Christ appeals to man’s heart

During the General Audience in St Peter’s Square on 16 April the Holy Father gave the following address which is the first of a series of talks on the analysis of the text of Mt 5:27-28.

1. As the subject of our future reflections—at the Wednesday meetings—I wish to develop the following statement of Christ, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount:  "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'. But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:27-28).

This passage seems to have a key-meaning for the theology of the body, like the one in which Christ referred to the "beginning", and which served as the basis of the preceding analyses. We were then able to realize how wide was the context of a sentence, or rather of a word, uttered by Christ. It was a question not only of the immediate context, which emerged in the course of the conversation with the Pharisees, but of the global context, which we cannot penetrate without going back to the first chapters of the Book of Genesis (omitting what refers there to the other books of the Old Testament). The preceding analyses have shown how extensive is the content that Christ's reference to the "beginning" involves.

Need of fulfillment of the Law

 The statement, to which we are now referring, that is, Mt 5:27-28, will certainly introduce us—not only to the immediate context in which it appears—but also to its wider context, the global context, through which the key-meaning of the theology of the body will be revealed to us. This statement is one of the passages of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus Christ makes a fundamental revision of the way of understanding and carrying out the moral law of the Old Covenant. It refers, in order, to the following commandments of the Decalogue: the fifth, "you shall not kill" (cf. Mt 5:21-26), the sixth, "You shall not commit adultery" (cf. Mt 5:27-32)—it is significant that at the end of this passage there also appears the question of the "certificate of divorce" (cf. Mt 5:31-32), already mentioned in the preceding chapter —and the eighth commandment according to the text of Exodus (cf. Ex 20:7): "You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn" (cf. Mt 5:33-37). 

Significant, above all, are the words that precede these articles— and the following ones—of the Sermon on the Mount, the words in which Jesus declares: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them" (Mt 5:17). In the sentences that follow, Jesus explains the meaning of this opposition and the necessity of the "fulfilment" of the Law in order to realize the kingdom of God: "Whoever... does them (these commandments) and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5:19). "The kingdom of heaven" means the kingdom of God in the eschatological dimension. 

The fulfilment of the Law conditions, fundamentally, this kingdom in the temporal dimension of human existence. It is a question, however, of a fulfilment that fully corresponds to the meaning of the Law, of the Decalogue, of the individual commandments. Only this fulfilment constructs that justice that God the Legislator willed. Christ the Teacher urges us not to give such a human interpretation of the whole Law and the individual commandments contained in it that it does not construct the justice willed by God the Legislator: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5:20).

Aspects of fulfillment

2. In this context there appears Christ's statement according to Mt 5:27-28, which we intend to take as the basis for the present analyses, considering it, together with the other statement according to Mt 19:3-9 (and Mk 10), as the key to the theology of the body. Like the other one, this one has an explicitly normative character. It confirms the principle of human morality contained in the  commandment "you shall not commit adultery", and, at the same time, it determines an appropriate and full understanding of this principle, that is, an understanding of the foundation and at the same time of the condition for its adequate "fulfillment". The latter is to be considered precisely in the light of the words of Mt 5:17-20, already quoted before, to which we have just drawn attention.

It is a question here, on the one hand, of adhering to the meaning that God the Legislator enclosed in the commandment "you shall not commit adultery", and, on the other hand, of carrying out that "justice" on the part of man, a justice that must "superabound" in man himself, that is, it must reach its specific fullness in him. These are, so to speak, the two aspects of "fulfilment" in the evangelical sense.

At the heart of "ethos"

3. We find ourselves in this way at the heart of ethos, that is, in what can be defined the inferior form, almost the soul, of human morality. Contemporary thinkers (e.g. Scheler) see in the Sermon on the Mount a great turning-point in the field of ethos (1). A living morality, in the existential sense, is not formed only by the norms that invest the form of the commandments, precepts and prohibitions, as in the case of "you shall not commit adultery". The morality in which there is realized the very meaning of being a man—which is, at the same time, the fulfillment of the Law by means of the "superabounding" of justice through subjective vitality—is formed in the interior perception of values, from which there springs duty as the expression of conscience, as the response of one's own personal "ego". At the same time ethos makes us enter the depth of the norm itself and descend within the man-subject of morality. Moral value is connected with the dynamic process of man's intimacy. To reach it, it is not enough to stop "at the surface" of human actions, it is necessary to penetrate inside.

