Jesus said that if you looked at a woman lustfully you had already committed adultery in your heart. It sounds like mince. Firstly it makes some strange assumptions:
1. That women didn’t look lustfully at men, or if they did, it didn’t matter.
2. That men didn’t look lustfully at men, nor women at women, or if they did it didn’t matter.
3. That unmarried men and women are maybe excused a bit of lustful looking provided it isn’t directed at a married person.
4. That the intention is as bad as the deed.
5. That it would be ok to look lustfully at your wife.
These assumptions are so foreign to current thinking that maybe I should just admit that Jesus was mistaken in this matter. Well, let’s see if we can understand his words more fully.
In Jewish society of Jesus’ time, women were not considered equal to men. Their roles were clearly defined from childhood; their marriages were arranged; they were the property of their father, or their husband. Men could have more than one wife but women could not have more that one husband.Women ran the household but were economically dependent on their men. The evangelists note that women “followed” Jesus, and were accepted by him. Luke suggests that Mary chose the dignity of discipleship rather than the caring role of her sister Martha, and was approved by Jesus. Jesus’ friendship with prostitutes is more evidence of his disagreement with societal attitudes to women. Many of the peculiar assumptions noted above can be understood if we read Jesus’ teaching as a response to societal prejudice: He was defending women from the patriarchal lust of men.
The Greek of Matthew 5:28 means literally “looking at a woman to want her or to lust after her” which designates much more than a casual glance of sexual appreciation. It indicates a purpose, even if in a specific instance there may be no way of fulfilling it. It expresses a consumer attitude towards women as sexual commodities. Jesus’ disciples were not to congratulate themselves for avoiding adultery, but rather to interrogate their own attitudes.The outward act proceeds from a inner determination which is itself formed by societal injustice.
Jesus is not saying,”This woman belongs to another man and you must not think of stealing her; he is saying,”what prevents your seeing this woman as a person and treating her as a sister?”
Given that, even today, our society expects young women to dress as sexual commodities – what else is the meaning of high heels or the little black dress? – Jesus’ teaching is still relevant.And yes, he did think that the consumer attitude to women was as bad as the actions it prompted because he wasn’t daft enough to think that sexual misconduct was simply fuelled by uncontrollable desire, or that promiscuous shagging was, as a former Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh judged, “an act without a moral meaning.”
And of course, where there is greater equality between the sexes (however many there are of these) Jesus’ teaching will apply to women and transitioning people, as well as men, challenging the notion that in a consumer society all are equally entitled to whatever sexual commodity they prefer.