I came across an online discussion about Matthew 5:28, in which Jesus 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” (KJV).
The person posting said: “The concept of ‘sin’ is dangerous or
damaging, when natural desires are seen as bad in and of themselves. And
Jesus certainly didn’t help matters when he talked about how if you
even looked on a woman in lust, you had sinned.”
The post got a variety of responses. There were no die-hard
fundamentalists who responded, since the people who usually respond to
this gentleman’s posts are not from that particular group of people. By
and large, the people who respond are disillusioned with conservative
evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and really institutional Christianity in
general. Overall, they treat each other with respect.
But, even within this group, there were people who were trying to
give Jesus the benefit of a doubt. One person said that Jesus was
criticizing covetousness, not noticing a beautiful woman. Another
raised the consideration of intent and looking for an opportunity to sin
sexually. One commenter put these views together and said that Jesus
was criticizing Pharisees who coveted other men’s wives and used divorce
as a way to sleep with other men’s wives. Another said that Jesus was
challenging the self-righteousness of Pharisees who looked down on
others yet committed adultery with other men’s wives in their hearts.
Still another defined lust as wanting to use or exploit another person,
not as admiration or desire.
There were others, though, who were more skeptical. One person said
Jesus never existed anyway, so who cares? Another said that we don’t
even know if Matthew 5:28 was from Jesus, since the Gospels put things
in Jesus’ mouth that Jesus never said. Another responded to the
pro-Jesus comments by saying that, even if Jesus was criticizing the
Pharisees, Jesus still upped the requirements of the law and equated
lust with adultery, so the problem has not gone away.
There were other comments that were rather deep. One commenter
quoted a variety of religious texts against lust and talked about the
flesh and the spirit.
Then there was a humorous comment: a gay man said he used to be proud
of himself for not lusting after women. Now, he knows why!
In the past, I leaned more towards the skeptical views. I believed
Jesus existed, but I did not think that attempts to defend Jesus solved
any problems. I would also have agreed with the commenter who noted
that the Gospels contained words not actually spoken by Jesus, since
that overlapped with what a number of New Testament scholars say.
Nowadays, I gravitate a bit more towards those who try to give Jesus,
or Matthew, the benefit of a doubt. From a faith or spirituality
perspective, I want for Jesus to look reasonable—-to say things that
make sense morally and that do not strike me as out of my reach.
I would say that the jury is out over whether Matthew 5:28 reflects
Jesus’ actual views. Some say that it reflects the views of Matthew,
who depicts Jesus as a new Moses. Hans Dieter Betz, by contrast, said
that the Sermon on the Mount is from a different source from Matthew.
Some may say that the Sermon on the Mount contains things that Jesus
taught, even if Jesus did not get on a mountain and speak those literal
words. For me, from a faith perspective, I would prefer for the words
to reflect Jesus’ teachings. But, from a scholarly perspective and as
someone who would prefer for the Bible to be interesting and rich, I
would like for the Sermon on the Mount to be part of the broader
tapestry of Scriptural diversity.
Of course, my preferences do not matter, except insofar as they allow
me to clarify to myself my own perspective, for reality is reality. I
suppose that, in the end, I consider Matthew 5:28 to be a text that God
permitted to be in Scripture and that can teach me, whether it came from
the historical Jesus or not. From a faith perspective, I cannot really
spiritually build that much on being overly skeptical, so I look for
explanations that give Jesus the benefit of a doubt, or that present
Jesus as making sense. Of course, if die-hard fundamentalists were
attacking me, my approach may get different!