I came across an online discussion about Matthew 5:28, in which Jesus says: ” But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (KJV).
The person posting said: “The concept of ‘sin’ is dangerous or damaging, when natural desires are seen as bad in and of themselves. And Jesus certainly didn’t help matters when he talked about how if you even looked on a woman in lust, you had sinned.”
The post got a variety of responses. There were no die-hard fundamentalists who responded, since the people who usually respond to this gentleman’s posts are not from that particular group of people. By and large, the people who respond are disillusioned with conservative evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and really institutional Christianity in general. Overall, they treat each other with respect.
But, even within this group, there were people who were trying to give Jesus the benefit of a doubt. One person said that Jesus was criticizing covetousness, not noticing a beautiful woman. Another raised the consideration of intent and looking for an opportunity to sin sexually. One commenter put these views together and said that Jesus was criticizing Pharisees who coveted other men’s wives and used divorce as a way to sleep with other men’s wives. Another said that Jesus was challenging the self-righteousness of Pharisees who looked down on others yet committed adultery with other men’s wives in their hearts. Still another defined lust as wanting to use or exploit another person, not as admiration or desire.
There were others, though, who were more skeptical. One person said Jesus never existed anyway, so who cares? Another said that we don’t even know if Matthew 5:28 was from Jesus, since the Gospels put things in Jesus’ mouth that Jesus never said. Another responded to the pro-Jesus comments by saying that, even if Jesus was criticizing the Pharisees, Jesus still upped the requirements of the law and equated lust with adultery, so the problem has not gone away.
There were other comments that were rather deep. One commenter quoted a variety of religious texts against lust and talked about the flesh and the spirit.
Then there was a humorous comment: a gay man said he used to be proud of himself for not lusting after women. Now, he knows why!
In the past, I leaned more towards the skeptical views. I believed Jesus existed, but I did not think that attempts to defend Jesus solved any problems. I would also have agreed with the commenter who noted that the Gospels contained words not actually spoken by Jesus, since that overlapped with what a number of New Testament scholars say.
Nowadays, I gravitate a bit more towards those who try to give Jesus, or Matthew, the benefit of a doubt. From a faith or spirituality perspective, I want for Jesus to look reasonable—-to say things that make sense morally and that do not strike me as out of my reach.
I would say that the jury is out over whether Matthew 5:28 reflects Jesus’ actual views. Some say that it reflects the views of Matthew, who depicts Jesus as a new Moses. Hans Dieter Betz, by contrast, said that the Sermon on the Mount is from a different source from Matthew. Some may say that the Sermon on the Mount contains things that Jesus taught, even if Jesus did not get on a mountain and speak those literal words. For me, from a faith perspective, I would prefer for the words to reflect Jesus’ teachings. But, from a scholarly perspective and as someone who would prefer for the Bible to be interesting and rich, I would like for the Sermon on the Mount to be part of the broader tapestry of Scriptural diversity.
Of course, my preferences do not matter, except insofar as they allow me to clarify to myself my own perspective, for reality is reality. I suppose that, in the end, I consider Matthew 5:28 to be a text that God permitted to be in Scripture and that can teach me, whether it came from the historical Jesus or not. From a faith perspective, I cannot really spiritually build that much on being overly skeptical, so I look for explanations that give Jesus the benefit of a doubt, or that present Jesus as making sense. Of course, if die-hard fundamentalists were attacking me, my approach may get different!