Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: The exploitation of women

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July 11, 2012 by jmar198013

[5.27-32: Lust, adultery, divorce: the exploitation of women] “You know the command not to commit adultery. Well, I have this to say: if someone is staring at another man’s wife and constantly plotting how to get in bed with her, he’s already made up his mind to commit adultery with her. So if your right eye is infected and festering, yank it out and throw it away. You’re better off losing that part of yourself than throwing your life away. And if your right hand gets caught in a trap, cut if off and throw it way. You’re better off losing that part of yourself than letting your life end up in the trash pile. Along those lines, it has been said that anyone who divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate. Well, here’s what I have to say about that: anyone who divorces his wife (unless she’s sleeping around) forces her into adultery. And then the next man who marries her ends up involved in adultery, too.”

In Matt. 5.17-20, Jesus proclaims that the church stands in direct continuity with the Torah and prophets. That is why it is odd that, for many centuries now, the prevailing readings of Matt. 5.21-48 suppose those teachings to be antithetical to Torah, as if Jesus is contradicting, correcting, or supplanting Moses. In light of Matt. 5.17-20, however, it is better to say that Jesus is reinterpreting Moses and the prophets for the church.

Matt. 5.27-32 deals with Moses’ teachings on adultery and divorce. Jesus says that whoever looks at a woman with the intention of sexual pursuit has already committed adultery in his heart. This needs some explanation. Technically, there was no limit in Torah to how many wives or concubines a man could have. For a man to commit adultery, he would have to sleep with another man’s wife (so David with Bathsheba). A woman could have only one husband. Jesus’ point here is that once a man starts eyeing another man’s wife with the intention of sexually possessing her, he has already made up his mind to commit adultery. Committing adultery in your heart doesn’t make you guilty of adultery, it makes you prone to it. Jesus’ words on how to deal with this situation, plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand, seem harsh to many. They may also seem impertinent. Did Jesus believe that a one-eyed, one-handed person was incapable of adultery? Did he actually have such an unenlightened view of the sexual capacities of the disabled? It helps to understand the context of Jesus’ call to eye-plucking and hand-chopping. The phrase he uses indicates being caught in a snare or trap. Think of the fox that will chew off its paw to get out of a trap. Jesus indicates that his disciples must be willing to take action that drastic to avoid transgressing the marriage covenant. He does not specifically name what that drastic action will be, but he does call for willingness to perform it.

Jesus also comments on Moses’ teachings on divorce in Deut. 24 (5.31-32). He does seem to abrogate the Torah at this point, but the patient reader will recall that Moses did not command divorce; Moses regulated divorce. Moses assumed, because of the patriarchal culture he inhabited, that a woman would have to be attached to a man for survival. That he stipulated that a man must give the wife he was sending away a certificate of divorce, and that once he had sent her away with such a certificate he could not take her back, was his way of protecting women from being passed around like property. That certificate was the former husband relinquishing all rights to her. In Jesus’ day, the culture was no less patriarchal, but the men were using the divorce certificate for leverage. In practice, a law that had been meant to protect women from exploitation was being used as the means to exploit them. Not to mention the mockery it made of the marriage covenant itself. Jesus’ teaching here is not only a reaffirmation of Moses’ purposes, it is also an expression of God’s fundamental purpose for the marriage covenant. Marriage is a vocation that images God, and God’s care for his people.

Jesus’ teachings on lust, adultery, and divorce are actually words about male exploitation of women. Women are still exploited today, not only by prostitution and sex trafficking, but also by free-market capitalism’s use of their bodies to peddle everything from beer to mud flaps to blue jeans. Their labor is also exploited by this market, even as it denigrates their vocation of motherhood by forcing them to choose between children and career in this age of engineered wage stagnation. Jesus’ daring challenge to the masculine prerogative and the abuse of women in his time and culture ought to inspire the church to so challenge our own cultures and communities, as well.

Jesus’ words in Matt. 5.27-32 are also words about the task of the church, whose good works will bring honor to God. Our faithfulness to our marriage covenants is a means of acting out God’s faithfulness to his people. He does not exploit us. He does not put us away. He remains faithful. The vocation of marriage, as envisioned by Jesus in Matt. 5.27-30, is one that embodies God’s faithfulness to us.

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2 thoughts on “Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: The exploitation of women

  1. Gary says:

    Good points, particularly on the exploitation of women. I think letter and intent are something that also plays in here. It seems to me that Jesus was saying that following the letter of the law while still continuing to dehumanize one another was not faithful practice.

  2. […] situation to Jesus’ words on divorce in Matt. 5.31-32. About that passage, it was suggested that his negative assessment of divorce reflected a concern for God’s original intentions for human beh…. Essentially the same concern is reflected […]

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