“You shall not commit adultery.”–Exodus 20:14
The joke goes something like this. Moses comes down the mountain to the people who are waiting to hear a word from God. “Well,” says Moses, “the good news is I got him down to ten.”
“The bad news is that adultery is still one of them.”
Every time I’ve ever heard the Ten Commandments as a subject of a sermon, there’s a collective holding of the breath when it gets to the sixth word. It makes us uncomfortable somehow, maybe because we’ve been told since we were small children that sex wasn’t something you talked about, especially in church.
Moses viewed adultery as so dangerous to the social framework of the Israelite nation that he later shared in Leviticus 20:10, that if a man “commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.” Pretty serious stuff, no?
A simple search on adultery through the rest of the Old Testament finds God using it as an illustration of the way that Israel has behaved toward God: unfaithfully, fickly, without thought toward their relationship. Sure, David commits adultery, and God punishes him for it in II Samuel 11, but Ezekial and Jeremiah, two prophetic paragons of virtue, rebuke the nation for failing to worship God and instead chasing other gods. God takes it a step further in Hosea, telling that prophet to marry a prostitute and then take her back, because that’s the way that God loves Israel. And us.
Maybe if we recognize, that family and relationships are at the root of what God wants for the recently freed Israelite slaves, and for us, then somehow, this seventh word makes sense. Maybe we need to focus on what it means to be faithful, then we can wrap our minds around the bigger picture.
Take this example, for instance: Growing up in Rhode Island, the Red Sox were the regional team of choice. They had some good players, but they seemed to practice losing more than they actually won. Some people defaulted to teams like the Atlanta Braves (who were dominate in the 1990s), which seemed slightly traitorous, but at least they were in the ‘other’ league, the National League. What was worse, there were so-called fans who chose to root for the New York Yankees, even though they were (and are) the absolute rivals and antithesis of Boston. This is tragic unfaithfulness, not in marriage, but in heart, in allegiance.
In the Old Testament, God sees adultery as a breaking up of the marriage covenant that is the building block of family and community; God sees adultery as a breaking up of the covenant between God and God’s people, when they fail to be who they’re supposed to be, when they worship things other than God, when they fail to honor their side of the covenant. God knows the Israelites have been told that relationships are only physical, that slaves die and are replaced, that there is no covenant that stands higher than any other. God knows that the people who see life as meaningless ditch marriage, leave friendship, and worship things that ultimately can’t fulfill them, from idols to pleasure to ‘stuff.’
When we get to the New Testament, we see that the Pharisees, the religious leaders and teachers of God’s law, have made adultery all about a problem in marriage that a) must be avoided and b) defines a person’s worth. They have elevated sex to the point where it is an idol for them, the earmark of what it means to be faithful, even while they are gluttonous, greedy, cruel, and judgmental. They’ve also bought into a patriarchal, sexist view of adultery: it’s always the woman’s fault. It’s one more way that the Pharisees have raised themselves up on a pedestal- “look at us, we’re great, we don’t commit adultery!”– and pushed everyone else, especially women, down.
Wait until they get a hold of Jesus!
We understand that Jesus has already preached on adultery, from Matthew 5:27-32, as part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:27-32). Jesus told the men, the people gathered there, that they had been told not to commit adultery, but that he was telling them not to even look at a woman with lust; he told them that rather than keep sinning, they might as well cut out the body part that was causing them to sin… he suggested an eye… rather than be unfaithful. Jesus told them that unless a woman had been unfaithful, that the man had no right to divorce her.
You can imagine this didn’t sit well with everyone. When we get to our Scripture today, from Mark 10:2-12, we see that they’ve come looking for Jesus, that they want to trap or test him. So they ask him if it’s lawful (legal, acceptable) for a man to divorce his wife?
Jesus asks them what Moses said? They reply with the legal answer about divorce, and Jesus responds that Moses gave them that law because they couldn’t handle relationships, that God had intended the sacrament of marriage for the union of a man and a woman to be united forever. He later tells his disciples that if a man or woman remarried, for reasons outside of infidelity, they were committing adultery.
