Matthew 5:27. You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.”
28. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
30. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
In this pinch of salt directed against the teaching of the Pharisees, He discusses two subjects, adultery and divorce. They had interpreted adultery the same way they interpreted the Fifth Commandment, and had taught that this was only a prohibition of actual adultery. The ardor of the heart with its evil lusts and love, as well as the obscene language and vulgar gestures this produced, they did not think of as sinful or as harmful to their sanctity, just so long as they did good works and were diligent in their sacrifices and prayers. Thus instead of teaching God’s commandments, they distorted them; instead of making people pious, they only made them worse, opening the door to every kind of sin and immorality. But here you are listening to another Master. He turns their sanctity into sin and shame, illuminating this commandment and arguing that when a man leers at a woman or cracks shady jokes or even thinks about her lustfully, this is an adultery of the eyes or the ears or the mouth, and above all an adultery of the heart.
Look at what the condition of this people must have been and what kind of people Christ must have faced. Not only the great and common mob, but even their superiors, teachers, and rulers permitted such things and committed them themselves. They made adultery easier, and yet they wanted a reputation for piety as long as they did not actually commit overt adultery. It is easy to figure out how pious and chaste people can remain in their works if they are permitted to go so far that their heart is brimming over with lust and that they express this to one another in all sorts of signs, words, and gestures. What other outcome can this have than the act itself, as soon as there is an opportunity? Now, is a man so much more pious if he cannot do what he would like to do, but incessantly burns with desire for it in his heart? When he is lying in jail, a scoundrel can still wish that his master were dead and that he could have the opportunity to do the killing himself. Nevertheless, is it wrong to call him a murderer, or should we call him a pious man?
But you may say: “If it is true that it is possible to commit adultery even with a glance, what can we do? Men and women have to live together and have dealings with one another every day. Should a person run away from the world or pluck out his eyes and ears or have his heart torn out?” Answer: Here Christ is not forbidding us to live together, to eat and drink, and even to laugh and have fun. That is all innocuous, provided this one thing is absent, “to look at her lustfully.” Of course, the Jews try to help out by saying that it is not sinful for a person to love someone else with thoughts and signs, just as they do not regard it as sinful to get angry with your neighbor and to hate him in your heart; so that one should not condemn the whole nation, with so many holy people, as though they were nothing but murderers and adulterers. Therefore they twist the meaning31 of these commandments to suit themselves and say that they should not be interpreted so strictly; as our theologians have said, “These may be good bits of advice for perfect people, but no one is bound by them.” So far off have they gone on this question that a great dispute and doubt has arisen as to whether cohabitation with a whore outside of marriage is a sin. In fact, respectable people in Italy nowadays think that it is honorable and even holy if a person goes this far and no farther. On the other hand, there are some people who have tightened it entirely too much and who want to be so holy that they forbid even a glance, and have taught that all companionship between men and women should be avoided. This is where you get those outstanding saints who have run away from the world into the wilderness and into the monasteries, isolating themselves from all seeing and hearing, from all contact and association with the world.
In opposition to both of these, Christ forbids the manipulation of God’s commandment, as well as any advice that would give rein to immorality and wickedness. He says clearly and candidly that whoever looks at a woman lustfully is an adulterer; and in addition He sentences him to hell-fire by saying (Matt. 18:9): “It is better for you to pluck out your eye than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” He does not want the kind of saints that runs away from human society. If this were to become prevalent, the Ten Commandments would become unnecessary. If I am in a desert, isolated from human society, it is no credit to me that I do not commit adultery or that I do not murder or steal. Meanwhile I can imagine that I am holy and that I have done even more than is required by the Ten Commandments, which God gave precisely in order to teach us the proper way of living in the world with our neighbor.
