Commandment 10 - Thou Shalt not Covet - Exploring the 10 Commandments (PALM SUNDAY)
Thou Shalt not Covet.
William Shakespeare described it as “the green sickness” in Anthony and Cleopatra. Elsewhere in Othello he called it the green-eyed monster.
Today we examine last of the 10th commandments which reads - ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’
Perhaps the first thing to note in this commandment is the status of the wife, who is listed as part of the belongings or property of the man or the husband, alongside his house, his servants his ox and his donkey. This has understandably not gone down very well with many women in more recent decades. The status of women as the property of men rather than as equal adult partners in a marriage quite accurately reflects the culture of the ancient Israelites and indeed many cultures still today. Judging from levels of violence against women and domestic abuse, there are still a certain percentage of men even in the UK who would regard their wives and girlfriends more like a possession than a free thinking human being in their own right. This might be an aspect of the 10 Commandments that deserves our critique.
Furthermore, the 10th Commandment overlooks completely the possibility of a woman who might desire her neighbour's husband. Apparently women get out of this commandment scott-free. It seems it only applies to men. Maybe they thought women don’t have such desires of their own.
The second interesting thing to note is that some scholars suggest that the 10th commandment was not so much intended to prevent what we would understand as the admiring of another’s possessions. Rather the 10th commandment was more specifically to avoid the evil consequences of what is called ‘the evil eye’, a belief held by a variety of cultures all over the world from highlands of Scotland, the green fields of Ireland, to the West Indies, ancient Assyria, Turkey, Ethiopia, Senegal, Pakistan, Italy, Brazil and India to name but a few.
According to these various cultures, the evil eye represents jealousy in human beings which can cast a spell of bad luck and destructive influence on the well-being of those around them. Such a malevolent spell could affect people’s wealth and health and also that of livestock and crops. And so coveting was not just the desire to possess someone else’s property, but in a dark magical sense was believed to be able to actually cause harm towards other people.
Ancient Hebrew belief in the evil eye can be seen in two ancient Hebrew words. The Hebrew word keshep, that is translated as coveting, can mean ‘a thing done in secret’. It can also convey the meaning ‘to cast a spell’ as well as ‘to poison’. Another Hebrew word kishif, can mean both coveter or sorcerer.
Even putting the magical concept of the evil eye aside, jealousy and envy, two emotions associated with coveting can so easily destroy and undermine relationships.
The Bible is full of stories of the dangers of how coveting jealousy and envy can disrupt and break relationships:
Joseph with his multi-coloured coat was envied by his brothers which led to them conspiring against him and selling him into slavery.
In the New Testament, the Jews of Thessalonica were ‘jealous’ of Paul and Silas and so formed a mob, setting the city into uproar and attacking a house.
According to Matthew 27:18 the Jewish authorities delivered Jesus to Pilate because they envied him and his popularity. Their envy had turned to resentment and hatred, finally leading to the desire to see him killed and eliminated. This jealousy and envy comes through in Luke’s retelling of the Palm Sunday story. Out of jealousy, the Pharisees in the crowd instruct Jesus to rebuke his disciples and to tell them to be quiet.
It is clear that you don’t need to believe in the magical power of the evil eye to see how destructive and dangerous envy, jealousy and coveting can be.
What is in fact interesting is that even Jesus refers to coveting using language that echoes that of the evil eye. Whether Jesus believed in the concept in a magical sense or whether he knew how destructive envy and jealousy can be in a more ordinary sense, we find Jesus referring to it in Matthew 6:22-23 where he says the eye is the lamp of the body.
He does so in the context of speaking about storing up treasures and money. He says that if your eye is healthy, in other words, generous and loving, your whole body will be filled with light. But if your eye is unhealthy, in other words, ungenerous, stingy, envious and jealous, your whole body will be filled with darkness. He ends by saying that no-one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money.
Envy, jealousy and coveting for Jesus brings a darkness to the soul, and while this darkness of the soul will surely cast its shadow on those around it, the first victim of envy and jealousy is always the person who harbours the jealousy and envy in the first place casting a shadow of darkness over the human soul. It is not for nothing that we say that a person is green with envy. It has the power to discolour the soul of a person.