It doesn’t say that Jesus blasted people for getting divorced, or even committing adultery, but that he recognized that they were not God’s first choice for his people. God knew that broken relationships hurt, that broken people in broken relationships lead to broken communities. God wanted them (and us) to practice faithfulness in a world that wasn’t faithful to God, or relationships.
That goes in the face of what we hear from society, doesn’t it?
Statistics say that one out of every five Americans will have an affair. Did you know there’s even a dating community for people who are already married? That website, Ashley Madison, promotes itself as being the leader in infidelity and married dating, with a tagline that says, “Life is short, have an affair.”
Is that really what we’ve come to?
Society tells us, thanks to the latest in films, TV shows, books, and socialite gossip that boredom, unmet needs, longing, age, etc. are all reasons enough for unfaithfulness. Society tells us that our vows are like goals: they’re meant to be broken. Society tells us that as long as we don’t have sex, it’s not adultery. Society tells us that the ache we feel in our souls for more is something that we can artificially fill, instead of chasing God.
We can’t be too surprised because we switch churches when the preacher says something we don’t like or the parking lot gets full; we move our kids to new schools when we don’t like the teachers or don’t think our kid is the central focus; we act like college football coaches who just flip one job into a better one, regardless of how we’ve treated our team.
We put the instant gratification before the relationship.
This Seventh Word demands that we protect our own family line, but also that of our neighbor’s family. It puts an explicit claim on sexual activity between a man and a woman as central to the community. And it fights against the claim that “it’s okay as long as no one gets hurt,” because Jesus says it’s damaging to the man, to the woman, and to the community.
And then we keep coming back to situations with Jesus that tell us that it’s not just about sex. That a hobby, a job, an addiction, an emotional entanglement, could all be the cause of our unfaithfulness to God or our spouse in a world that continues to grow more and more commitment-phobic. That it’s not just about male-female relationships but our way of doing life.
Mother Theresa put it this way: “We are called upon not to be successful but faithful.”
(You know, it’s sad, when marriages break up before your two-year Verizon contract.)
God wants us to consider how we are unfaithful to our churches, our families, our friendships. God wants us to move past our self-centered focus to an other-centered focus. God wants us to be like the elder Peter Pan played by Robin Williams in Hook who says, “My word is my bond.” God knows that in those kinds of relationships, we can be fully vulnerable to each other, that we can know as we are fully known.
God knows that we buy into the need advertised and ingrained in us to “feel alive,” to believe that the grass is really greener on the other side. God knows that we think we’re freeing ourselves from a weight that holds us down, when we’re really just trading a situation we haven’t sorted out and becoming enslaved to something else.
God knows that we need friendships we can be faithful to, marriages we can be faithful in, churches we can learn faithfulness from because we are not meant to live this life alone. From a Methodist standpoint, broadly accepted by many Christians, we believe in a Trinitarian God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who wants to be in community with us, and wants us to be in community with each other.
To live in faithfulness is to not exploit, misuse, abuse, manipulate, or patronize someone; to live in faithfulness is to love our spouse, our children, our parents, our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ like they are ourselves.
I’ve learned in twelve years of marriage that “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health” takes time to learn and understand. I didn’t get it right away; I didn’t even get it early on; I still don’t completely get it. But I’m learning.
I realize, pardon the sports metaphor, that this whole “long term relationship” thing is about followthrough like shooting a basketball. Everyone shoots but not everyone scores. Anyone can pick up an orange basketball and shoot it, but it takes followthrough, the completion of the shot, to make it go in. Anyone can have sex, but it takes a parent to raise a child. Anyone can get married with the right credentials, but it takes hard work, determination, and forgiveness to make the marriage work.
Simon Signoret wrote that “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years.” I’ve seen the threads grow in my marriage and the marriage of others. I’ve seen the commitment rise, the friendships deepen, the fabric of life grow softer with each struggle and each success.
