17th Sunday after Pentecost – 9/19/2021
Reading: James 4:4-10
God's Gracious Call to Adulterers: Understanding the Ultimate Betrayal
What defines the ultimate betrayal? Is it the disloyalty of a friend who shares your intimate secrets or criticizes your faults behind your back? Or does it lie in the actions of an elected official who goes against the values and principles they once professed, leaving you feeling deceived? In both cases, it feels like a deep betrayal.
However, there is a betrayal that surpasses these examples in magnitude. I am referring to adultery. Few pains compare to the agony a married person endures when their spouse engages in an extramarital affair. It is an affront to love and loyalty, surpassing even the death of a spouse. When your partner chooses another person, it is a true rejection of your love and the vow of fidelity they made. Adultery is the pinnacle of betrayal.
The Sanctity of Marriage: Embracing the Divine Union
The sanctity of marriage is beautifully portrayed in Holy Scripture, stating, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). In the marital union, two individuals become inseparable, a bond that God strictly prohibits anyone from severing or breaking. This prohibition applies to both parties involved in the marriage. The purpose of marriage is to love and honor one another, as articulated by the Apostle Paul: "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord... Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her."
Husbands and wives can rest assured that their spouse entered into marriage with the sole intention of loving and cherishing them alone. This is the essence of their public vows. However, when a husband or wife forsakes their partner for someone else, it is never for a noble and God-pleasing reason. Adultery occurs because of selfish motives, driven by the desire to indulge in lustful passions. Those who engage in adultery should be wary, for the unfaithful spouse will not love their new partner with the same devotion they once had for their spouse. The adulterer clings to their new companion not out of genuine love but solely to gratify their wicked desires. Eventually, the new partner will experience the pain of betrayal.
Confronting Adultery: James' Straightforward Rebuke
Now, let us examine the passage from the book of James, which may sound severe to modern ears. James directly addresses his readers as "adulteresses." In our current ultra-sensitive culture, James would likely face condemnation for being rude, mean-spirited, and derogatory. After all, the prevailing notion is that we should embrace everyone's lifestyle choices. If someone decides to leave their spouse for another person, society argues that it is their right to pursue personal happiness and fulfillment. Even the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has declared that individuals can enter into a "committed relationship" with someone of the same sex without being deemed sinners. In doing so, they disregard God's teachings on marriage and adultery. But let us not make adulterers feel guilty because of what God says! Such attitudes are deeply sinful.
Fortunately, James did not need to worry about being politically correct in his time. He fearlessly spoke the truth and confronted sinners with the gravity of their transgressions. He did not allow room for excuses or attempts to evade the harsh light of God's law. He boldly labeled them "adulteresses."
However, it is important to note that when James uses this accusatory term, he is likely not accusing all of his readers of being unfaithful to their spouses. While some among them were indeed unfaithful, James uses the term "adulteresses" in a different context. He associates it with another form of adultery, one that constitutes a betrayal of God. He declares, "You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God."
Adultery against God: A Distinct Form of Adultery
Is being friends with the world equivalent to adultery? At first glance, it might be perplexing to consider worldly friendships as adultery or unfaithfulness towards God. After all, God created the earth as a place for us to live, work, and enjoy. Does faithfulness to God require us to despise the world, sever our relationships with others, or abstain from the physical pleasures that our earthly existence offers? Will Al Gore and others launch an attack on Christianity if we propose such ideas?
First and foremost, James' use of the term "world" (kosmos) does not refer to the physical planet itself. Although sin has tainted the earth, God created it as good. Instead, James uses "world" to describe the hostile environment shaped by godlessness, wickedness, the influence of the devil, and the corrupting tendencies within our sinful nature and the world at large. To befriend this worldly realm is to commit adultery. It means marrying a different husband other than the Lord God.
This theological backdrop stems from the biblical concept of the marital union between God and His people. Throughout Scripture, God portrays His relationship with ancient Israel as that of a husband and wife. Even under the New Covenant, God, through His apostles, refers to the Christian Church as His bride, with Jesus being the bridegroom. The glory of heaven, awaiting God's people, is often symbolized as the "Marriage Supper of the Lamb," where the bride will be presented to her groom. One could argue that God designed the institution of marriage itself to mirror His union with the Church.
God's Unwavering Faithfulness and Our Imperfect Love
The intimate union between God and His people is exemplified by their faith in Jesus Christ. God dwells within believers, and believers in Him, forming that "one flesh" of faith. Faithfulness is the essence of this union, expressed through the love God has for us and the love we have for Him. This union leaves no room for self-centered love or the expectation of reciprocation.
God remains forever faithful to His beloved, focusing solely on loving us for our sake, not His own. Everything He desires thinks, and does is aimed at helping, saving, and comforting us—His beloved. His love for us is selfless, without regard for His interests. He has every right to be jealous of us, as James affirms, "Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, 'He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?'"
Regrettably, the same cannot always be said about us. Like James' original audience, we often fail to love God purely, with a heart that loves Him for who He is. Our love for Him should be devoid of self-interest, prioritizing His glory above our own welfare and earthly desires. We should love Him with our entire being—mind, heart, body, spirit, and strength—giving our utmost devotion as if there were no other entity deserving of our love. We should love Him without expecting anything in return. However, James accurately accuses his audience of their spiritual infidelity. Likewise, we too, deserve the title of adulteresses, for we have been and continue to be unfaithful to our heavenly husband.