In Hebrew culture, the eye was therefore not understood in the scientific sense as something that took in light and converted it into images in our brains of what we see. Instead, the eye was understood to be a lamp that was meant to give out light. And there is a truth in all of this. People who are open, honest, generous and loving generally have eyes that are open and bright as though a light is shining from within them. But this light in the eyes is often what is missing or dimmed and shadowed in a person who is deceitful, manipulative, jealous and envious. It is not for nothing that eyes are spoken of as the window of the soul. Have you ever noticed for instance how in a surge of anger it is like one’s vision becomes glazed over. You can also sometimes see a shadow or a glazing coming over the eyes of others when gripped by resentment, anger and hatred.
And so according to Jesus, a sound or healthy eye is one that is generous. One that rejoices in the good fortune of others. Buddhists have a word for this. They call it Mudita. It is sympathetic or unselfish joy that finds joy in the good fortune of others. It is the positive quality of being able to share in the happiness of another and feel appreciation and joy when someone else is experiencing happiness. Buddhists regard Mudita as one of the four immeasurables which also includes Love, regarding others with positivity and acceptance, Compassion, wanting others to be free of suffering, and Equanimity, having a clear and tranquil state of mind that is not easily shaken. These would all I believe correspond with Jesus image of the eye or the countenance that is healthy and sound.
By contrast the eye that is unhealthy, divided, or evil is one that looks greedily upon others wealth and status, wishing it was one’s own and often leading to hatred and ill-will towards the other. In such instances the lamp of the eye becomes dark inside that person and towards others. We were all made to shine. But covetous, envy and jealousy covers over that natural, God-given original state in which we were made.
How do we avoid unhealthy envy, jealousy and covetousness?
Buddhists practice what they called Metta or loving-kindess meditation as one method for over-coming the poisons of greed and hatred. Firstly one begins by wishing oneself well: May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free, may I bee at peace. Next the practice is to wish other people well starting with people who are close to us and then moving on to those who are more neutral to us, to those that we struggle to get on with. May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free, may they be at peace. Then finally the practice ends with a general wish for the well-being of all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free. May all beings be at peace. Such a practice helps to water the seeds of loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic-joy towards other people.
Within out Christian tradition praying for others is a similar means by which the Lamp of Love within us can shine more brightly. And Jesus himself suggests that our prayers should extend beyond just those we love, but also to those we struggle to love, and to our enemies, that God’s love might be made perfect within us.
A second practice within our Christian tradition is the deliberate cultivation of gratitude. Gratitude helps us to treasure what we have and so fosters a greater sense of contentment, which means that we begin to find joy from within rather than looking to external things to give us joy and happiness.
A third practice within our Christian tradition is to do acts of kindness, generosity and love which turns our energy from being inward looking to becoming outward looking.
And lastly, within our Christian tradition we have the practice of confession, admitting to ourselves and to God when dark shadows begin to fall over our soul and when our thoughts, emotions and actions have become less than loving, dimming God’s brightness within us. And with this practice of confession comes not just a growing self-awareness of the changing weather patterns of our own hearts, but also a growing awareness of the wisdom of love itself, that living in love is far more emotionally beneficial and satisfying than stewing in the dark emotions of envy, jealousy, resentment and hatred that often flow from covetousness.
Wendy asked me: Does that mean I shouldn’t fancy someone else’s shoes? I wonder if the answer is whether our envy is innocent admiration or if it has become something else, causing us to begrudge, or resent the one whose shoes they are and thus casting a shadow over our hearts and our eyes?
I close with the words of Scripture: Proverbs 14:30 – A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. And the words of Paul in 1 Cor 13:4 “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy.”
May God bless you, and may the lamp of your eye shine brightly on others with the love of Christ.
SERMON TEXT - Thou Shalt not steal
Today we come to examine the 9th commandment, Thou shalt not bear false witness, which is often paraphrased more directly as Thou shalt not lie.
