Instead of focusing on “lust,” if this passage is to be correctly taught, the emphasis should be placed squarely on the will: that is, “What is the proper response to sexual desire?” There are proper outlets for sexual desire, but it is the exercise of the sexual appetite outside these confines is the problem. Even prior to actually committing the act, once the will has turned towards illicit behavior, sin has already entered the heart and, once fully conceived, will bring forth death.
Matthew 5:27–28: Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· οὐ μοιχεύσεις. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ.
“You heard it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman in order to covet her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The ordinary interpretation of this passage is that lust is equivalent to adultery; that is, if a man sexually desires a woman, he has already committed adultery with her in God’s eyes. This interpretation is reflected in the following translations:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (NIV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (NASB)
“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (NLT)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (NRSV)
Many churches (especially within Evangelical circles), emphasize this verse to adolescent boys, warning them that if they so much as think of a woman in a sexual manner, they’ve already sinned, that they’ve already effectively done the deed with her. Such an interpretation often works hand-in-glove with the common idea that Jesus “intensified” the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, setting a higher standard in order to show that no person could actually live up to God’s standards, showing that a person could only be saved by recognizing the impossibility of righteousness and then receiving forgiveness (a subject that will soon be addressed on this blog). So the common teaching is that sexual lust is absolutely evil—equivalent, even, to the actual act of sexual sin.
Another very popular way of reading this verse is to understand “lust” as indicating misplaced or overly robust libido; that is, “lust” is seen as illicit sexual desire. For example, here’s a recent (and quite common) response to the question of what lust is from a message board conversation I had some time ago: “I take lust to mean wanting something more than you should in an unhealthy way.”
This conception of “lust” often overlaps with the prior interpretation, to the effect that the young man is told, “Of course you will recognize that a woman is beautiful—that’s natural and unavoidable—but the moment your thoughts become sexual in nature, you’ve lusted, and that’s as bad as actually committing adultery.” Despite its popularity, this interpretation is imprecise, even flat wrong, and leads to surprisingly harmful consequences, making it a great candidate to start this series.
Lust or Covet?
The first thing to understand in this passage is that Jesus is in no way intensifying the Law here, nor is he saying anything new. What’s that, you say? The Law doesn’t forbid lusting after a woman? Well, as it turns out, the Greek word usually translated “lust” in this passage (ἐπιθυμέω; epithumeô) happens to be the same word used to translate the Hebrew word for “covet” (חמד) in the Tenth Command in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), which says:
οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ πλησίον σου. οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις τὴν οἰκίαν τοῦ πλησίον σου οὔτε τὸν ἀγρὸν αὐτοῦ οὔτε τὸν παῖδα αὐτοῦ οὔτε τὴν παιδίσκην αὐτοῦ οὔτε τοῦ βοὸς αὐτοῦ οὔτε τοῦ ὑποζυγίου αὐτοῦ οὔτε παντὸς κτήνους αὐτοῦ οὔτε ὅσα τῷ πλησίον σού ἐστιν. (Ex 20:17 LXX)
“You will not covet your neighbor’s wife. You will not covet your neighbor’s house or his field or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or any animal which is your neighbor’s.”
Sounds an awful lot like what Jesus says in this passage, doesn’t it? They’re even more alike once one realizes that the Greek word for “woman” and “wife” happens to be the same. In this passage, Jesus reminds his audience that the Law not only prohibits adultery, it prohibits coveting. This is not so much an intensification of the Law as it is a reminder of what the Law already says. And just as the Law itself was intended to be fulfilled, Jesus intends his words here to be followed (and that following them is entirely possible).
Another important point is that the command does not forbid recognition of quality or even desire itself (such would be nonsense) but something else: it forbids the action of coveting (hence the verbal form). “Lust” or “desire,” even the sexual variety, is nowhere forbidden in Scripture, nor is it equated with sin, only with the potential to sin (cf. James 1, where lust leads to sin but is not itself sinful). It is also important to note the distinction between the verbal form and the nominal form: when the Hebrew חמד or Greek ἐπιθυμέω are used as verbs in the OT, it denotes desire directed at obtaining the specific object in question and not merely the existence of the desire itself. This fits well with the Tenth Command, which is perhaps best understood as forbidding fixing one’s desire upon obtaining something that is not rightfully one’s own. In order to explain this point more adequately, a fuller discussion of the meaning of “lust” (Gk. ἐπιθυμία; epithumia) in the New Testament and the culture of that period is necessary.
Drives and Desires
One misconception that should immediately be eliminated is that “lust” (ἐπιθυμία) is a specifically sexual term. In fact, the word simply refers to a strong, passionate desire, used either of sexual desire or of a strong desire for something non-sexual. Stepping back further, in Platonic thought, ἐπιθυμία (epithumia) is the lowest part of the human soul—representing the connection of the soul with the fleshy, bodily part of the person.
Background: The Platonic Soul
For those non-Platonists out there, this requires further explanation. Platonism explains human thought and action by dividing the “soul” (or life-force) into three parts, each of which is personified as a separate agent in itself.
The highest part is the “mind,” “intellect,” or “reason” (νοῦς, nous; sometimes λόγος, logos), which is the part associated with thinking, theorizing, believing, meditating, contemplating, etc. This part is concerned with things like truth and knowledge and the highest aspects of human life. This part is represented in the human body by the head, which is the highest part of the body, stretching towards the heavens. In the Republic, this part is identified with the philosopher/rulers who are the natural and proper leaders of the ideal city-state, while it is identified with the world creator “demiurge” in the Timaeus.
As mentioned above, the lowest part (ἐπιθυμία, epithumia; note that this is the same root as the word for “lust”) is the irrational seat of appetite, the source of human drives for pleasure, including desires for food, drink, sex, and pleasure. Socrates calls this part of the soul “money loving,” since money is typically required to satisfy all its primary appetites. This seat of the appetites was also referred to as the “flesh” in the ancient world (σάρξ; sarx). Because this part of the soul is non-rational, it is unlimited in terms of what it desires—necessary, frivolous, or even unlawful/illegal/sinful. Take food, for example. When a person is hungry, it makes no difference if the barbecue smell is coming from the neighbor’s house—it still stimulates the desire for that food. The desire for food is necessary inasmuch as the body will die without food, but the appetite does not simply restrict itself to what is necessary. Instead, a person may desire extremely expensive food (unnecessary) or, in extreme cases, may desire to eat something improper (i.e. a child may consume his feces or an adult may suddenly desire to eat a child). Since it is prone to run amok, the appetite part of the soul must be governed by the higher parts of the soul to keep it in check. This part is represented by the lower parts of the abdomen (including the genitals) on the human body, while it is identified with the merchant/craftsman (money-making) class in the Republic. In Parmenides’ charioteer analogy, this part is likened to a wild stallion, powerful but undisciplined.