For we are not made for fleeing human company, but for living in society and sharing good and evil. As human beings we must help one another to bear all kinds of human misfortune and the curse that has come upon us. We must be ready to live among wicked people, and there everyone must be ready to prove his holiness instead of becoming impatient and running away. On earth we have to live amid thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:18), in a situation full of temptation, hostility, and misfortune. Hence it does not help you at all to run away from other people, for within you are still carrying the same old scoundrel, the lust and evil appetite that clings to your flesh and blood. Even if you are all alone, with the door locked, you still cannot deny your father and mother; nor can you discard your flesh and blood and leave them on the ground. You have no call to pick up your feet and run away, but to stay put, to stand and battle against every kind of temptation like a knight, and with patience to see it through and to triumph.
Christ is a real Teacher, therefore. He does not teach you to run away from people, nor to move away, but to get hold of yourself and to discard the eye or the hand that offends you, that is, to get rid of the cause of your sin, the evil appetite and lust that clings to you and proceeds from your own heart (Matt. 15:19). Once you are rid of this, it is easy to be in human society and to enjoy human company without sinning. Hence He says clearly, as we have heard: “If you look at a woman lustfully, you have committed adultery with her in your heart.” He does not forbid looking at her; for He is talking to people who have to live in human society in the world, as the preaching in this chapter, both before and after, amply demonstrates. But He does want us to distinguish between looking and lusting. You may look at any woman or man, only be sure that you do not lust. That is why God has ordained for every person to have his own wife or husband, to control and channel his lust and his appetites. If you do not go any further than this, He approves it, He even pronounces His blessing upon it, and He is pleased with it as His ordinance and creature. But if you do go further, if you refuse to be content with what God has given you for your desires, and if you leer at others, you have already gone too far and have confused the two, so that your looking is corrupted by your lusting.
When a man does not look at his wife, on the basis of the Word of God, as the one whom God gives him and whom He blesses, and when instead he turns his gaze to another woman, this is the principal cause of adultery, which then is almost inevitable. Soon the heart follows the eyes, bringing on the desire and appetite that I ought to reserve for my wife alone. Flesh and blood is curious enough anyway. It soon has its fill and loses its taste for what it has, and it gapes at something else. With the devil’s promptings, a person sees only his wife’s faults, losing sight of her good and laudable qualities. As a consequence, every other woman seems more beautiful and better to my eyes than my own wife. Indeed, many a man with a truly beautiful and pious wife lets himself be hoodwinked into hating her and taking up with some vile and ugly bag.
As I have pointed out more fully in my other discussions of marriage and married life,32 it would be a real art and a very strong safeguard against all this if everyone learned to look at his spouse correctly, according to God’s Word, which is the dearest treasure and the loveliest ornament you can find in a man or a woman. If he mirrored himself in this, then he would hold his wife in love and honor as a divine gift and treasure. And if he saw another woman, even one more beautiful than his own wife, he would say: “Is she beautiful? As far as I am concerned, she is not very beautiful. And even if she were the most beautiful woman on earth, in my wife at home I have a lovelier adornment, one that God has given me and has adorned with His Word beyond the others, even though she may not have a beautiful body or may have other failings. Though I may look over all the women in the World, I cannot find any about whom I can boast with a joyful conscience as I can about mine: ‘This is the one whom God has granted to me and put into my arms.’ I know that He and all the angels are heartily pleased if I cling to her lovingly and faithfully. Then why should I despise this precious gift of God and take up with someone else, where I can find no such treasure or adornment?”;
Thus I could look at all women, talk with them, laugh, and have a good time with them, without experiencing any lust or desire and without letting any of them seem so beautiful or desirable to me that I would be willing to transgress the Word and commandment of God. Though I might be tempted by flesh and blood, I would not have to consent or let myself be overcome; but I would have to battle against it like a knight and conquer through the Word of God, living in the world in such a way that no evil could corrupt me and no allurement could seduce me into adultery. But because a person does not give this Word of God a glance or a thought, it is easy for him to get tired of his wife and to despise her; he finds his love drawn to another, and his lust and appetite for her are irresistible. For he has not learned the art of looking at his wife correctly, according to the beauty and adornment with which God has clothed her for him. He cannot see beyond what his eyes see, that his wife seems to have a poor shape or other faults, while another one seems prettier and better. Thus you understand when it is a sin and when it is not a sin to look at a woman, namely, that you should not look at another woman the way a man should look only at his wife.