Reading through the Bible, it is interesting that even though the 10 Commandments contain a law against lying and against giving false witness, the Old Testament is full of stories of lies and deception. The great Patriarch’s of Israel, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all told lies. Abraham lied repeatedly that his wife Sarah was his sister, in order to give her to Pharaoh so that he could save his own life (Gen 26:11-13), which raises all sorts of other dubious moral questions. Likewise, Isaac did the same with his wife Rebekah calling her his sister. Jacob is the most well known of the Biblical liars having lied to his father in order to steal his brothers birthright (Gen 27:19-20). According to the Exodus story, God even told Moses to lie to Pharaoh that the Israelites only wanted to leave Egypt for three days to worship God in the desert (Ex 3:18). In addition, in the book of Joshua, there is a story of how God saves the life of the prostitute Rahab for lying to protect Israelite spies (Josh 2). And in the book of Kings, Jehu lies to the prophets of Baal in order to lure them to being killed (2 Kings 10:18-28). (Thanks to Michael Nugent).
Michael Nugent points out that according to Leviticus (19:16) and Deuteronomy (19:18) the command against lying only applied to “your neighbour” or “your people” and “your brother” (hopefully sisters were included as well). The 9th Commandment was therefore again originally conceived of as a tribal law to protect inter-tribal relationships and not as an universal moral principle as it later came to be especially in the teachings of Jesus, where Jesus says without qualification “let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
The pervasiveness of lying in the stories of the Old Testament seems to quite accurately reflect our human experience, for although a recent YouGov survey conducted in America indicated that 88% of Americans believe that the Commandment not to bear false witness is an important principle to live by, a number of research articles suggest that in truth, lying, massaging and embellishing the truth is quite pervasive and that most people lie in one form or another at least twice a day.
One website referred to a study for example that found that 81 percent of patients lied to their doctors in various kinds of ways, for example, whether they took their medication as instructed, whether they exercised regularly, whether they agreed or disagreed with a doctors recommendations, and whether or not they had been taking someone else’s medication.
So even though a survey in a western nation showed 88% of people believe that not lying and not bearing false witness are important principles to live by, in big and small ways a pretty high percentage of us are not always very good at adhering to the value.
Things perhaps become further complicated when researchers makes the distinction between two different kinds of lies: what they called, antisocial lies on the one hand, and what they called and pro-social lies on the other.
Anti-social lies would refer to any lies that is told out of selfish motivation, for selfish gain, to get out of trouble, or to make oneself look better that one really is. Because of their selfish motivation, they tend to have darker consequences, undermining and destroying individual and social relationships and trust. These are sometimes called black lies and tend to spiral and grow.
By contrast, prosocial lies are are told in order to soften and preserve social relationships and avoid hurting the feelings of others often out of a sense of concern and compassion for others. Giving a brutally honest opinion in some instances could destroy a relationship or even another persons sense of self worth. From the perspective of sociology and psychology, this is an important and a highly developed and complex skill that all children need to learn in order to operate with a high degree of social competency, over-riding what one might be thinking or feeling for the sake of a relationship. Those unable to learn these skills might find social integration far more difficult. While in some instances prosocial lying may be necessary to serve a greater purpose or a valued relationship, there is also the danger that we end up living lives of pretense, dancing around each other, never being real with one another and therefore never able to engage in truly honest, deep and meaningful relationships.
And the truth is that we all play along with such lies, or untruths. Research and basic human experience shows that on the whole, very few of us really want honest truthful feedback. What most of us really want is social reassurance and we might even become angry, because the truth is not what we are really wanting to hear.
Research shows that people who are too honest can often be shunned because they are regarded as too direct or too blunt. The majority of us would prefer a bit of sugar-coating most of the time. It takes enormous maturity to hear and receive a truth that we would prefer not to hear.
What might a truly Christian response be in the midst of all of this dark murky water?
Firstly, we might affirm that in certain rare occasions, speaking the truth could be both harmful, dangerous and maybe even immoral. I have previously used the hypothetical situation of someone living in Nazi Germany. In such a situation if your Jewish neighbour came to you asking you to hide them from the Gestapo, when the Gestapo came knocking on your door asking if you were hiding your Jewish neighbour, would you out of honesty say yes, of course, let me show you where they are, or would you out of care, concern and compassion say “No! There is no Jewish person hiding in my home”.
