Who Cares About Adultery?
I admit that the title for today’s sermon is, possibly, a little provocative, although it does set out an attitude that is quite prevalent in contemporary society: “Who cares about adultery”? I mean, even the word itself, adultery, has an old-fashioned, narrow-minded, puritanical, stink to it, doesn’t it. The word isn’t used very much outside of some churches. I certainly don’t use it much and I haven’t heard it used much here either.
In 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne published his famous novel The Scarlet Letter. In the work contrasted the “scarlet letter” (an “A” for “adultery”) that Hester Prynne was made to wear (by the men of the community, mostly) to broadcast her sin, made plain in her daughter Pearl, the father of whom was unknown. And Hester wasn’t telling. Hawthorne contrasted this “sin” with the much more horrifying sins of cowardice, character destruction and revenge that, in fact, destroyed the clergyman Arthur Dimmesdale and the physician Roger Chillingworth. Finally, at his death Dimmesdale confessed that he was Hester’s lover. And Chillingworth just dried up and died, hollowed out by the revenge that consumed him. Hester, on the other hand, seemed to have little or no guilt. In the end “Who cares about adultery” when there are such other juicy things going on? Sexual sins seem to paltry by comparison, the way Hawthorne tells the tale.
Now, the sixth, seventh, and eighth commitments (“no killing, no adultery, no stealing”) are very brief, but describe some very complex behaviours. It is interesting that most biblical scholars who have commented on these texts, especially in the last 50-75 years have said less about “no adultery” than about either “no killing” or “no stealing.” Perhaps the scholars, too, are trying to tell us, “Who Cares?”
And yet, in the Old Testament, this word “to commit adultery” (na’ap in Hebrew), which implies sexual intercourse with a married person, is found in the immediate sequence with commitments about killing and stealing, both of which take something vital from the neighbour: the life and the property. In ancient Mediterranean culture the relationship of family at the basic level of marriage was as important as life and property for both social and physical survival, and stepping over the boundaries of marriage, took something equally valuable away. These three commitments are things without which the neighbour cannot live: life, family, and property.
It’s important to underline the word “neighbour” here, since it’s the neighbour that is the centre of commitments 5 (or 4) to 10. Community life flourishes among covenant partners through neighbourliness. Without it competing groups descend into clan feuds and wars. We misunderstand the thrust of this commitment when we centre it on ourselves and our families. We have been taught not to “cheat” on our spouses because it’ll ruin our own marriage. Although that’s true, that’s not the primary thrust in the Bible. This commitment is to avoid ruining our neighbour’s marriage for the mutual good.
The seriousness with which Israel took the guarding of a neighbour’s marriage and family is seen, first, in the fact that adultery is a capital offense for both parties involved, as in our brief, but chilling note from Leviticus 20. Second, adultery became the metaphor for faithlessness to God, a breach of the very first commitment. This is because marriage is a covenant that, like the covenant that God offers, is entered into mutually and voluntarily. The prophets Hosea and Jeremiah especially commonly use the language of adultery to describe idolatry. Adultery and idolatry are both called “the Great Sin,” not only in the Bible, but in the other cultures around Israel. That is because crossing the line into adultery involves the same kind of breach of faithfulness as does serving other gods. Adultery is, simply put, breach of faith or covenant. And God reacts against such with the much misunderstood biblical word “jealousy,” which is a figure of speech to say that God is as passionate about the covenant relationship as people are about the marriage relationship. If we can cheat on the spouse we see daily, how much more can we be unfaithful to the invisible God?
So much for the ancient world. How can we understand the relevance of this now? This is an important question because one of the easiest religious mistakes we can make is to think that, as we read the Bible, it is required of us to keep all the rules in just the way they are given “in the Book.” That’s sometimes called simple trust in the Bible, and some Baptists think that’s a good thing. However God did not intend that ancient Israel’s culture be accepted as holy or eternal. Faithfulness to God does not call upon us to recreate any ancient culture by following ancient rules. Even the Bible itself shows different techniques used to express the same aspect of faithfulness to God at particular times and places. Faithfulness to God and one another has always demanded that covenant partners think through and contemporize the spirit of what the Bible says. Being faithful requires thought. That’s important!
Next, as was true in old Israel, these ten commitments are offered to us today as men and women together in community. Some still want to argue that this commitment especially, but also the others, were directed only, or primarily, to men, leaving women as second class. Foolishness! While it is true that Hebrew verbs have both the masculine and feminine genders and the “you” of the commitments (as in “you will not commit adultery”) is in the masculine gender, that is a different thing from saying that the only people addressed were males. Grammatical gender (about words and grammar) is not the same as human sex (about biology). If one has a mixed group, Hebrew also uses the masculine gender as a generic term. Why it didn’t use the feminine may be because of a patriarchal bias, but even that hardly eliminates women from the covenant commitments. The Bible says that all the people heard Moses speaking these words on God’s behalf. So, today these words are for us all together in community. That’s also important!