It’s like our covenantal vows of membership, the words we’ll celebrate with new members today, and remember from our own vows. We will stand up and say together that “we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” But we don’t always get it right! We aren’t always terrific at praying, at showing up at church, at giving back to God a tithe of what he has already given us, at using what God has given us for the community’s good, at sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with the people we meet.
Our unfaithfulness happens with our time, our spending, our emotions, our bodies, our love.
And yet, the most important story of Jesus and his “take” on adultery comes in John 8:1-11, to remind us of all manners of faithfulness, and God’s grace toward us when we are unfaithful.
“Jesus went across to Mount Olives, but he was soon back in the Temple again. Swarms of people came to him. He sat down and taught them.
The religion scholars and Pharisees led in a woman who had been caught in an act of adultery. They stood her in plain sight of everyone and said, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught red-handed in the act of adultery. Moses, in the Law, gives orders to stone such persons. What do you say?’ They were trying to trap him into saying something incriminating so they could bring charges against him.
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They kept at him, badgering him. He straightened up and said, ‘The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone.’ Bending down again, he wrote some more in the dirt.
Hearing that, they walked away, one after another, beginning with the oldest. The woman was left alone. Jesus stood up and spoke to her. ‘Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?’
‘No one, Master.’
‘Neither do I,’ said Jesus. ‘Go on your way. From now on, don’t sin.'”
In John 8, Jesus encounters the Pharisees. No, let’s be direct: the Pharisees show up again to try and trap Jesus in some inappropriate teaching or behavior. So, they bring a woman who has been caught in adultery to Jesus. It’s not just that they knew she had but that they caught her red…handed.
Now, I don’t know exactly when I learned this, but I do know that it takes two to tango. So, where’s the man? And I do know that most people don’t do it publicly, so this implies that these religious leaders were so sure of their own lack of sin that they went places they shouldn’t go to find people sinning!
Again, patriarchal, sexist society here. The Pharisees think they came to trap Jesus, bringing this woman, and asking if Jesus still thinks stoning is appropriate for her crime?
But Jesus just draws in the dirt with his finger. We don’t know what he was doing: was he writing another God-quote? Was he doodling a funny picture of Peter fishing? Was he thinking about what was for dinner?
It says that they kept questioning him, that they were pestering him for an answer, and he finally stood up and said, “Whichever one of you has no sin, go ahead and throw the first stone.” And then he goes back to doodling, or writing, or…
Slowly, one by one, the men start to melt into the background: John writes that the older ones left first, until suddenly, Jesus was alone with the woman. He’s still drawing. He stands up again, looks around, and asks the woman where everyone else went?
Like Jesus didn’t know. Like he didn’t sense them leave. Like he didn’t know that there was no way they could throw a stone when he’d advised the sinless ones to throw stones.
Jesus makes the woman participate. He demands she answer, that she say that no one has condemned her. So that he can say back, “I don’t condemn you either. Go now and don’t sin anymore.”
Jesus doesn’t condone her adultery, or ours. Jesus doesn’t say it’s okay to be unfaithful in marriage or in church life or in loving other people. Jesus doesn’t say that sin is okay. In fact, he tells her, “don’t do it again!”
But Jesus does acknowledge that we all sin, that we’ve all been knocked down and that we all need help getting back up. Jesus chooses not to blast or to judge or to condemn but to respond with grace and love. Jesus tells this woman that she’s forgiven, and he wants us to know it, too.
Maybe you’ve been unfaithful in marriage. You’re forgiven, go and sin no more!
Maybe you have been unfaithful in your relationship with God. You’re forgiven, go and sin no more!
Maybe you have been unfaithful at living your life to the glory of God. You’re forgiven, go and sin no more!
Maybe you’ll hear our baptismal vows for the first time or the fifty-first time today and realize that you are called not to commit one form of adultery but to love the Lord your God with your whole heart and strength and mind. You are forgiven. Now go and sin no more!
You who were abandoned, and who did the abandoning; you who were lost and is now found; you who have been angry, and you who have been abused; you who have been addicted, and you who have been enabled– in the name of Jesus and in his holy church,
You are forgiven, no go and sin no more!