Sermon for September 22nd, 2013

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Matthew 22:34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Deuteronomy 5:15-18

15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. 16 Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 17 You shall not murder. 18 Neither shall you commit adultery.

You Shall Not Commit Adultery

Well, here it is, the sermon everyone's been waiting for since we started our series on the Ten Commandments: You shall not commit adultery. The seventh commandment. Some of you have already told me you were curious to hear what I was going to say about this one. To be honest, I was curious to hear what I was going to say about this one. First Presbyterian Church in Midland, Texas did a sermon series on the Ten Commandments awhile back--they have four pastors who take turns preaching, and I understand they actually drew straws to see who got stuck with this commandment.

Why is this one so hard? Adultery has to do with sex, and in our culture, we're pretty uncomfortable talking about sex--although we certainly have no problem "communicating" sex in our culture, through our movies and TV shows, magazines, fashions, music. But I'm not going to go on a long rant against all those things in our culture. Actually, I hope to make the point that the seventh commandment has far less to do with sex than we tend to assume. But to do that, we are going to talk about sex--what it is and what it was to the people who first received this commandment, how our view of it has evolved through the years, and what that means for us today.

But break the tension in the room: There was an old Roman Catholic Priest, who got so tired in confession of hearing his members confess to adultery, that he said from the pulpit one Sunday: If I hear one more person confess to adultery, I'll quit! Well, his congregation genuinely liked him, and they didn't want to see him go. But they didn't want to give up their adulterous ways, either. So they came up with a code word: Someone who had committed adultery would say in confession that he or she had "fallen." This worked well for many years, until the priest died and a new priest came to town. After the new priest had been there for a month, he came to see the Mayor, and he was very concerned. "Mayor, you have to do something about the sidewalks in this town--people tell me they are falling down everywhere!" The mayor laughed, realizing that no one had told the new priest about the code word. Before he had a chance to explain, the priest interrupted him: "I don't know what you're laughing about; your wife fell three times this morning already!"

The word adultery comes from Latin. It is made up of two stems: ad + alter, or "to another." A common Latin legal phrase was "ad alterum se conferre" which was used in contracts to confer property upon another person. This makes sense, because in the ancient world, both in Roman culture and going even further back in ancient Israelite culture, sex was all about property. Consider the tenth commandment (which we'll look at in more depth in a few weeks). Exodus 20:17 reads, "You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour."

So in that category of "anything taht belongs to your neighbor," i.e. his property, nestled somewhere between the house and the donkey, we find the wife. Now, please understand that I am NOT advocating this view, or saying that it was ever a good idea (especially for the wife!). I said at the beginning of the sermon that our view of sex has evolved through the years, and is continuing to evolve, and I think that's a good thing. But it's an important starting point for us to understand that in ancient culture the wife is the property of the husband, making sex--and therefore adultery--largely a property management issue. Adultery sounds so much described as a property management issue, doesn't it?

According to the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, the definition of adultery in Roman law is "the offence committed by a man, married or unmarried, having sexual intercourse with another man's wife." Notice how narrow this definition is? It only goes one way. That's not to get women off the hook more's because women are property. The sin of adultery is the sin of one man taking something that rightfully belongs to another man. Notice also that in ancient understanding, it is NOT adultery for a married man to have sex with an unmarried woman. There's different name for that: it's called taking a concubine. Nor is it adultery for an unmarried man to have sex with an unmarried woman. They had a name for that one too: "impromptu wedding."

But as bleak as this all sounds for women, even here in this ancient understanding there is still some hope, some progress, some measure of the status and importance of women in marriage. I think the placement of the commandment here is important. "You shall not commit adultery" comes before and separate from the commandments "you shall not steal" and "you shall not covet" even though committing adultery IS actually coveting and then stealing your neighbor's wife. In fact, of the last five commandments, "you shall not commit adultery" is second only to "you shall not kill," and I think there's a connection there, too: Proverbs 6:34-35 says that "jealousy arouses a husband’s fury, and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge. He will accept no compensation, and refuses a bribe no matter how great." In other words, if you take a man's donkey or his house, he'll be mad. He might drag you to court. You might have to compensate or bribe him. But if you take his wife--clearly more than just a possession here--he will show no restraint when he takes revenge. You break the seventh commandment, causing him to break the sixth commandment, and the cycle spins out of control.

In the New Testament, we make even more progress. Listen to 1st Corinthians 7, and compare it with the Old Testament view of women as property: "Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does." Now, the Apostle Paul is not exactly a poster child for the women's rights movement (he is still a product of his time), and we're still using the language of ownership, but now it's mutual ownership. There is a sort of equality here--you both own each other. So the implication is that if either partner "ad alterum se conferre" -- or takes one's "property" elsewhere, it is a double act of taking what does not belong to him or her, and giving it to someone else, causing both to break the 7th commandment, the 9th commandment, the 10th commandment, and possibly the 6th as well. Property management is pretty important, for men and women.