In previous weeks I have suggested to you that the commitment in its negative form (in this case, “no adultery,” “no breach of faithfulness”) is, rather than a specific law, is a principle that forms a border or parameter for covenant life, inside which we can find all kinds of good positive techniques for faithful ways to guard and nurture our neighbour’s marriage and family relationships. As Christians, we will ground these in the scriptures, contemporized of course. And that’s important!
Now, toward the end, I want to take a couple of Jesus’ teachings to begin to fill in those parameters set by “no adultery.” The first is from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:27-30) where Jesus extended adultery beyond action to motive,and concluded with an intentional overstatement in which he said that it’s better to be physically deprived of a means of action (tear your eye out, cut your hand off) than it is to suffer the consequence of total destruction brought about by harmful acts conceived and brought forth in harmful thoughts against others. What he was driving at is that, for partners in the covenant with Jesus, it’s how we look at, think of and conceptualize others – in this case in a sexual way – that makes a difference. We do well to fill in some of the space inside of the borders of “no adultery” with an attitude that nurtures, protects, and values the other person, rather than treating them as an object for our use.
A most helpful story is found in our Gospel Lesson from John 8. These words read a good deal more like something from one of the other Gospels than they do like John. Nonetheless, this story offers a wonderful example of both an attitude and an action to place into the “no adultery” parameters of our covenant lifestyle. This is a controversy story between Jesus and his religious opponents who used the tragedy of a woman caught in the very act of adultery “to test” Jesus, which is the term that is used to mean to trap him into taking a position from which his opponents could destroy his honour and take his life. Jesus was teaching in the temple, as he had before. Some religious “somebodies” interrupt his teaching by hauling this woman in and making her stand “before them all,” which is the phrase that would be used to describe the place of pronouncing judgment. They declared to Jesus that Moses said (meaning the Torah) that the punishment for adultery was stoning. Stoning was, perhaps, common by the time of Jesus (we might conclude this from Ezekiel 17:38-40). In any case, these folk were hanging the political action of getting rid of Jesus on a theological point, as have most church squabbles through history. This really wasn’t about what Moses said, but about challenging Jesus’ honour and, if possible, his life.
Now, in our Old Testament Lesson from Leviticus Moses said says that both parties should be put to death and, in Deuteronomy 19:15 Moses said that two witnesses were required for a conviction. In fact, here, there’s no lover and no witnesses. Witnesses would be one thing, but one wonders how it was that this lover escaped when they caught them both (presumably) in the act. Think about it. Was all this a set up for the woman? Did they set it all up to frame Jesus? We don’t know, but think about it. Their question to Jesus was, really, “What sentence will you pronounce,” not so they’d know, but so they’d know whether Jesus would agree with what “Moses said” (or as some say today, the Bible), will you agree with the Bible and so show yourself to be the “right kind” of rule keeper, or will you show yourself to be one of “those other guys?”
The text says that they kept on questioning Jesus, we don’t know with what or how, and Jesus just doodled and wrote on the ground. Why he did that is also unknown. Was he trying to distract himself from his anger? Was he ignoring their religious prattle? What do you think? Finally, he stood up for a moment, and said: “Let anyone among you without sin cast the first stone.” He then bent down, and wrote in the dirt some more.
Why didn’t they just keep arguing? I’ve never known one of these legalists to give up quickly or easily. It doesn’t say. What do you think? It’s interesting here that an ancient scribe inserted a comment that made it into a few ancient manuscripts that tried to answer: “When they heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders…” Although not a part of the text, it probably gets the reason. What do you think? Sometimes confrontation with truth even shuts legalists up.
Jesus turned to the woman – the only other person there and said, “Madam, where are they? Is there no one here to pass sentence?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Neither do I. Go and start again.” It wasn’t that what she had done was OK, but there was hope for the one who turns around and go the other way. It was not acquittal, but refusal to judge. Here’s our positive technique from Jesus. It’s so easy to say either sexual sins are the worst, or “who cares about adultery.” It is more helpful for maintaining covenant relationships to recognize in us all the tendency to do what is harmful and to refuse to judge when met with a determination to start anew. This allows us to guard and protect and nurture, not only our neighbour’s family and marriage, but also our relationship as covenant partners. May we be a community that guards and nurtures marriages and families and folks of all descriptions in many positive ways.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.