Jesus presented a revised standard on the commandments of the Old Testament. The Jewish teachers had presented adultery as a serious violation worthy of death penalty (Lev 20:10). Jesus did not promulgate such a punishment in this world but an eternal destruction in the afterlife, even for lustful desires. When a person exceeds the natural desire, and deliberately nurtures it with lust, that would lead to sin. So, Jesus instructs on getting rid of such root causes of sin by making use of a figurative language. Jesus says, if the right eye causes us to sin, that should be uprooted, and if the right hand is the means of sin, that must be amputated to avoid a fall into hell. These actions are not for literal implementation, but they show the importance of avoiding the root causes of sin, like bad friendship, malicious media, damaging addictions, or unhealthy consumptions that would harm ourselves and others. Jesus also redefines the condition for divorce and stresses on the unity and sanctity of marriage. The season of Great Fast is an opportunity for us to reassess and renew our family relationships and to cut off any bad inclinations from our lives.
BIBLE TEXT (MATTHEW 5:27-32)
Teaching About Adultery
(Mt 5:27) You have heard that it was said: Do not commit adultery. (28) But I tell you, anyone who looks at a woman with the intention of possessing her has in fact already committed adultery with her in his heart. (29) So, if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is much better for you to lose a part of your body than to have your whole body thrown into hell. (30) If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better for you to lose a part of your body than to have your whole body thrown into hell.
Teaching About Divorce
(31) It was also said: anyone who divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. (32) But I tell you, if a man divorces his wife for any cause other than unfaithfulness, he causes her to commit adultery. And the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
This gospel passage is a part of the sermon on the mount that was a formal teaching in an informal setting. It was formal because Jesus taught sitting (Mt 5:1) like the Rabbis’ way of teaching. It was informal because it was done on a mountain rather than at the Temple, the synagogue, or a house. He addressed to his disciples and listeners who might become his future followers. Jesus presented those who are poor in spirit, mourn, meek, merciful, clean of heart, peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness as blessed and are worthy of great reward in heaven (Mt 5:3-12). After presentation of the beatitudes, Jesus used the similes of salt and light for Christians in the world (Mt 5:13-16). He then clarified that he came to fulfill the law and the prophets and promised a higher rank in heaven for those who obey and teach the commandments (Mt 5:17-20). He taught the urgency of controlling anger that might lead to revenge on others and to one’s own punishment (Mt 5:21-26). Jesus then brought a proper understanding of adultery.
Teaching About Adultery
(Mt 5:27) You have heard that it was said: Do not commit adultery.
You have heard that it was said
God gave the 10 commandments in the written form on two stone tablets. However, Jesus did not say, “As it is inscribed” or “as you read,” but as you have heard from the ancestors or teachers of the Law. This phrase refers not to the direct teaching of God or the prophets, but the laws and their interpretations that rabbis introduced at a later period.
Israel had no prophets for four centuries before John the Baptist. During that post-exilic period, the Jewish teachers interpreted the laws according to their whims and fancies deviating from the genuine spirit of the Lawgiver. So, Jesus refined the laws, making them deviant from the popular teaching of the time.
Do not commit adultery.
Adultery is marital infidelity and an offense against the dignity of marriage. “When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations – even transient ones – they commit adultery” (CCC-2380). It is so serious an offense that it is included as one of the 10 commandments of God given at Mount Sinai. The prophets compared it to idolatry (Hos 2:7; Jer 5:7; 13:27) because both are breaking of covenantal commitment. Just as idolatry breaks the covenantal relationship with God and the faithful, divorce violates the covenant between the husband and wife.
Adultery infringes the rights of the spouse and affects the children who need parents as role models. Death penalty was imposed on the adulterers (Lev 20:10-12; Deut 22:22-25). The goal was to purge that evil from the chosen people. “If a man is discovered lying with a woman who is married to another, they both shall die, the man who was lying with the woman as well as the woman. Thus shall you purge the evil from Israel” (Deut 22:22). Adultery was considered as the highway to hell (Prov 7:27). The Old Testament considered it as serious as idolatry and murder.
