“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. So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:27–30 NLT)
In his 2003 essay titled “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount,” Glen H. Stassen argues that most of us mis-frame the way the sermon is constructed, which causes us to at least partially misunderstand it on a fundamental level. For example, the standard way of understanding Matthew 5:27–30 is in two parts: the first, don’t even look at another person with lust, for that is the same as committing adultery; and the second, remove whatever part of you is causing this sin.
The problem, as Stassen argues, is that this “leads to an interpretation of Jesus’ good news as high ideals, hard teachings, impossible demands.” Instead, he suggests reading the sermon a different way. Rather than seeing each instruction in two parts – negative imperatives (that is, commands to not do something) followed by commands that go beyond the current standard – we should instead read them in three parts.
The first part is laying out the problem at hand: “You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’” This is the traditional teaching; it is simply laying the groundwork for what is to come by reminding us of what the Law of Moses says. It does nothing to address the hearts or motives of those who follow the law.
The second part addresses the cycle of sin that, when left unchecked, will only proceed to escalate: “Anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Stassen calls this the vicious cycle. He points out the Greek word translated here as “looks” is a description of a continuous action, more akin to “is looking,” “continues to look,” or “makes a habit of looking.”
The third part is the transforming initiative, the means by which we can escape both the cycle of sin and rise above the limits of the law: “So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away.” This is not a new command; it is an invitation into a new way of life.
David Williams, president at Taylor Seminary, sums it up this way: traditionally we say “don’t commit adultery,” but that does nothing to address the real problem, which is the cycle of lust; what really delivers is removing the cause.
This might sound like nitpicking. After all, both the “traditional” dyadic method and the “new” triadic method of reading this passage require self-control. And yet, as Stassen suggests, “emphasizing the prohibition of anger, lust, and so on,” such as when we see this teaching in two parts rather than three, “places the importance on the hard human effort [. . .] rather than on the good news of the gracious deliverance of the reign of God.”
If we want to show self-control, we can either try to put it into practice on our own and beat ourselves senseless as we repeatedly hit the limits of our own will, or we can submit ourselves to the Spirit and allow his will to subsume our own.