Secondly we might likewise affirm that in certain other social instances, telling the blunt truth about how you are feeling is not necessarily always going to be helpful or constructive, but could even be destructive. When a child comes home excitedly with a picture that they have drawn, do you honestly point out all the ways they could have done it better, or do you affirm their attempt out of encouragement, knowing that over-time they will naturally grow and improve.
Are there also limits to this however? If someone wishes to make a career out of singing, but clearly does not have the natural talent or ability, does one like Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent offer and honest opinion and try and direct them to find another area of interest where they might find a real niche for themselves? And if one does so, does one do so with contempt (as has sometimes been done) or does one do so with an underlying sense of love?
Having acknowledged that there may indeed be grey areas where a simplistic implementation of the 9th Commandment might be harmful and even morally wrong, we need to remember the words of Jesus to the women at the well that the true worshippers of God will worship in Spirit and in Truth. In other words, to truly follow Jesus and to truly worship God means that we will more and more become people of truth, people whose words and actions are truthful, transparent and dependable. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (5:37): When you are speaking and making vows, let your words be simple, let your yes be yes and your no be no.
And Jesus suggests that this kind of simple truthful living and truthful speaking will ultimately be freeing. The truth will set you free says Jesus (Jn 8:32). And it will set us free because we will be free from living a life of hiding and pretending. Like last week, implicit in this is the invitation to test it for yourself and see how it feels. Tell a lie. What effect does it have on you? And then speak the truth and see how that feels. In most occasions we will discover that it is liberating and freeing except in instances that could bring harm and hurt to others.
And then lastly, along with any truthful speaking, a truly Christian response to the 9th Commandment is that whatever words we speak need also to be loving, kind and compassionate. As Paul reminds us in Romans (13:8ff), love is the fulfilling of the law. And so if we are to interpret the 9th Commandment in a truly Christian way, we need to hear the words of the apostle Paul when he urges us in Ephesians (4:15) to speak the truth in love. It is not enough to speak the truth alone because it is possible to use the truth as a weapon to cause great hurt and harm to others. From a Christian perspective, the 9th Commandment is only fulfilled when the truth is accompanied and spoken with love.
In closing, I have always found the advice of Bernard Meltzer helpful, who says: Before you say anything, ask yourself 3 questions:
Is it true? Is it necessary? (Not all things that are true are necessary to be spoken). And lastly, is it kind?
Such advice is echoed in the Buddhist Tradition which says:
“A statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken: It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
I close with Proverbs 3:3 “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck,
Write them on the tablet of your heart."
May God bless each of us as we wrestle with these things, seeking to become more and more people who worship God in Spirit (the Spirit of love), and in Truth (with lives that are transparent and honest). And in doing so, may we discover the freedom and joy that this brings. Amen.
SERMON TEXT: Thou Shalt not steal
What is your first memory of having stolen something?
I am still a little ashamed to retell the story even now about 40 years after it happened, but for myself, I was in what we called class 1, the equivalent of P1. A boy called Fernando had brought a whole lot of round yellow stickers to school, and shared them with a select group of people. In fact, if I remember, he shared them with most of the girls in the class. There was quite an excited buzz amongst those who got these small rolls of round yellow dot stickers. Thinking back, I felt left out. At the time, all our school bags and cases were kept outside the classroom, and so pretending to need something from my own case, I asked to go outside to fetch it. But instead, I found Fernando’s case, opened it, and took some of the yellow dot stickers for myself, hiding them in my own case.
Wendy shared with me that the first time she remembers stealing anything was when she stole Quintin Bean’s rubber when she was age 6, also in P1. She said his had a picture of a mouse on it and she had a plain old rubber. She felt jealous, and so she stole it from him.
It is interesting reflecting back on the experience. I remember not feeling very nice about what I had done, a little like a dark cloud had settled over me, and the feeling just grew worse when Fernando told the teacher that some of his stickers had been stolen. I hate to confess it, but I never owned up and continued to see those wretched yellow stickers for years to come every time I came across them stashed away in my bottom drawer at home along with all sorts of other useless odds and ends. Looking back, I think that was probably the last time that I can remember blatantly and unambiguously taking something that didn’t belong to me which I knew belonged to somebody else. The lesson was in the experience of what it felt like. It was not an experience that I wanted to repeat.
