“I did not have sex with that woman!” Bill Clinton’s approach to morality was the ordinary one: Draw a line that defines what is going too far, and then you can tiptoe up to the line, as long as you do not step over it. Sex, in his mind, was defined by the act of intercourse; as long as he did not cross that line, in his mind, he was not guilty.
Jesus’ view of morality is extraordinary. Doing the right thing is not about staying on the good side of some arbitrary line; it’s about pursuing the heartbeat of God with all your heart. It’s. about devoting oneself to the greater purpose behind a line or a law.
Jesus knew that a central component in God’s design for humanity was a covenant marriage relationship between a man and woman, established and maintained by faithfulness. Not faithfulness as defined by Bill Clinton but faithfulness of the heart. So He said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”. (Matthew 5:27-28)
Jesus taught that God’s intent was not to prevent adultery, as narrowly defined by a sexual act, but to foster marriage, as defined by a heart oneness between the husband and wife. Any act that breaks that oneness, even an unfulfilled lustful longing of the heart, is an act of adultery, since it damages the oneness of marriage. If that seems extreme to you, think about how damaging even the suspicion of unfaithfulness is to the harmony of a marriage.
That teaching was so radically different from the commonly held Bill Clinton approach, that Jesus shook them up with this:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29 – Jesus continues this thought in verse 30)
Jesus was not advocating self-mutilation. As you know, the eye only follows instructions from the heart… Jesus was startling people with hyperbole in order to underlline how seriously flawed their understanding of morality in marriage was.
2000 years later, human attitudes toward faithfulness and marriage have not improved. But Jesus wasn’t joking and God’s design for how things work hasn’t changed.