Yet we should not make the bowstring too taut here, as if anyone who is tempted and whose lust and desire for another woman are aroused would be damned for it. I have often said that it is impossible to be alive and to have flesh and blood without any sinful and evil inclination, whether in this or in all the other commandments. Theologians have therefore made this distinction, and I am willing to let it stand: “If an evil thought is involuntary, it is not a mortal sin.”33 If someone has injured you, your heart will inevitably feel it, get excited, and in its excitement want to get even. As long as it does not make up its mind and go on to do violence, but resists the urge, this is not a damnable sin. It is the same in this case. It is impossible to keep the devil from shooting evil thoughts and lusts into your heart. But see to it that you do not let such arrows (Eph. 6:16) stick there and take root, but tear them out and throw them away. Do what one of the ancient fathers counseled long ago: “I cannot,” he said, “keep a bird from flying over my head. But I can certainly keep it from nesting in my hair or from biting my nose off.”34 So it is not in our power to prevent this or some other temptation and to keep the thoughts from occurring to us. Just be sure that you let it go at that and do not let them in, even though they knock on the door. Keep them from taking root, for they may make you sin voluntarily and purposely. it is still sin nonetheless, but it is included in our common forgiveness; for we cannot live in the flesh without a great many sins, and everyone must have his devil. Thus St. Paul complains (Rom. 7:17, 18) about the sin that dwells in him and says he knows that nothing good dwells in his flesh.
This argument and inquiry has come from some: “Is it sinful for a man and a woman to desire each other for the purpose of marriage?”35 This is ridiculous, a question that contradicts both Scripture and nature. Why would people get married if they did not have desire and love for each other? Indeed, that is just why God has given this eager desire to bride and bridegroom, for otherwise everybody would flee from marriage and avoid it. In Scripture, therefore, He also commanded man and woman to love each other, and He shows that the sexual union of husband and wife is also most pleasing to Him. Hence this desire and love must not be absent, for it is a good fortune and a great pleasure, if only it continues as long as possible. Without it there is trouble: from the flesh, because a person soon gets tired of marriage and refuses to bear the daily discomfort that comes with it; and from the devil, who cannot stand the sight of a married couple treating each other with genuine love and who will not rest until he has given them an occasion for impatience, conflict, hate, and bitterness. Therefore it is an art both necessary and difficult, and one peculiarly Christian, this art of loving one’s husband or wife properly, of bearing the other’s faults and all the accidents and troubles. At first everything goes all right, so that, as the saying goes, they are ready to eat each other up for love.36 But when their curiosity has been satisfied, then the devil comes along to create boredom in you, to rob you of your desire in this direction, and to excite it unduly in another direction.
This much in brief regarding lust and desire. But what shall we say about the way Christ pulls the bowstring taut when He commands us to pluck out our eye and cut off our hand if they offend us? Are we supposed to cripple ourselves, to make ourselves lame and blind? In that case we would have to take our own life, and everyone would have to commit suicide. If we are supposed to throw away everything that offends us, first we have to tear out our heart. But that would be nothing else than the abolition of everything in nature and of all the creatures of God. Answer: Here you see clearly that in this chapter Christ is not saying anything about the secular order and its affairs. The phrases which the Gospel employs again and again—phrases like “denying yourself” (Matt. 16:24), “hating your soul” (John 12:25), “renouncing all” (Luke 14:33)—have nothing to do with secular affairs or the imperial government. Nor should they be interpreted according to the Saxon code of law, when the lawyers talk about plucking out eyes or cutting off hands, or similar matters.37 Otherwise, how could this life and this secular realm continue? All this is said in relation to spiritual life and spiritual affairs. Not outwardly, physically, or publicly before the world, but in your heart and in the presence of God—that is where you throw away your eye and your hand, deny yourself, and forsake all. He is not giving lessons in the use of the fist or the sword, nor in the control of life and property. He is teaching about the heart and the conscience before God. Therefore we must not drag His words into the law books or into the secular government.