(28) But I tell you, anyone who looks at a woman with the intention of possessing her has in fact already committed adultery with her in his heart.
But I tell you
Unlike the scribes, Jesus taught with authority because he is Son of God. He boldly clarified the wider application on the commandments. The intention and the cause of the sin are as grave as the action itself like hatred for murder and lust for adultery.
Anyone who looks at a woman with the intention of possessing her
“You shall not commit adultery” (Ex 20:14) is one of the 10 commandments God gave to the Israelites through Moses. Jesus developed it by adding the intention behind it because the Jewish teachers of the time gave attention only to the very act itself. Jesus went deep to the longing that causes a sin, as he did with anger that would lead to murder. God, who sees the secrets of the mind, will judge based on the intention, regardless of whether or not the action took place.
Though Jesus speaks of a man looking at a woman with lust, it is applicable also to a woman doing the same towards a man. In the past, when a man was mentioned, it could be any person, male or female. The lust is not a casual glance at a woman or a momentary or involuntary desire for sin, but a deliberate and continuous gaze that eventually would lead to a strong passion. Though adultery involves at least one married person, lust can be any extra marital passion between two persons.
has in fact already committed adultery with her in his heart.
King David committed the sin of lust in his heart by the prolonged watching from the roof of his palace, a very beautiful woman bathing (2 Sam 11:2). Even after realizing that she was the wife of Uriah, he committed adultery with her. When she became pregnant, he called Uriah from the battlefield and made him drunk and urged him to have relation with his wife, which was against the war ethics of the time. Uriah told the king: “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my lord Joab and my lord’s servants are encamped in the open field. Can I go home to eat and to drink and to sleep with my wife? As the LORD lives and as you live, I will do no such thing” (2 Sam 11:11).
David’s intention was to hide his adultery with Bathsheba from the public. Since that attempt failed, the king deceptively killed Uriah and took Bathsheba as his wife. He instructed Joab, “Place Uriah up front, where the fighting is fierce. Then pull back and leave him to be struck down dead” (2 Sam 11:15). Thus, King David is a typical example of how a sensual desire in the heart, if nurtured, will lead to adultery, followed by other grave sins in succession.
That is why Jesus asked to cut off at the moment the sin could creep into the heart of a person. If we do not control at the start of a temptation, it might lead to a sequence of sins. Since an uncontrolled malevolence becomes an intentional act like adultery, “Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire” (CCC-2380).
(29) So, if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is much better for you to lose a part of your body than to have your whole body thrown into hell.
So, if your right eye causes you to sin
Humans have five basic senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. Out of these, sight is the most important because we perceive 80% of all impressions by our eyes. (https://www.zeiss.com/vision-care/us/better-vision/health-prevention/why-good-vision-is-so-important.html). Though the longing and decision to commit sin comes from our mind, the eyes might have triggered for that. So, eyes have a prominent role in committing sexual sins.
In the Bible, the eye has a leading role in causing sin. The very first sin of humanity that Eve committed under the influence of Satan was at the sight of the fruits of the forbidden tree. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). So, the curious eyesight resulted in desire, which facilitated the decision to commit sin.
David’s series of sins related to Bathsheba started with his staring at her taking bath. “From the roof he saw a woman bathing; she was very beautiful” (2 Sam 11:2). If he had controlled looking at her at the first sight, he could have avoided the serious sins that followed, including the assassination of Uriah. When St. Peter speaks of false teachers, he says, “Their eyes are full of adultery and insatiable for sin” (2 Pet 2:14). Thus, the Bible associates eyesight with adultery.
Why Jesus used “right eye” in particular than using the left eye or both eyes? The right eye is the dominant eye for most people. It represents the eyesight, though both eyes are used for normal functions except using equipment like piston, bow and arrow, or singular eyepiece instruments. So, right eye, like the right hand, is considered more beneficial.