It is not to say that since then, there haven’t been more ambiguous moments where the things have felt a little more grey or where I have put my own self-interest above others where the lines have been a little more blurred. I certainly can’t claimed to have lived like a saint my whole life since that incident.
What is also interesting looking back at the incident when I was aged 6 in P1 was the sense of being left out. It was that sense of having been excluded from quite a large group of others that was a defining motivating factor in what I did. It is interesting, because it is a fairly well known statistic that those societies which have the greatest gap between rich and poor also experience the greatest levels of crime ranging from petty theft to more serious organised crime. It makes me wonder to what extent at least some of that crime stems from a deep sense of being excluded and left out from the economic spoils that they see others enjoying in abundance.
I have seen it suggested on a number of occasions that theft and crime cannot be solved by policing alone, but also needs to be solved by creating more equitable societies, making sure that fewer people feel like they have been excluded and sidelined from the economic life of society.
Today we come to examine the 8th of the 10 Commandments and as I read out the words of the Commandment “Thou Shalt not Steal”, I sincerely hope that that Wendy and I are not the only ones with memories of stealing something when we were younger? I imagine that we all have a memory. It is a reminder that stealing is in fact quite an universal experience. Except in exceptional cases I would hazard a guess that almost all children need to be taught not to steal.
Except in exceptional instances, most children need to be encouraged to share and not simply take things that don’t belong to them.
It would seem that we almost all have a default self-centred mode of being when we are born into the world. It is quite natural for little babies to have a sense that the world revolves around them and their needs and wants and therefore the tendency to take things and to want to claim them as their own, even if they belong to someone else. Wendy and I see the same thing playing out with our two cats. George is the bed-king. He has a tendency to assume that any bed that he finds belongs to him, even if we may have made it especially for Annie, knowing full well that George already has the best bed in the house.
The same is true of morning treats. We have to watch George with a hawk eye because he has a tendency to wolf down his own morning treat and when he is finished he will assume that he has the right to go on and finish Annie’s treat as well.
If we are honest with ourselves, most of us, except the very saintly, would have to admit, that even when we have been trained in the basics of not taking what is not ours, there often remains a centrifugal tendency to want to receive and get as much as we can rather than to give and share.
In exploring and critically reflecting on the 10 commandments in the wider context of the Old Testament, Michael Nugent is of the opinion that none of the 10 commandments were originally conceived of or understood to be laying down universal laws or values of right or wrong. Rather, he asserts that these were originally tribal laws. According to Nugent, all the commandments, including the commandment not to steal were about protecting the stability and interests of one tribe, the Israelites. The same could be said of the 8th Commandment not to steal because, as he suggests, the directive not to steal only seemed to apply to internal relationships within the people of Israel.
There is much within the Old Testament that can be used to support this view:
In the book of Deuteronomy, the God character through Moses encourages the Israelites to steal the treasures, animals, women and children of enemy tribes (Deut 20:14-15). Michael Nugent also points out that the Israelites also stole the land of other tribes. Their God, as the story is told, told them to drive out all of the inhabitants, take possession of the land and settle in it, and divide it up according to their own clans (Num 33:50-54, Deut 2:31-34, Deut 20:16-17).
While it is clear that this injunction not to steal was not originally conceived of as a universal law within the minds of most Israelites, it was at least a start in the moral development of a rough and often brutal early Israelite people. One could say that in the school of growing to full ethical maturity, we all need to start somewhere. For the Israelite people, their starting point was within their own tribe or nation. Even though the early Israelites may not have conceived of this law as being of universal applicability, I do believe that the seed of universal applicability is surely contained within it.
In fact the universal nature of the law or commandment not to steal can be seen in the fact that such laws and injunctions are not unique to the 10 commandments or the Old Testament. Values and laws against stealing can be found within all the major religions of the world, in Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. For example, in the 10 precepts of Buddhism, the second precept is the precept not to steal. In fact it is worded slightly differently from the commandment not to steal and is rather understood to abstain from taking what is not given, but the sentiment is the same.
