Let’s round out the Sermon on the Mount with the affirmation that—contrary to what many church folks would have you believe—Jesus had nothing to say about abortion, homosexuality, masturbation or premarital sex. But he had a lot to say about hipocrisy.
Indeed, if one were to go by what people get told in churches—and Republican meetings that style themselves as quasi-religious—one would think that Christian morality consisted almost entirely about sex rules. But that’s not what the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament suggest at all.
In the two topic areas that are most closely related to sexual behavior—adultery and divorce—Jesus once again sets everything upside down for people looking for easy versions of what religious conservatives have accustomed us to think of as “family values.”
When Jesus turns to adultery in this discourse, he specifically refers to the commandment in Ex. 20:13 and Deut. 5:17: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
In our time, we call “adultery” the sexual relations between a married person and someone, married or not, who is not the adulterer's spouse; the misdeed refers to disloyalty, disrespect for a vow, disrespect of the spouse, and so forth. Adultery in our time is a matter of sex and psyche. In biblical times, however, adultery was preeminently a matter of property and honor.
Adultery attached primarily to the married woman: she was her husband’s property, but most importantly the vessel of future heirs. Recall that until the 19th century, when the ovum was discovered, it was thought that the sperm was a “little man” containing the entire human being, hence the sin of “spilling seed.” As a consequence, women were thought to be mere vessels.
Moreover, before paternity tests were possible, the only reliable source of lineage was through the mother; this is the reason a Jew is classically defined as the child of a Jewish woman, regardless of the father. For these reasons Lev. 18:20 says “Thou shalt not lie with thy neighbor’s wife, nor be defiled with mingling of seed.” Biblical adultery was sexual relations with a married woman and it was wrong because it imperiled the lineage, property and honor of the husband.
You have heard ... but now I say. This is the classic form of Jesus’ presentation. As we saw with murder in the last post, Jesus now goes to the root of the matter: the lustful gaze and desire. Pluck out your eyes, cut off your hand, he advises in a rhetorical flight.
Here Jesus is a feminist. In modern feminist language, what he’s pointing out as wrong is men treating women as sexual objects. The implicit theology could suggest that all women are wives, perhaps as potential mothers of God’s heirs. The deepest one can draw from this well is a moral theology of male intentions. Men are asked to look into their own hearts.
Nothing is said about women’s intentions or behavior. To Jesus the main point is that women are simply not property.
Likewise with divorce.
“Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a bill of divorce” in Matt. 5:31 is a loose paraphrase of Deut. 24:1 in a passage (1-4) that is really about the re-marriage of divorced and serially re-married spouses. Once again, divorce in biblical Jewish law and divorce today are not the same thing.
At the time of Jesus, there were two prevailing schools of rabbinical thinking concerning divorce: that of Shammai, who permitted divorce for adultery; and that of Hillel, who permitted divorce for the love of another woman or even for bad cooking (do keep in mind the importance of dietary law, or kashrut). The rabbinical question is when could a man divorce a woman. Jewish law only allowed men to divorce women; only Roman law allowed women to divorce men, as well. Jesus almost certainly would not have been addressing Roman law.
Jesus’ answer is quoted saying that a man who divorces his wife is effectively forcing her to commit adultery.
Then there’s an exception appended for what is sometimes translated as “fornication” (in Greek porneia), but more likely is concubinage; that is, if the woman goes to live with another man, she may be divorced. This legal splitting of hairs, however, seems incongruent with the radical responses so far and may reflect the views of the apostles rather than of Jesus.
Fine, but why would a woman be “made to commit adultery”? What is adultery, committed by a man or woman, that it should be so feared?
Again, we are contending with Jesus the Feminist. The economic relations between men and women were such that, merely to survive, a woman would have to woo another man if she were divorced, making of herself into a sex object. What are we to make of this in an age in which sisterhood aims to be powerful?