Bible traditionally gave superiority to the right-side organs is clear from God’s instruction on the installation ceremony of Aaron and his sons. “After this take the other ram, and when Aaron and his sons have laid their hands on its head, slaughter it. Some of its blood you shall take and put on the tip of Aaron’s right ear and on the tips of his sons’ right ears and on the thumbs of their right hands and the great toes of their right feet” (Ex 29:19-20). The prominence of the right eye is expressed in 1 Samuel 11:2 and Zechariah 11:17. Even if the right eye is plucked out, still the person can use the other eye for vision-related sins. Jesus did not use this phrase in a literal sense, but expressed the discipline necessary to avoid temptation.
Tear it out and throw it away!
Jesus used hyperbolic language to instruct the need for self-control of our human body and its parts. Tear out the right eye symbolizes constraining the use of the eyes. The eyesight is only a means for adultery. The decision is an act of the will. So, getting rid of one organ will not take away the sin of lust. A person with one eye or single hand can still commit sin. The usage means to block the root cause of sin. The immoral inclinations will happen. But we must stop the occasions that arouse them. Job had made a covenant with his eyes not to gaze upon a virgin (Job 31:1). While avoiding sins with our bodily parts, we should engage them for virtuous deeds.
It is much better for you to lose a part of your body than to have your whole body thrown into hell.
In order to avoid an eternal misery in the hell, it is better to get rid of whatever organ that might lead to it. We must sacrifice the sinful pleasures for the eternal joy in heaven. In a positive sense, we should use both eyes to do good and to build up the kingdom of God. The salvation of our immortal soul is more important than the sensual pleasures.
(30) If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better for you to lose a part of your body than to have your whole body thrown into hell.
If your right hand causes you to sin
In the Bible, right hand is a symbol of authority, strength, blessing, and service because most people are right-handed and they use it for signing decrees, do most actions, and offer help. The person next in command will be seated on the right-hand side of the person in authority. Hence, Jesus sits at the right hand of his Father (Mk 16:19). Right hand has been used for blessing (Gen 48:14). Though God has no physical body like us, the Old Testament presents God using his right hand to protect Israel (Ex 15:6, 12).
God has given the right hand to use our strength to serve others. If we misuse it to hurt others, that will lead to eternal destruction. Instead, we must use our hands to serve our family, community, and the less fortunate who need our support.
cut it off and throw it away!
This is parallel to the previous example of tearing out the right eye to prevent sin. If a right-handed person loses his right hand, he would be more handicapped than losing the right eye. Cutting off the right hand is also a hyperbolic expression and should not be taken in a literal sense. The lesson is that life eternal is important for which we might need to sacrifice worldly pleasures that might lead us to mortal sin.
St. Paul clarified this: “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry” (Col 3:5). We need to be selective in our friends, entertainments, drinks, reading, and watching. Bad media, agnosticism, negativism, pornography, immoral people, over consumption of alcohol, and use of drugs can adversely affect our lives and those related to us. So, we have to cut off such elements for our salvation and of others whom we might badly influence.
St. Paul advises Christians to live by the Spirit in contrast to gratifying the desire of the flesh. “I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ [Jesus] have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:16-24).
It is better for you to lose a part of your body than to have your whole body thrown into hell.
When we sacrifice the desires of the flesh, it would seem like losing a dear part of our body. However, that losing is worth to avoid the hell and to gain the Kingdom of Heaven. Though we enter heaven with an imperfect body, we will be perfect in heaven. St. Paul wrote: “He (Jesus Christ) will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body” (Phil 3:21).
Teaching About Divorce
(31) It was also said: anyone who divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.
