage and divorce is like “hell”? It is a place that will punish everyone involved. Could Jesus mean that it is not good enough to stay married while wishing upon another life? Jesus demands that the husband take action and work at his marriage. How many men are willing to go to marriage counseling today? How many men are willing to look in the mirror and admit to their own wrong-doing in the marriage?
This deeper truth of Matthew 5 is still relevant today, but it is a truth that is clouded behind an incorrect belief that men have to refuse to be attracted to another woman. I believe that this is an impossible task and is in fact denying and suppressing a perfectly healthy part of our sexuality. Men are so busy looking the other way, in fear of finding another woman attractive and being aroused by her, that he has no energy or will to listen to the deeper truth of keeping the passion alive in his own marriage!
What I see over and over again in my practice, is what happens when Christian men have successfully switched off their sexuality in order to prevent them from being tempted. Two things usually occur:
1) Their desire for their own wives also starts to disappear
2) It is only a matter of time before this suppressed sexuality demands to reappear and the husband can no longer control it. What was once normal, healthy lust and vigor has turned into an unhealthy sexual obsession and addiction.
Why would God create men to be visually stimulated, only to deny him that pleasure? Surely a man uses this sexual drive to pursue and court his wife in the first place! Why do we believe so strongly that men may not find other woman attractive? Are we afraid that if the man doesn’t switch of his visual sexual drive, he will run along and have an affair with every woman he finds attractive? Or is it because of our misunderstanding of what Jesus is trying to teach us in Matthew 5:28?