Lesson 6: The Sixth Commandment

Thou Shalt Not KillNeither shall you commit adultery.

The first task is to define what adultery is in our time and place; no easy task. It used to be having sex outside of marriage, the presumption being there was always the chance of impregnation so the responsible act was to give a promise of faithfulness before engaging in coitus. Today, just about everyone lives together before they marry. They have safe birth control and might be members of the same sex or never intend to have children. For that matter they might be aged lovers who do not marry for all sorts of reasons. Adultery just isn’t what it used to be.

Of course, it never was as black and white as we pretend, and Jesus does not really help at all. In Matthew 5: 7-8 he said, “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and in Matthew 19: 9, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Yet in a trial for adultery, he refused to enforce the law and challenged anyone to throw the first stone. And he made a woman, who had been married seven times, his first evangelist to the Samaritans.

Martin Luther modernizes the command when he applied the command to women as well as men. Interestingly, his version could be applied to same sex marriages, even though he never intended it to be. He wrote, “We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his spouse.”

I think the situation forces us to get down to the basics that go far beyond the sex act. At least, the statement in the recent Lutheran human sexuality statement defines marriage as making promises of unconditional faithfulness. That would make the commandment, “Do not abandon those to whom you promised your faithfulness.”

Now, that gets to the heart of the problem. When we teach the command as if it tells teenagers they should refrain from having sex, they hear it as just old folks trying to control their lives in one more way. Well, more than that, because they hear it as hypocritical adults pretending that those Viagra ads are really addressed to young adults rather than to the aged who often are widows and widowers.

However, if you take the sex out of it and focus on treating other people with respect, because they are children of God and our brothers and sisters, it forces them to see what it is to treat others as sexual objects. And if you go further and teach that you do not abandon those to whom you have given special promises, they can relate it to all those who have caused them great pain- fathers and mothers who have abandoned them rather than sharing difficult troubles, lovers who have promised, “If you love me, you will do this…” and then abandoned them. And we can all add many examples of the shameful way we do not care for those for whom we have responsibility.

On reflection, Jesus does help us. He is right on, when he observes our lofty self-righteous discussions about the intricacies of this moral law are really cover-ups of our own lustful attitudes, ways to avoid the repentance we all need in order that God may change our hearts.

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