It was also said:
This implies that what follows is not from God but a tolerance from Moses because of the hardness of heart of the Israelites.
anyone who divorces his wife
According to the Jewish tradition, marriage is a sacred duty derived from God’s commandment to be fertile and multiply (Gen 1:28). The only reason for delay or abstain from marriage was for full-time study of the Law. Divorce is against the divine plan. God said through Malachi that He hated divorce (Mal 2:16).
must give her a written notice of divorce.
The divorce procedure during the pre-Christian era was simple. “When a man, after marrying a woman, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house” (Deut 24:1). When the number of divorce and its misery for women were unconstrained, Moses demanded a formal separation of couples for a genuine reason with an official document. That would provide a legal check upon uncontrolled separation of the couple and to provide an opportunity for the divorcee to get remarried.
Two witnesses were necessary for the divorce record. That was the proof for the divorcee that the marriage was legally dissolved, and she could enter another marriage. A major part of the bill of Jewish divorce states thus: “And now I do release, discharge, and divorce you to be on your own, so that you are permitted and have authority over yourself to marry any man you desire. No person may object to you from this day onward, and you are permitted to every man. This shall be for you from me a bill of dismissal, a letter of release, and a document of absolution, in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel.”
The husband was the judge to decide the divorce leading to misuse of the freedom. The cause of divorce could be interpreted in a strict sense as marital infidelity or as broad as anything that displeased the husband, like a mistake in cooking food, quarrelsome wife, her talk with strangers, or her immodest dressing. The scholars of the school of Sammai upheld a strict interpretation that the law was applicable only for adultery. The school of Hillel justified it in a broad sense as anything that displeased the husband. Many men found this as an excuse to get rid of their wives when they hated them.
Because of these different schools of thought, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” (Mt 19:3). Jesus replied, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:6). When the Pharisees continued questioning Jesus on the command of Moses to give the woman a bill of divorce to dismiss her, Jesus replied, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). So, divorce was not a law, but a tolerance that could be implemented for legitimate reason in a legal format. However, Jesus abolished that allowance of the past.
The Israelites adopted the practice of divorce from the Egyptians while they were in Egypt for centuries. They continued that even after God gave them commandments on Mount Sinai. Moses could not control the increase of divorce among his people because of their hardness of heart. So later, he conceded to tolerate it with a bill of divorce when there was a legitimate reason to do so. So, Moses restricted the divorce for silly reasons, and demanded document evidence for the safeguard of women. That did not mean God approved divorce as a practice to follow. It was in contrast to God’s plan that “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Gen 2:24).
The divorce, for silly reasons, was making the lives of women and children difficult. Hence, Jesus nullified the concession Moses gave because of its inconsistency with the divine plan of marriage and the misuse by men. Jesus confirmed the unity of couples, saying, “They are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:6). Through his revision of the law, Jesus secured the family life and safeguarded the lives of women and children.
(32) But I tell you, if a man divorces his wife for any cause other than unfaithfulness, he causes her to commit adultery. And the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
But I tell you
Jesus has a different interpretation of the law of marriage and the tolerance Moses permitted using his authority as the Son of God.
If a man divorces his wife for any cause other than unfaithfulness
The only concession Jesus allows for divorce is the unfaithfulness of the wife because she became one flesh with another man, breaking the marital covenant with her husband. It is against the essence of the marriage.
He causes her to commit adultery.
Since the divorce is invalid according to the version of Jesus, the original husband is making his wife to have an illegitimate relation with a new partner. So, the woman is committing adultery, and the man leads to such a sin.
And the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Since the divorce of the woman is not valid according to the clarification of Jesus, she still is the wife of her first husband and thus her marital life with another man is unlawful and equivalent to adultery. The woman and the second husband are also indulging in adultery.
Jesus restored marriage to its original status and sanctity. Based on Jesus’ teaching St. Paul wrote, “To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): A wife should not separate from her husband – and if she does separate, she must either remain single or become reconciled to her husband—and a husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor 7:10-11). This instruction is to prevent the couple from the guilt of adultery and to preserve the unity of the family.