This is the seventh part of a blog series on the theology of the body.
In this blog I would like to talk about a deep fundamental violation of the sacrament of the body. When we survey the wide landscape of sexual brokenness in our world today; undoubtedly the one which looms above them all is not homosexuality or gender reassignment, although they seem to be getting all the press. It is not divorce, or adultery, or even fornication, as commonplace as they have become. These are public sins and we see them lived out and even honored in the press through the lives of people like Ellen DeGeneres or Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, the 72 day marriage of Kim Kardashian, or the tragic story last week about Lamar Odom, etc… All of that public sin is dwarfed when compared with those slain by lust. Jesus is so bold and straightforward on this point that He shocks his listeners by pointing out that when we look at someone with a lustful gaze we are actually breaking the 7th commandment, “Thou Shall not Commit Adultery.”
We need to be very clear about what lust is, and what it is not, because there are several places where we can go off the rails. On the one side, sexuality and the inherent beauty of it, with its reciprocal attraction, embedded in masculinity and femininity is part of God’s glorious design. And within the covenantal bonds of marriage, human sexuality finds its full expression in the unitive, self-donation, and procreative act which comes about, in part, because of a God-given desire and attraction to the other. Indeed, it is through the joy of sexual union that we are enabled by God’s design to enter into that mysterious collaboration as co-creators with God. There are times in the history of the church when the church did not give space to honor and even celebrate human sexuality as the creation and gift of God. Yet, to look at someone (anyone – a man looking at a woman or a woman looking at a man) who embodies God’s sacramental presence in the world and look at them in a reductive way… that means to reduce them from subject to object and is committing lust.
The seventh commandment, as understood in the Ten Commandments, is violated when a married man or woman enters into a sexual union with someone other than the one to whom they are married. To violate this within marriage is called adultery. If you are not married and you engage in a one flesh relationship with someone who is not married, this is known as fornication. Jesus summons us all into the deeper reality of this commandment. As it turns out there are two deeper levels which go beyond the outward physical act of adultery to which Jesus points us in this passage.
Let’s first go to level one.
It is lust which destroys the spousal meaning of the body. To even look at someone for sexual pleasure is wrong because it reduces God’s creation, a subject, into an object by dis-embodying that person’s physicality from his or her inner self. God intended a man and a woman to stand before one another in the full reciprocity of the “I” – I is subject. In the Fall, the man and woman covered the very physical markers of their distinctive human sexuality in shame. To look with lust at someone’s private sexual markers is to dis-embody those physical markers from the whole person who embodies them. This is to rip someone apart. Pope John Paul 2 calls it the “dis-incarnation of man.”
Even if we do not perform a bodily sexual act with anyone, but simply look at someone with an eye which reduces that person from a subject to an object, as in a sexual object, we have committed adultery. It is lust which turns someone into an object, dis-embodies them from the very inner life which allows us to fully participate in the visibility of the world. This is why, after the Fall, shame enters the world and men cover the physical, visible signs of masculinity, and the woman cover the physical, visible signs of femininity. Because these visible signs which had heretofore been integrated into their lives and bodies as a sacrament in joyful communion with God have now been separated out as objects of desire, destroying not only the union of their communion, but even the unity of their own persons.
This second level can perhaps best be raised by asking a question, “Can a man commit adultery in his heart against his own wife?” “Can a woman commit adultery in her heart in the context of her own husband?” John Paul 2 says, and I think he is correct, that lust can destroy a marriage even within it, not just outside of it. Whenever we depersonalize someone, even our spouse, we are committing adultery. If your wife becomes just an object to satiate your sexual desires, or if your husband becomes just an object to satiate your sexual desires, you have committed adultery in your heart. There are many ways we objectify people so that even our spouse is not God’s subject, but our object through which we live. This is the fruit of the commodification of marriage which we discussed in an earlier blog. The body in all of its capacities, sexual and otherwise, all becomes the bodily terrain through which de-personalizing appropriation can take place. Jesus creates a new threshold for us in understanding adultery. He points to the very root of the problem at the very seat of our being; the human heart. This is why Hebrews 4:12 says, “The word of God is living and active and sharper than a two edged sword, dividing soul and spirit and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” That is the great new Christian reality which creates a huge gulf between Rabbinical Judaism and the gospel, and an even larger gulf between Islam and the gospel. This is the great gospel point: Jesus Christ transforms our hearts. Nothing else will suffice and still be called Christian. The re-oriented heart which now moves under the gravity of holy love is the singular great potency of Christian faith and identity.