Jesus continues His teaching on true righteousness, contrasting the righteousness of the Pharisees, “you have heard…” with the true righteousness of the Kingdom, “but I say to you…”. Having explained how true righteousness addresses the heart’s attitude toward others, not just violent actions against them (vss. 21-26), the Lord turns His attention to matters of fidelity. What does true righteousness say about faithfulness between husband and wife? It says a lot more than the Pharisees taught and Jesus’ teaching on this crucial matter must be followed, if our desire is the Kingdom (vs. 20).
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”
The righteousness of the Pharisees: don’t commit adultery (vs. 27)
The Pharisees were not wrong in what they taught. The Law certainly condemned adultery (Exodus 20.14) and warned of the judgment awaiting those who violated their marriage covenant (Leviticus 20.10; Deuteronomy 22.22). Their error was that they ONLY taught those things which would guard against a civic punishment. The act of adultery, if discovered, would result in death. But what about the thoughts of the mind and the feelings of the heart, those things which would lead one to commit adultery? The righteousness of the Pharisees did not address these heart issues, but the righteousness of the Kingdom would!
The righteousness of the Kingdom: don’t lust (vs. 28)
Like murder, adultery is a sinful action which results from sinful attitudes and desires. The Pharisees were only concerned with the end result: adultery. Jesus is concerned with the root of the problem: the heart (Matthew 15.19).
Jesus’ words in vs. 28 fill us with fear, for we live in a vastly different society than 1st Century Palestine. Men have always been tempted to lust, but for much of human history societal norms stressed modesty. Not so in our day. If Jesus equated looking at a woman with lust, then all of us are doomed! But we must remember that not all “looks” are the same. David may not have been able to prevent his seeing Bathsheba, and if all he had done was look once he could have escaped sin. But he didn’t. He saw, he lusted and then he acted (2Samuel 11.2-4). It is this kind of “looking” which Jesus addresses in the passage.
By equating “lust” with “adultery” Jesus not only stresses the 7th commandment, “thou shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20.14), but also the 10th, “you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20.17). This lusting after another (coveting) violates the marriage covenant (adultery), for “no married person can do justice to his mate while given over to unrestrained desire for another . Though yet a matter of the mind it is called what it is — sin.” (Paul Earnhart)
But what about the unmarried? Since Jesus says lust is adultery and not fornication, does this mean that the unmarried should not be concerned? Absolutely not! If a wife’s body belongs to her husband, and a husband’s body belongs to his wife (see 1Corinthians 7.4), then the unmarried should treat their bodies and minds as belonging to his/her future spouse. And if you’ve failed to discipline your eyes and your mind before marriage, then you will struggle to do so once you’ve entered the marriage covenant. Jesus wants you to be righteous in marriage and before marriage.
True righteousness may require radical surgery (vss. 29-30)
“The language may be shocking but the situation is not far-fetched. In the days of more primitive medicine many a gangrenous limb was cut away by surgeons in order to save the life of the sufferer, and modern medicine will still counsel the same traumatic surgery when a part of the body threatens the life of the whole. Men have even been known to perform this surgery on themselves when an arm or leg, ensnared by machinery, is dragging them to their death. It is a radical step, but eminently sensible.” (Paul Earnhart)
It is noteworthy that Jesus points out the eye and the hand as being the offending parts which may need to be removed. “The eye is chosen because it has looked and lusted; the hand is chosen, probably because adultery, even mental adultery, is a kind of theft.” (D.A. Carson) However, one could remove both eyes and hands and still be guilty of lust. Jesus is not counseling physical mutilation, rather the removal of attitudes and desires which reside in the heart (Matt. 15.19). Sinful actions will not cease unless the heart is rid of these sinful desires.
Finally, note the violent language Jesus uses: “tear it out and throw it from you… cut it off and throw it from you…”. “we are to deal drastically with sin. We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out.” (D.A. Carson) These words may seem radical, especially given the sensual culture of our day. But the righteousness of the Kingdom has always been radical. Don’t lessen the standards of the King! (vs. 19-20).
Ironic this is published the day Hugh Hefner dies. At 91 the man amassed a $200 million dollar empire, surrounded by beautiful women (that had about a ten year expiration date), and had anything and everything you can imagine except… he said he wasn’t happy, and never found his soul mate. He said this st 85 after he married his fourth wife , 19 year old playmate. Do you think his eye ruled him? Sad.