Monday, May 17, 2010

How can we be sure what Jesus taught about sexual behavior?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

First and foremost, we must remember that Jesus was a faithful Jew. As such, he accepted the teachings of the rabbis on the Law, except when it was clear that they were relying on casuistic arguments to twist the meaning of the Law.[i] Yet He still respected the authority of their teaching while disputing their behavior: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do” (Matthew 23:2–3). Ashley notes that Jesus carefully fulfills the Law but not always in the way expected by the Pharisees.[ii] In Jesus’ sermons, He goes beyond the letter of the Law and gets to the motivations behind sin, which invariably results in a strengthening of prohibitions rather than a weakening. One can see this process in particular with the prohibition against divorce.[iii] In this sense, He operates much in the same way as the Church when it defines moral teaching, typically strengthening it rather than relaxing it and “applying Gospel norms more consistently.”[iv]

Based on this presentation of Jesus, then, we should assume (if anything) He would also teach the same beliefs on sexual behavior as the Pharisees, with a small exception. While the Law focuses on behaviors, specifically condemning sexual actions rather than internal motivation,[iv] Jesus looks at motivations, for example, when He condemns lust in Matthew 5:28. Later in Matthew, He condemns the scribes and Pharisees not only for their actions but for the internal uncleanliness: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity” (23:25). Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus states, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (15:18–20). In this passage, fornication is presented as defiling someone from within, so Jesus clearly sees the internal inclination to desire fornication as sinful, and not merely the act. If He condemns the mere thought of such things, clearly He would also condemn the acts.

i. Benedict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, (Staten Island: St. Pauls, 1996), 31.
ii. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 3A—Lesson Five,” International Catholic University, 6 February 2010,
iii. Ibid.
iv. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 4B—Lesson 8,” International Catholic Univsersity, 27 February 2010,
v. Robert Kugler and Patrick Hartin, An Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 85.
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