October 22, 1995 message
I really don't like the word "adultery." Why? Because of it's connection to what should be a postive term: "adult." I ask you, what is so "adult" about "adultery?" Doesn't it belong in that category of "childish things" that the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, spoke of himself as having "put away?" Of course, it's not really a "childish thing," either. Perhaps "immature" is a better description. "Mature." Now, there's another word that gets convoluted around. Excuse me, but what makes an X-rated movie "for mature audiences only?" What definitions are we following here?
I agree with Frederick Beuchner when he writes, "The terms Adult Books, Adult Movies, Adult Entertainment imply that whereas the young must be somehow protected from all those bare breasts and heaving buttocks, adults will simply take them in stride. Possibly the reverse is closer to the truth."
Our present society is heavily sexualized, which should come as a surprise to no one. The other day I was in Borders Book Store, where they shelve books according to certain categories. Their "sex" section takes up 8 shelves, each containing approximately 40-50 titles. Compare that with the "marriage" section: 3 shelves. Interestingly enough, the "sex" category is located between "child psychology" (5 shelves) and "aging" (3 shelves). Maybe "sex" is how we define "adult" in our society. Of course, far outweighing all of these combined is the "Cooking" section, which encompasses 84 shelves. Food seems a fairly safe topic in the 90's.
"You shall not commit adultery," God commanded the Israelites through Moses. This directive is very simple and brief. In Hebrew it is two words: "No adultery." Pretty straightforward. You've heard the joke, haven't you, about Moses coming down the mountain, saying to the people: "I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we got God down to only 10 commandments. The bad news is that "no adultery" is still one of them."
Adultery. Literally it involves sexual intercourse between 2 individuals where at least one of them is married to another person. What is at stake is not so much the issue of sex but of fidelity to the covenant between husband and wife. Be faithful to your spouse, it encourages. Faithfulness involves much more than sex. The latter is more a (not the) vital sign of the health of a relationship. It is a part of marriage, but it does not define it.
Now, the Bible from which we receive this commandment tells the story of many interesting marriages. It's wise to remember that poligamy (having more than one wife) was an accepted part of the culture back then. We have only to look at the most powerful King Israel ever had to see a man with 700 wives and 300 concubines. From Solomon may flow the tradition of wisdom in Israel, but with such a harem, he is certainly not a prime example of fidelity, to his wives or to his God (as 1 Kings 11:4 makes clear).
Perhaps we should turn to his parents for the Bible's clearest picture of adultery and it's consequences. Solomon was the second child born to King David and Bathsheba. Recall briefly with me the story behind their firstborn. Bathsheba was orginally the wife of a man named Uriah, a soldier in David's army. Simply put, when his forces were off at war one Spring, David stayed behind. He spied Bathsheba from afar, and one thing led to another. Soon he was the father-to-be of her child. In a tale which aptly describes the cascading consequences of sin, David sought to cover up his indiscretion. He arranged for what was, in reality, the murder of Uriah, and then took Bathsheba as his wife.
After the child was born, David received a visit from the prophet Nathan. Through a subtle story, Nathan tricked David into convicting himself of his own sin. A direct assualt often will not open someone's eyes to their own wrong, because most of us are good at justifying our actions. "It can't be wrong when it feels so right." Have you heard that one before? Perhaps David tried to convince himself with similar words. Nathan's story, however, laid bare David's sin in his own words. He deserved to die for taking what didn't belong to him. In many ways, adultery is a "taking of what doesn't belong to us," seizing, confiscating - not a piece of property, but a covenanted relationship between others.
Though he repented, David paid dearly for his sin. His offspring paid more. The child died. His descendants wove the sin into the fabric of their relationships. It's a sad story, one I have seen too often in ministry. We talk of the repercussions of sexual and other abuse in families, how it is passed on from one generation to the next. The same is true of adultery, infidelity, no matter how well it is covered up. It does its damage because it strikes at the heart of our primary relationships with one another.
Marriage is a covenant, which is different than a contract. These two terms have been batted around the political arena recently. A contract is a more exact, less flexible arrangement which is most helpful in business transactions. It is based on conditions. One party makes certain promises which, if not kept, voids the contract. For instance, if a product does not perform as a seller promises, the purchaser has grounds to invalidate the sales agreement and demand money back. Marriage is not a contract, though over the years many have tried to approach it as such.
A covenant is a different matter. When a covenant is breeched, that is, when one party fails to live up to what thy have promised, the relationship is not thereby nullified. A bond exists which runs deeper than a contract. We speak of our relationship with God in terms of a covenant. The Bible is a living story of that relationship. In its pages we read, over and over again, how humanity tears at our end of the bargain, failing to live up to promises made. Even so, the connection continues. God does not revoke the relationship. Instead, our Creator keeps his part of the covenant whether we keep our end or not.
That's important for us to understand as we explore these commandments. This is not a contract, folks. A contract would imply that if we fail to live up to this list of don'ts, then our relationship with God is terminated. But such is not the case. God's love is not conditional on our faithfulness. We can fail miserably, like King David, but God doesn't call it quits. Our creator loves us with a stubborn, never-say-die love. Jesus, we believe, is an expression of this love, how God put his money where his mouth was, so to speak. Like the prophet Nathan, Jesus' parables continue to confound us, and trick us into admitting our own sin, moving us to turn from them toward this One who loves us. Jesus' death in our place is the most profound parable of all, living evidence of God's tough, stubborn, intentional love.
To be honest, it's a mystery how and why God keeps this covenant with us. Getting back to marriage, the apostle Paul likened the relationship between a husband and a wife to the covenant between God and us. They're both a mystery, he wrote. The bond is so deep that we cannot dig beneath it. However, we sure can pollute the ground. That's what adultery is: spiritual pollution. Yes, it's a very physical act, but it harms the environment of our life together. It's a toxic waste dumped into our streams, which kills the spirit of our relationship "bay."
With words that haunt us, Jesus broadened our understanding of adultery. "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart," he said. Our modern sensibilities may question such a radical statement, but his words do point us toward toxic waste in relationships. If we're serious about cleaning up our environment, it begins in our motivations.
The story of the woman caught in adultery makes this abundantly clear. A part of me has always questioned where was the man with whom this woman was caught. Why wasn't he dragged before Jesus as well? Wasn't he just as guilty? Jesus pulled a Nathan, with a simple request rather than a story. "Let anyone who is without sin throw the first stone." Her accusers were forced to confront their own motivations, and admit their sin. They repented, that is, they turned from indicting this woman.
With words that point every adulterous heart toward home, Jesus spoke the stubborn love of God. "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again...."
What's so adult about adultery, whether it's committed in the flesh or in the heart? Nothing. Maturity comes, however, as we recognize the pollution, the damage it does to our relationships - with one another and with God. Maturity comes as deal with it - as we explore forgiveness, truly seeking it, truly giving it. Maturity comes as we then go our way, striving with God's stubborn love to not sin again. Maturity comes as God's faithfulness to us influences and gives shape to our own faithfulness to him and to one another.
As Proverbs 5:18 says, "Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife (may we add "husband") of your youth..." Amen.
©1995Peter L. Haynes
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