Years ago, I served for the first time on a jury. It was an ugly, drawn out criminal case, complete with lurid testimony and a dirty trick by one of the attorneys that could have been pulled straight out of a bad TV show. Let’s just say it wasn’t the most encouraging introduction to the criminal justice system.
Before the trial, I and the other potential jurors had to fill out an extensive questionnaire that the attorneys planned to use in the selection (read, weeding-out) process. “This case will involve testimony about an adulterous relationship,” the questionnaire declared. “But adultery is not a crime in the state of California. What are your views on adultery?”
I wrote something like, “According to the Bible, adultery is a sin,” and thought to myself, Well, I guess that’s that. No way they’re putting a seminary professor, much less someone who wrote something like that, on a jury.
Shows you how much I know. I ended up being the foreman.
Adultery may not be a crime against our laws and statutes, but it is a sin against God and the covenant of marriage. At root, the issue here is not sexual behavior, but unfaithfulness, the betrayal of a sacred relationship. In Leviticus 20:10, adultery is punishable by death, and you can bet that the Jews who heard Jesus preach, and those who read the letter of James, took adultery very seriously.
So it may have been a little jarring for James’ readers to find themselves being called “adulterers”:
Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4, NRSVUE)
Harsh. Or so it seems. This is another place where we might hear an echo of the teaching of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that even if you had never committed homicide, malice and angry name-calling made you as guilty as a murderer before God. Even if you had never physically cheated on your spouse, lusting after someone else made you guilty of adultery as well (Matt 5:21-28).
James, of course, is not accusing everyone in the church of having extramarital affairs. But he is accusing them of lust. He already said it earlier in the chapter: “You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder” (James 4:2). That word “want” is the same as the one for “lust” in Matthew 5. It’s not just an idle preference or a fleeting desire; it’s wanting something so bad you can taste it. It’s not just happening to see racy images as we surf the Internet, it’s looking again, and deepening the desire the longer we look.
Or, as James might suggest, it’s watching others achieve the status and recognition you crave, and no longer seeing them as your brothers and sisters.
When James scolds his readers for their “friendship with the world,” he isn’t telling them not to have non-Christian friends. Nor is he telling them to create a community that lives in a theological bubble. He’s saying something like, “Don’t you get it? Your selfish ambition shows that you care more for the values of the Roman Empire than the kingdom of God. You are supposed to be a people who embody the royal law of neighbor-love; but instead you toady up to the rich and dishonor the poor, and fight with each other to win a little more status and prestige. You have taken on worldly values and you don’t even know it. The world sets itself against God — what about you?”
. . .
Sometimes, when Jesus scolded his hearers, he called them an “evil and adulterous generation” (Matt 12:39). On the one hand, it was a harsh condemnation. He chastised them for wanting another miraculous sign, a religion of more show than substance. On the other hand, however, it was also a way of calling them back. He could have called them “evil” and left it at that. But “adulterous” implies a relationship, a call to loyalty and fidelity.
God has called us into a covenant relationship. “Faithfulness” isn’t just about believing the right things, but wanting the right things, loving the things that God counts as lovely. The world in which we live is constantly manipulating our desires for commercial gain, posing as our benefactor and friend. So if we really want to grow closer to God, we may need to reevaluate our other desires.