Interior justice

4. In addition to the commandment "you shall not commit adultery", the Decalogue has also "you shall not covet your neighbour's wife" (2). In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ connects them with each other, in a way: "Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart". However, it is not a question so much of distinguishing the scope of those two commandments of the Decalogue as of pointing out the dimension of the interior action, referred to also in the words: "you shall not commit adultery".

This action finds its visible expression in the "act of the body", an act in which the man and the woman participate against the law of matrimonial exclusiveness. The casuistry of the books of the Old Testament, which aimed at investigating what, according to exterior criteria, constituted this "act of the body" and was, at the same time, directed at combatting adultery, opened to the latter various legal "loopholes" (3). In this way, on the basis of the multiple compromises "for hardness of heart" (Mt 19:8), the meaning of the commandment, willed by the Legislator, underwent a distortion. People kept to legalistic observance of the formula, which did not "superabound" in the interior justice of hearts.

Christ shifts the essence of the problem to another dimension, when he says: "Every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart". (According to ancient translations: "has already made her an adulteress in his heart", a formula which seems to be more exact) (4).

In this way, therefore, Christ appeals to the interior man. He does so several times and under different circumstances. In this case it seems particularly explicit and eloquent, not only with regard to the configuration of evangelical ethos, but also with regard to the way of viewing man. It is not only the ethical reason therefore, but also the anthropological one, that makes it advisable to dwell at greater length on the text of Mt 5:27-28, which contains the words spoken by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.


1) Ich kenne kein grandioseres Zeugnis fòr eine solche Neuerschliessung eines ganzen Werbereiches, die das ltere Ethos relativiert, als die Bergpredigt, die auch in ihrer Form als Zeugnis solcher Neuerschliessung und Relativierung der lteren "Gesetzes"-werte sich òberall kundgibt: "Ich aber sage euch" (Max Scheler, Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materiale Wertethik, Halle a.d.S., Verlag M. Niemeyer, 1921, p. 316 n. 1).

2) Cf. Ex 20:17; Dt 5:21.

3) On this point, see the continuation of the present meditations.

4) The text of the Vulgate offers a faithful translation of the original: iam moechatus est eam in corde suo. In fact, the Greek verb moicheóo is transitive. In modern European languages, on the other hand, "to commit adultery" is an intransitive verb; so we get the translation: "has committed adultery with her". And thus,

—in Italian: "...ha gi´ commesso adulterio con lei nel suo cuore" (Version of the Italian Episcopal Conference, 1971; similarly the version of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1961, and the one prepared by S. Garofalo, 1966).

—in French: "...a d¾j´ commis, dans son coeur, l'adultÀre avec elle" (Bible de J¾rusalem, Paris, 1973; Traduction Oecum¾nique, Paris, 1972; Crampon); only Fillion translates: "A d¾j´ commis 1'adultÀre dans son coeur".

—in English: "...has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Douai Version, 1582, similarly Revised Standard Version, from 1611 to 1966; R. Knox, New English Bible, Jerusalem Bible, 1966).

—in German: "…hat in seinem Herzen schon Ehebruch mit ihr begangen" (Einheitsòbersetzung der Heiligen Schrift, im Auftrag der BischØfe des deutschen Sprachbereiches, 1979).

—in Spanish: "...ya cometiÙ adulterio con ella en su corazÙn" (Bibl. Societ., 1966).

—in Portuguese: "...j« cometeu adulterio com ela no seu cora¸±o" (M. Soares, S±o Paolo, 1933).

—in Polish: ancient translations: "...juü j· scudzoÓoüyÓ w sercu swoim"; last translation: "...juü siÄ w swoim ser cu dopuíciÓ z ni· cudzoÓÙstwa" (Biblia Tysi·clecia).

L'Osservatore Romano April 21, 1980
Reprinted with permission