In fact, in my own reflection on the religions of the world, I have to admit that I have found great value in Buddhist approaches to matters of morality, which I believe are complimentary to a deeper more nuanced Christian approach and reflection.
The Buddha, who only ever conceived of himself as a human being who had awoken to the true nature of reality, approached matters of morality primarily from the point of view of suffering, and the endeavour to navigate a path that would reduce suffering, not only for the one on the spiritual path, but also for the rest of society.
From a Buddhist perspective, the injunction or precept not to steal is understood to be important, because it reduces suffering. A Buddhist approach to morality would say that you can test these things for yourself. Steal something, and reflect on what that feels like, and you will find that it is not a pathway that leads to spiritual freedom and wholeness. This was my own experience as a 6 year old and to a large extent it has lived with me ever since. And so, if you want to be psychologically and spiritually free, and to be in touch with a natural and deep sense of happiness and well-being, then these will not be achieved by theft, robbery or deception which will always leave you feeling cut off from others and more and more isolated in the prison of the self.
Freedom and joy come from feeling connected with others and with life. Stealing and taking, and even keeping and hoarding undermine that deeper sense of connectedness, which we in the Christian tradition describe with the word Love.
And so the Buddha might have been in complete agreement with the sentiment expressed in Psalm 84:10 “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”
In the Psalm, being in the courts of God can symbolise the heart that is open, free and at ease, feeling at one and in harmony with the natural goodness of being alive. Being in the tents of the wicked symbolises being caught up on the prison of the deceptive and manipulative self.
In closing, the opposite of stealing is surely generosity. Whereas stealing is inward looking and self-orientated, looking out for number 1, then generosity is about being outward looking, wishing to reach out to others in acts of care, kindness and blessing.
I started the sermon by asking if you can remember the first time you stole something. I would like to close the sermon by asking you to remember your most recent act of generosity. Who did you give to? How did it make you feel? How did that feeling compare with the feeling of that first memory of stealing?
May we all come to know more and more the inner freedom, openness, joy and happiness that comes as we make the shift, over and over again, from a life centred on ourselves, a life of taking, getting, hoarding and keeping, to a life of generosity, giving and blessing. And in doing so, may we discover the spirit of God welling up from within us
SERMON TEXT: Thou shalt not commit adultery
Is it possible to speak about adultery without a sense of judgement? Maybe Jesus enables us to do so, when he says to us: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”
I think it is true that over the centuries, within Christian circles an enormous amount of judgement has been reserved for those who society has perceived as having failed sexually, and yet at the same time, one could almost say, far too little judgement has been reserved for those who have committed a whole array of other sins including greed and injustice.
And so today I wish to proceed with care and caution, remembering the words of Jesus I have just quoted, and also remembering the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans where he reminds us that “...All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and that therefore there is little, or perhaps even no room for judgement.
The first thing that perhaps we should note in reading this commandment within the wider Scriptures of the Old Testament, is that adultery was considered primarily as a crime committed against the husband by an unfaithful wife, or by another man who had slept with his wife. But the opposite did not always seem to be the case. This is reflected in the story of the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8. If she was caught in the very act of adultery as the text suggests, then the man involved in the illicit liaison should have also been brought before Jesus for judgement, but he wasn’t. In the Bible and in many cultures the tendency has been to hold women to account for acts of adultery and acts of sexual misconduct more than men.
In his book “Sex and Scripture”, John Schoenheit writes that “...The Greek, Roman, and Hebrew concept of adultery was substantially the same. “The infidelity of the husband did not constitute adultery.”
The only time a man’s infidelity was sanctioned was if the offence committed was against another man, whether with another man’s wife or a virgin pledged to be married to another man.
And so it needs to be acknowledged that the commandment against adultery in the Old Testament, as well as Hebrew, Greek and Roman culture was heavily weighted against women.
It is true that even in Western culture in more recent times, a larger portion of judgement has tended to be reserved towards women in relation to this commandment than to men. Like the Women caught in adultery in John 8, it is women who have tended to be vilified for this offence far more than men, who have often tended to get off scot-free.
The existence of mother and baby homes here on the island of Ireland testifies to this fact. It was women who were punished, judged and looked down on for what society perceived as sexual offences, even when it was in situations of rape. But there were no equivalent institutions for men. No equivalent means of punishing, judging or supposedly trying to rehabilitate male offenders.
