Symon Hill is a peace activist, a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association and a postgraduate student at Luther King House. His book The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, is published by Darton, Longman and Todd. You can find Symon’s blog and read more about his book here.
It is often stated that Jesus said very little about sex and sexuality. I have always been a bit baffled by this statement, because it seems to me that he said quite a lot about them.
True, Jesus said less about sex than about poverty, power, wealth, violence, compassion, and forgiveness. But all these issues are relevant to sexuality. Take Jesus’ teaching that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Jo Ind has used this principle to explore how we love God, others and ourselves through our sexuality. Jesus’ teachings about violence must surely be relevant to sexual violence. Many of Jesus’ teachings are relevant to sexuality because they are concerned with all areas of life.
Nonetheless, Jesus made comments that are specifically about sex and sexuality, or closely related questions about marriage and adultery. This is before we consider his attitude to family relationships more broadly, which were challenged by his very lifestyle: travelling round with his comrades, some of whom had left their families, instead of settling down and getting married.
I should add that I am talking about Jesus’ teachings as recorded in the New Testament. I don’t have space here to go into the many debates about which of the sayings attributed to Jesus are likely to be historically accurate; I am concerned with how we deal with Jesus’ words as they are presented to us.
Is Matthew 5:27-28 liberating or oppressive?
One of Jesus’ most well-known teachings about sexuality is found in the Sermon on the Mount. It is only two sentences long, yet it is a saying that I have been reflecting on, and wrestling with, for years.
The translation is itself controversial. Here’s the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Other translations speak of a “married woman.” Some replace “lust” with “desire,” “a view to lusting” or “a hope of sex”. The main Greek word in question, epithymia, is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to desires in which no sexual element is involved.
This teaching raises questions that are relevant to many people, whatever their sexuality, religion or beliefs. How is it ethical to behave when you see a stranger whom you find attractive? Does it depend on whether you are single? What if you realise the stranger is married? Is this a question solely about your behaviour or about your feelings and thoughts as well?
These questions often come up when I lead workshops on sexual ethics, and on sexuality in the Bible. One of the first workshops at which I explored this passage was at BiCon, the UK’s Bisexual Convention. This two-sentence teaching of Jesus got people talking so much that there was barely time to discuss anything else. I was delighted by how many people had turned up. Very few were Christians, and most were unfamiliar with the Bible. This passage divided them immediately.
On the one hand were those who found it liberating. Somebody described it as “quite feminist”. They saw Jesus as telling men not to objectify women. To them, he seemed to be attacking sexism and sexual harassment. This seemed more progressive and encouraging than the homophobia and biphobia that some had experienced from religious groups.
Then were those who found it judgemental. For them, it was about attempts to control people’s emotions and to “condemn sexual feelings.” Some saw it as similar to other judgemental attitudes that they associated with religion.
I have since led discussions on this passage with both Christian and secular groups. Within the BiCon group, some who viewed the passage positively said that it wasn’t about judging a sexual feeling but about a decision to focus on such a feeling, which would show no respect for someone who did not reciprocate the attraction. In Christian groups, I have heard it said that Jesus was criticising “sexual fantasising.”
Many workshop participants – including people of varied sexualities and genders – have said that they find it hard not to feel sexual attraction to strangers, even when in monogamous relationships. Of course, there are some people who are asexual and unlikely to have such feelings, while others report that they don’t experience sexual feelings outside of relationships (some such people describe themselves as demisexual).
Dealing with desire
Sadly, there is one thing about which we can be sure. This passage has been used for centuries to make people feel bad about sex; not just bad about unethical or selfish sex, but negative about their bodies and sexuality altogether. This has often had little connection with the teachings of Jesus, and it has done immeasurable harm. Today, some stretch this passage to condemn all sorts of things that it does not mention. For example, Phil Moore discusses this passage in a chapter entitled “Jesus on pornography and masturbation.” He argues that Jesus’ teaching here means that Christians should not masturbate, despite the fact that Jesus does not explicitly (or implicitly) say anything about this.