He talks this way about castration in Matthew 19:12, where He enumerates three classes of castrates or eunuchs. The first and second classes are those who either were born that way or were castrated by the hands of men. They are called “castrates” by the world and the jurists, too. But the third class are those who have castrated themselves for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. They are another kind of castrate; they are called eunuchs not outwardly, in their body, but spiritually, in their heart, not in a worldly sense, but as He says, “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” With the secular area He has nothing to do. Here, too, we should tear out our eyes, hands, and heart spiritually, and let it all go so that it does not offend us. Yet we should live in this secular sphere, where we cannot get along without any of these things.
Here is what this means: If you feel that you are looking at a woman with an evil desire, pluck out that eye or that look, since it is forbidden by God—not out of your body but out of your heart, from which your lust and appetite proceed (Matt. 15:19). Then you have really plucked it out. For if the evil desire has been removed from your heart, then your eye will not sin or offend you. You will look at that woman now with the same physical eye but without lust, and it will seem to you that you have not seen her at all. You no longer have the eye which Christ is discussing, the one that was there before and is called the eye of lust or desire, although your physical eye remains unimpaired. He says the same thing with regard to the eunuchs. A heart that has resolved to live chastely without marriage, if it has the grace it needs, has made itself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven; it does not have to do any harm to the organs of its body. In short, it is the kind of castrating and plucking out that neither a hand nor a hangman can do, but only the Word of God in the heart.
Some fools transfer these and similar statements from the spiritual to the outward, secular sphere, as if Christ’s teaching were opposed to the secular realm and even to the natural order and the creation. Some were so coarse in their foolishness that they became impatient and despaired in their conflict with flesh and blood. They helped themselves along, until the bishops in the councils had to forbid it.38 All this comes from a misunderstanding. They do not distinguish Christ’s realm and doctrine from that of the world. Their understanding of castration continues to be outward, and all they think of is the way the world uses and means the term. But Christ Himself excludes and eliminates this understanding. He makes a distinction and contrast between those who have been castrated by nature or by human hands (whether their own or someone else’s) and those who have been castrated neither by human hands nor by nature. Thus He clearly shows that He is talking only about spiritual castration, where the integrity of the body and of all its organs is unimpaired, but where it does not have the same sort of sexual desire that others do. No hands can cut this out of flesh and blood, even though a person were to be deprived of his natural organs. They say that such eunuchs or castrates are more ardent and loving toward women than anyone else, which is why great kings39 have liked to have such people as chamberlains, for their great fidelity and love to women.
But it seems that at other times, too, Christ used this expression (Matt. 18:8, 9): “If your eye offends against you,” or, “If your hand or foot offends against you.” Elsewhere in the Gospel they are applied to other issues, and He uses them as a proverb. He applies them as a familiar comparison to sin in general and says that we should not give in to opportunities and temptations to sin. But here He applies and interprets it with reference to a special ease, namely, adultery, commanding us to pluck out the eye that is about to offend us by evil desire. Adultery is usually brought on by looking; it enters the heart through the eyes, unless the temptation is resisted. He interprets the same words with reference to another kind of offense in Matthew 18:8, 9 where He calls it an offending eye or hand for a preacher or teacher or master or tyrant to try to mislead you from the truth and from the right doctrine. He tells you to pluck it out and throw it away so that you may say: “Yes, you are my eye or my hand, my master or my ruler. But if you try to turn me away from the truth to a false faith or to evil works, I refuse to follow you.”
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:83). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.