VII. You shall not commit adultery.
This is every teenage parent’s favorite commandment: adultery. It’s probably up there with murder as one that a lot of people know is on the list. But unlike killing people, there is a whole lot, lot more to this commandment than meets the eye.
So, let’s start with some history. When it was created, the commandment should have probably been translated thus: no woman should have relations outside of marriage and no man should have relations with a married woman. I intentionally made that simple relations, because in many cases women were literally kept cut off from the world.
Here is the even better part: the way the humans immediately translated this meant it had nothing to do with human relationships. This commandment was about property. Yes, you heard me correctly. In ancient Israel, women were property. They were the property of their father and then became the property of their husband, for the sole purpose of bearing children. And men could have more than one wife. And concubines. And slave women to bed. But the women had no rights. This is also why a widow has always been a symbol of destitution – if her husband died and she had no family, she had no ability in polite society to live, because she was not a person and could not inherit either. So yeah…
There were also a whole bunch of death penalties for those who broke this commandment, but historically they were almost never carried out. Instead, divorce was created. Only for husbands. If a wife was unfaithful, she was cast out. Also, if she could not have children for a period of ten years, she was handed a slip of divorce. Those were the only valid reasons. But over time, the rabbis began to allow more and more reasons for a man to divorce his wife. By the time Jesus arrived, simply displeasing your husband was on the list. And note, again, that women had no recourse if they were poorly treated or if their spouse was forever unfaithful.
If you ever wonder why Jesus was so stringent about divorce, which is where everyone takes this particular commandment, it actually had far less to do with the protection of marriage – which is extremely complicated. It, instead, had everything to do with protecting the women who were consistently and constantly being thrown out of their houses and made into destitute on the whims of their husbands.
Then we have this saying that we read from Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. If you look with lust in your heart, it is as though you have already committed adultery. You have already broken the relationship. Because the truth is that Jesus is about teaching us how to grow healthy relationships and how to ensure that humans have healthy lives.
During my rounds of chaplaincy that every pastor is, or at least should be, required to do during our training to become a pastor, I had the chance to work on the maternity ward in the biggest birthing hospital in Nashville. Generally, I spent most of my time visiting the women who were on bedrest due to pregnancy complications. Every day I would pop my head in and say hi, just to check on them.
One day, I came across a young woman who eventually shared with me that she was certain God was punishing her baby for her sins. You see, she was divorced from her first marriage. One that had been abusive. Unhealthy. Cruel and sadistic. She and her first husband had been a part of a denomination that believed that divorce was the ultimate sin. Somehow, she had managed to get herself out of that situation, but not without long-term damage. She was now remarried to a kind and caring man. And pregnant to boot. But she wondered if she was now being punished for getting divorced.
What hateful, hurtful, brutal trauma we have wrought, lo these many years, in the ways we have mishandled this commandment. I have seen far less barbaric renderings used and it still cause decades of damage. And I have seen cultures become so afraid of the “relations” that are meant to happen as a part of healthy human existence, especially between a loving married couple, that in their efforts to dissuade young people from their misguided notions of adultery, they have laid waste to countless marriages in their wake.
So, I want to look at something for a minute. Throughout the prophets, the writers often referred to Israel as an adulterous wife. An odd turn of phrase, to be sure. But why? Much as we see the New Testament writers refer to the Church as the bride of Christ, Israel was often referred to as God’s bride or wife. Meaning that when the body broke the covenant, broke their relationship with God – as individuals and together – they had been disloyal to the very heart of their bond.
At the end of the day, disloyalty is really what adultery is about. It is about breaking relationships. Specifically, what is at the very heart of our relationship: our bond. Some of those bonds are made without even speaking words – as between a parent and a child. However, far more often, we solidify our bonds by speaking a very specific set of words. Vows. At every major relationship that we make in our life, we take them. Weddings. Baptisms. Ordinations and Installations. Those who serve in different roles and government positions, say their own vows when they begin or renew. We teach our children pledges, another type of vow. And probably the very simplest vow any of us makes are three little words: “I love you,” which is likely why so many fear them so much. Because, ultimately, these are all the same thing: a promise to uphold something – a relationship. Either with God. With one another. Or with ourselves.
So back to the hospital, that story I began a few minutes ago. The young woman and I began a battle of scripture. Not something to be undertaken lightly. We would go verse for verse, she trying to condemn herself and me trying to find something that would allow her to see who she truly was in God’s eyes. Until finally, one day, I found the right one to break through: for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Here is the truth: no matter how many times we break our relationship with God, God still loves us. We are not strong enough to break that bond, no matter how disloyal we may be.
However, we humans are far more fragile. Sometimes a look is all it will take. Because our hearts and minds are prone to wander. And we have become far too fickle and relaxed in our sincerity when we take our vows these days. Nevertheless, we are all equals here. None of us are property. None are subject to any other. Instead, we all have the opportunity, every day, to choose to grow our relationships with one another and with ourselves in healthy and loving ways. If we begin by holding onto the love of God that will not let us go, growing there first, the others should be a bit simpler.
An important caveat here, though. If you find yourself in a place where someone who should have loved you has not. Has been severely disloyal. Or even worse, you have been abused – hear me say this now: you are breaking no vows by getting out of that place and relationship. Those vows were broken long ago by the other person. It is not your job to “fix’ them. Or save them. That is God’s job. Yours is to protect yourself and your family.
So, then, what shall we say about the seventh commandment? God created it to remind us that we are meant to be loyal and loving to one another. To hold, especially those we marry, in the highest regard, and to do all we can to grow that relationship in health, life, and love. We are to take all of our vows that seriously, however, and never enter into them lightly. Remembering always that God made us for relationship – with God, with one another, and with ourselves. All loyalty must always be given in light of all three: with love for God, love for ourself, even before we give our love to another. By God’s grace, may we all find the balance that was originally intended so that we might see God’s love unfold in this world.