Jesus’ teaching in vv. 27-28 appears just after he is reported to have said:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “Whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement. (Matthew 5:21-22; NRSV)
Anyone feeling smug because they have never broken the commandments was reminded that they could break them in their heart. They were in no position to judge others’ sins when they sometimes wanted to commit the same sins. It seems that part of Jesus’ purpose in these teachings is to encourage people not to be judgemental of others but to recognise their own limitations. It is ironic that these teachings are now used to judge and condemn others.
But what’s this about being angry? All the gospels present Jesus as angry on several occasions. In the light of this, it may well be that Jesus was referring to anger that was deliberately cultivated and maintained. If so then “desire” or “lust” may likewise be about deliberate intention; not an instinctive feeling but a developed desire.
Power and victim-blaming
Jesus, like all humans, was affected by his culture and context (he could not have been human if he were not). Some interpreters, understandably, want to dispense with some of the specifics of this passage and get to the general principles. In The Message, the reference to gender is taken out. There is reference instead to “another’s spouse” (see here). I can see the reasons for this, but it means that a crucial element is overlooked. Jesus was not talking only about sex. He was talking about power.
We know only too well that women are often blamed for the sexual sins of men. In our own culture, men are widely assumed to be more sexual than women. But there are also many cultures in which women are assumed to be the ones who are more sexual, enticing men into sex. Even in Britain today, as in many countries, rape victims are sometimes blamed for rape: for wearing revealing clothes, for being drunk, for acting in ways that are seen to reduce the seriousness of rape, or even to invite rape.
Victim-blaming happens frequently in cases of sexual violence. Usually, however, the victim has markedly less power than the perpetrator: on account of being female, or a child, a migrant, poor or less well respected than the abuser.
In this context, Jesus tells men that they are responsible for how they behave sexually towards women. They cannot blame the woman for tempting them, or for dressing seductively. If they develop adulterous feelings in their hearts, they have committed adultery.
When I became a Christian in my late teens, I heard people say that Christian women should dress modestly, so that Christian men would not be tempted. It seems to me now that such an argument might have received short shrift from the Jesus who told men to take responsibility for their attitudes towards women.
People and objects
Nadia Bolz-Weber argues that in this teaching, Jesus is basically saying, “Love your neighbour. People aren’t objects. Let’s not cause each other harm.”
But are we at risk of making Jesus sound suspiciously modern? In Jesus’ society (and in many others), adultery was to some extent a property crime – the theft of another man’s wife. Because of this, William Loader rejects the notion that Jesus was upholding women’s rights. He argues that Jesus’ comment “does not address the rights of women” but “has the effect of protecting male rights, the rights of the other man.”
It seems to me that this does not sit well with a key aspect of the rest of Jesus’ teaching: his generally dismissive attitude to property. As Jesus’ followers left their businesses behind, and he told them not to worry about what they would eat tomorrow, it is unlikely that they would expect him to uphold property rights in relation to either women or objects. For this reason as much as any other, I am inclined to reject Loader’s argument and agree with April DeConick when she writes that Jesus’ teachings reflect “an effort to improve the quality of women’s lives during his time.”
Maybe we need to hold in tension the varied reactions that I encountered in the workshops looking at this passage. Perhaps we need to consider that Jesus’ teaching leads not only to an emphasis on consent and a rejection of sexual objectification but that it possibly takes this to a greater extreme than modern secular liberals are likely to go (for example, a queer Christian friend of mine believes he should not fantasise about someone while masturbating without their consent).
This is not an easy passage. I know I will continue to wrestle with it, and to appreciate different interpretations of it. But there is one thing of which I am convinced: this teaching of Jesus, which has been used to cause so much harm by condemning people’s sexuality, can be used so much more healthily – to promote sexual wholeness and to challenge sexual violence. To me, this is an illustration of why, if we want to engage in a healthy and helpful exploration of the ethics of sex and violence, Jesus’ teachings are a good place to start.