You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Jimmy Carter caused quite a stir in 1976 when he admitted in a Playboy interview “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” As I remember, he caused quite a stir in evangelical circles just for granting Playboy an interview in the first place. Going back and reading the article now, many of his comments about traditional marriage seem more parochial than controversial, and he’d probably be quite roundly condemned by many of today’s progressives for making them. But you can’t understand, much less judge someone who lived in a different time and place by today’s cultural mores. Were Carter giving the interview today, I think that he might have chosen different words to express the points he was trying to make. Ironically enough, I think Carter was trying to express his belief that since we are all fallible human beings, no one has the right to judge the moral behavior of other human beings- only our own.
If it’s so easy to be be grasp the meaning behind words spoken forty years ago, how much more difficult it is for us to grasp Jesus’s meaning through words recorded two thousand years ago. If we read these words through the lens of our own cultural norms, we fail to understand the radical nature of Jesus’s thought. One ancient Jewish prayer praises God as follows: “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me… a goy [Gentile],” “a slave,” and “a woman.” In the patriarchal Middle Eastern society of the Old Testament, women were treated as property, much as they still are today in some Middle Eastern countries. They were their father’s property until they were “given in marriage” thereby transferring ownership from father to husband, and were dependent on the largesse of a father, husband, or son for their support. According to the Talmud, divorce was entirely the husband’s prerogative. Some rabbis taught that a man could divorce his wife because she burned a meal, or because he found someone more attractive. (“Trophy wives” are not a recent invention.) A divorced women would very likely be in the untenable position of having no way to support herself.
When Jesus talks about adultery and divorce, he puts the onus firmly on the men. He does not advise women to veil themselves or dress modestly so as not to invoke the lust of men. Rather, he uses the strongest possible metaphor to tell men they shouldn’t ogle women. He does not advise women to concentrate on gratifying their husband’s every whim and fantasy, so as not to risk their displeasure. Rather, he tells men not to abuse their wives by the legal means of divorce. Here, as in many other places recorded in the New Testament, Jesus is advocating on behalf of the powerless against the powerful.
Today, Jesus’s words are often misused and misapplied in appalling ways. There are some “evangelists” who stand on street corners and call women sluts deserving of rape because of their clothing. There are some “pastors” who tell wives they must stay with abusive husbands because divorce is an unpardonable sin. I don’t think Jesus approves of their message, and I think if he were to show up in person he might direct some very strong metaphors their way, too.
Jesus a feminist? I think so.