Part of the problem around marriage and adultery, as reflected even in the Old Testament Scriptures, is that traditionally, women in marriage were regarded essentially as the property of the man. As I have said before, such an attitude persisted even here in the UK as late as the early 1900s when there were still recorded instances of men selling their wives as one might sell one’s property.
The idea of marriage being a place that should ideally be mutually beneficial and a relationship between complimentary equals is, on the whole, a fairly recent development.
If the essence of adultery is unfaithfulness, then I believe that the concept of adultery needs to be considered much more widely than just illicit sexual affairs. It must surely be true that there are many other ways of being unfaithful to one’s spouse other than simply engaging in an illicit sexual affair. Unfaithfulness can take place in numerous other ways where a spouse places some other activity or interest or relationship above the priority and integrity and love of the marriage relationship.
I remember having a conversation with one woman a number of years ago who said that her ex-husband had, in their marriage, conducted a love-affair with his money, which he prioritized over his relationship with his wife. His real commitment was not to her but to growing his pension pot and his money market accounts. Her value in his life was quite secondary to these things. She said he was always suspicious that she was having affairs with other men, but all the while he was having an affair with his money, the details of which were never openly shared with his wife.
It is interesting also that many dictionaries contain an entry for what is called a ‘golf-widow’. A golf widow would be defined as a wife who is left alone much of the time because her husband is out playing golf. In some instances this phrase is used tongue in cheek to describe women married to a husband who is a golf-fanatic. But in other instances, the phrase is a fairly accurate description of a marriage relationship that is no longer functional because golf, or in fact any other activity has come to be regarded with higher value.
For others, the act of unfaithfulness might be with friends at the pub. From what my Mom has told me, my grandfather was unfaithful to my grandmother because for much of their marriage, his primary relationship was to alcohol rather than to her.
For others, the act of unfaithfulness happens where one’s work begins to take priority and precedence over one’s marriage relationship.
And for still others, unfaithfulness takes place when a relationship becomes physically or emotionally manipulative and abusive.
It is clear that adultery and unfaithfulness need to be considered with a much wider lens, than simply focusing on matters of a sexual nature.
This does not mean that in a marriage there shouldn’t be space for other interests and time spent apart. Khalil Gibran in his book The Prophet describes in beautiful poetic language the qualities of a good and healthy marriage:
Stand together yet not too near
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow
not in each other’s shadow.
If adultery is interpreted through the wider lens of unfaithfulness and perhaps also in being an absentee spouse, being physically and emotionally unavailable to one’s spouse because of some other priority, then the antidote to adultery is surely putting the time and energy into nurturing truly wholesome, loving, caring and life-giving relationships and marriages.
It is also to remember the sacred potential that marriage has of embodying and reflecting the Divine Love of God. Throughout the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, marriage is used as a symbol of God’s relationship with the people of God. The last scene in the book of Revelation is the image of a great cosmic marriage ceremony where God and God’s people are united together through Christ in a great marriage of love.
The more our marriages and relationships are nurtured into wholesome, caring, and life-giving places of love, the more we will find ourselves participating in the great dance of Divine Love, that as the children’s Sunday School songs says, makes the world go around.
And so we might ask ourselves a few questions:
In our marriages and intimate relationships, is there space for both partners to truly be themselves? Do our marriages and relationships provide space for each partner to grow and develop into the fullness of their potential. Do our intimate relationships honour time spent together and time spent apart? Are our marriages places of fear and dread? Or do our marriages give us the sense of being in a real partnership where we feel safe and where we can help bear each other’s load? Are our marriages and relationships places of heaviness or do they help us to touch upon the joy and the lightness of life?
In closing I would like to quote more fully the words of Khalil Gibran:
Love one another, but make not a bond
Let it rather be a moving sea between
the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from
Give one another of your bread but eat
not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous,
but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone
though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each
For only the hand of Life can contain
And stand together yet not too near
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow
not in each other’s shadow.
May God bless all of us as we seek to honour, nurture and grow the sacred potential contained within each of our marriages and other close and intimate relationships.