Lust: the Sermon on the Mount and a Few Missing Words

“Gee, Amy, it’s been a minute since you blogged about sex.” Yes, yes it has. Thanks for noticing! Shall we dive back in?

There’s a verse from the gospels that has been stuck in my head and heart for a long time.  It gets so much use in sermons and discussions about sexual morality that any church-goer is likely to recognize immediately: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:28 (ESV)

Here is what I’ve usually heard said about this verse:

  • You don’t actually have to have physical contact with someone to sin. Guard your eyes and heart and mind from thinking about sex with someone who is not your spouse.
  • Sexy clothes are bad because (at best) they make sinning “in your heart” so easy. Sexy clothes belong in the bedroom with your spouse.
  • Yes, that means masturbation is bad. (See verse 30 a few sentences later about how it’s better to cut off your right hand if it causes you to sin.) Sexual activity is reserved for marriage, so you shouldn’t gratify yourself anyway. But it’s especially bad if you are thinking about someone who is not your spouse while you do it.

I’d heard those stories about this verse so many times it wasn’t until recently that I noticed something about this verse that I hadn’t seen before. Do you know what it is? Can you guess? 

I’ll give you a second.

Ready? Here it is: It does not say “everyone who looks at a woman who is not his wife with lustful intent.” It says “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent.” There’s no marriage line in this verse. Look back at the bullet list of common points–they all draw that line. They all make it about guarding the purity of sex within marriage.

What if the definition of lust as a longing for someone who is not your own spouse is so baked into our cultural understanding that we’re missing the whole point of what Jesus said here?

What happens to our understanding of this verse if a man could look at a woman (any woman) with lustful intent? (Or if a person could look at any person with lustful intent, including their spouse?)

What happens if lust isn’t ever okay, inside marriage or outside of it?

Whoa, hold on, Amy. What now? What do you mean lust isn’t ok in marriage?

Let’s take a look at the word.

Wildfire burning behind "New Life in Tired Words: Lust"

The word used for lust in this verse is epithumeo. From my measly three semesters of Greek twenty years ago, I remember the prefix “epi” meaning “against”. It can also mean upon, at, over. It’s a prepositional prefix with a general sense of doing something toward someone. For some reason I picture someone throwing or tossing something. Thumos (the origin of thumeo) means passion, anger, with a secondary meaning of “glow, ardour, the wine of passion, inflaming wine (which either drives the drinker mad or kills him with its strength).”

I don’t know about you, but to my ear, very little of that sounds like healthy sex. Okay, maybe passion does… But using a word that can also mean anger? Passion AT someone? Against them? 

When I started writing this blog post, I wrote that this verse is about consent. But honestly, this unpacking of the word used for lust makes it sound like a passion that doesn’t even have consent on the radar. It doesn’t consider the desires of the other person one way or another. It doesn’t stop to check consent because it just does not care. It is inflaming passion, like wine that drives the drinker mad.

That does not sound to me like the physical attraction most of us have experienced when we see someone hot. Or the rush of hormones that come from looking at someone we love, or from feeling the brush of their skin against ours. It’s not desire that is okay in some circumstances (marriage) and not in others (outside of marriage).

This lust is dragon-desire, burning anything (or anyone) in its path.

Epithumos is used in the New Testament for desires completely unrelated to sex, like desiring to see prophecy come to pass when it’s not in your destiny to see it or coveting (wanting something that’s not yours). It’s desire that overflows the bounds of what is in my purview, my lane, my circle of influence. And the verse says “everyone who looks at A WOMAN” with that desire sins, not “a woman who is not my wife.” If I’m looking at someone with a heart full of my own desires that burn so hotly I can’t even see the wants, needs, and personal boundaries of the other person, that’s sin, even if I’ve never touched them. Intent matters. The heart matters. Isn’t that the message of the Sermon on the Mount, after all?

“You’ve heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say…” 

Let me take a shot at a paraphrase to help us make this new: “You’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t have sex with someone you’re not married to. But I say that if your desire for sex is so inflamed that you don’t even give a single thought to the other person’s needs and desires, you’re sinning in your heart.”

This verse is not about controlling our imaginations so we don’t dream up sexy fantasies. It’s about carrying respect in your heart, caring about the other person, loving them (and their desires and wants and needs) as you care for yourself. Inside of marriage and out.

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