I said at the beginning that I don't think the 7th commandment has nearly as much to do with sex as we often assume, and here's why. There's a remarkable similarity in English between the words "adultery" and "idolatry." Unfortunately (for once!) it's just a coincidence--they're from completely different roots. BUT...even though they are two completely distinct and separate words, the Old Testament prophets use the two words almost interchangeably. That's because just as marriage is a special, exclusive relationship between two people, God called Israel into a special exclusive relationship with himself. When Israel wanders off track and worships other God's that's called idolatry. And God considers it adultery.

Jeremiah 3:8 - I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Hosea 3:1 - The Lord said to me again, “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” Ezekiel 23:37 - For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands; with their idols they have committed adultery.

Do a google search on Israel and Adultery and you'll come up with hundreds of verses like these. With their idols they have committed adultery. I don't think the people of Israel are having sex with little stone statues or little golden calves. But I also don't think that adultery is primarily about sex. Sex is an unfortunate and dangerous byproduct of adultery, but not the core of what adultery is. This is why Jesus, when the issue of adultery is raised, says that even looking at a person with lustful intentions might as well be adultery. So if the 7th commandment is not primarily about sex, what is it about?

I think it's a reflection of and a derivative of the very first commandment: I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other God's before me. Adultery is failing to put first things first in your life. Our first allegiance in the Kingdom of Heaven is to God, and our first allegiance in our families is to our spouse.

Jesus summarizes the commandments by telling us to Love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbors as ourselves. You may remember that several weeks ago, I said there are three objects of love in that passage: God, our neighbors, and ourselves. We love to turn that order upside down. We love to put ourselves first, above all others, and God last of all. That's what happens in adultery--I put my own selfish desires and wants above those of my spouse, and forget that I belong to her, and that I belong to God. Lust (not just sexual--lust for anything and anyone) by its very nature focuses on the self: I want that. I have to have that. I don't care about the consequences." On the other hand, love, by its very nature, focuses on the other: I love you. I want to make you happy.

Obeying the seventh commandment, like all the other commandments, starts with love. It starts with putting first things first. I'd like to close with a story that should be familiar to most of you, but it illustrates the point of what the 7th commandment is really all about.

We don't know her name. All we know is what she was accused of. Adultery. The religious leaders dragged her roughly before Jesus and threw her at his feet. She was a pawn in their game; they didn't really care much about her life, her circumstances, what led her to that point. She was nothing more than bait in their plan to bring down this renegade Rabbi, Jesus.

The penalty for adultery was death. Humiliating, public, and painful, being pummeled to death by large rocks. But according to Jewish law, to be convicted of adultery, you had to be caught in the act by multiple witnesses. In other words, the identity of the man who committed adultery with her was known. And yet he was not dragged before the religious leaders to be stoned to death. He was nowhere to be found. This is first century justice at work.

"Teacher--this woman was caught red-handed! The Law of Moses commands us to stone her. What do you say, Jesus? Teach us what to do." She flinches a little, waiting for the inevitable. Any teacher would know the answer to this question. Get it over with, Jesus.

The crowd is gathering now, curious, bloodthirsty like most crowds are. Adultery! A thousand cruel eyes judge her. A thousand cruel eyes imagine her sin. A thousand cruel hands begin to reach for stones.

But two eyes meet hers on her level. Jesus bends down with her in the dirt, separating himself from the crowd. He writes something on the ground, but she has never been able to read. Perhaps it is not meant for her anyhow. This goes on for a few, long, minutes and then he stands up. The crowd becomes silent.

"Alright," he says. "Throw your stones." she flinches again, waiting for the hard bite of rock. "Whichever one of you has never done anything can go first." While this sinks in, Jesus bends down to his writing again.

The rocks never come. Slowly she hears them hit the ground, one at a time. Slowly they leave.

Whoever has no sin, throw the stone. When she looks into his eyes, she knows that this man has never known sin. This man has the right to throw the stone. This man. Jesus.

"Woman. Is there anyone left to condemn you?"

She says no, but in her head, she thinks, "Only you, Jesus. Only you." And she waits for his response.

"Then neither will I condemn you. Go now. Go away from this place. Go away from sin.

May all of us go from this place, knowing that we too are sinners, adulterers, and idolaters.

May all of us go from this place, knowing that we too are forgiven.

May all of us go from this place into the world, putting first things first, and loving others as we have been loved.