Genesis 39:1-21 / Matthew 5:27-30
March 7, 2010
William G. Carter
“After a time, she cast her eyes on Joseph . . .” That’s how it all begins. Joseph had been working around the house for a while, tending to the chores. He was good-looking, and handsome. On a warm day beneath the Egyptian sun, she noticed how the muscles on his back rippled as he skimmed the pomegranate leaves from the swimming pool. Her husband trusted him with everything. They were left alone for entire days as Potiphar went to work. Joseph had some special blessing. He was strong, he was discreet, and everything he touched turned to gold. One day she took notice, and she wanted him to turn her into gold. “She cast her eyes on him…”
Of the seven deadly sins, the sin for the day is lust. It’s the deadly sin that everybody wants to talk about. Some people think it’s the only sin there is.
What we call “lust” has a long and lascivious history in the church. The fourth century St. Evagirus used the old Greek word “porneia” to name it. “Porneia” sounds like “pornography.” It covered – or rather, uncovered – a number of sexual behaviors. The proper people of Rome had a list of fleshly activities that they didn’t want to be caught doing, among them adultery, fornication, incest, and rape. “Porneia” was a general term to describe any sensual exploit that was not limited to the marriage bed.
We can imagine old Evagrius in his desert hut, giving some thought to what he had given up. His biographer said the saint once had a crush on a married woman. In the middle of that temptation, he had a vision of being imprisoned, just like Joseph. It shook him up, and not long after that he hid by himself in the desert.
The church has always loved to talk about sex, often trying not to reveal any enjoyment. Sex is a wonderful gift from God. It offers the promise of people-making through pleasure. But it’s also as volatile as dynamite. Sex can create, and it can destroy. This dual nature of the gift is one reason why church people continue to seem so tormented whenever they talk about sex.
In my impressionable teenage years, when every conscious thought was connected to my glands, I remember a youth group leader who told us repeatedly to save ourselves for our wedding nights. At the same time, a lot of the old church people in their fifties were trying to fix him up with their daughters. One day he just up and quit the job, and moved into a monastic commune in Massachusetts where he took a vow of celibacy. When you’re a Presbyterian, that sounds unusual. When you’re a fifteen year old boy, that sounds unnatural.
To his credit, whatever other demons he was fighting, he was most certainly resisting lust. As the church kept thinking about these matters, the spiritual issue that kept coming up was desire. All of us have a deep longing to know and to be known. We thirst for good friendships and meaningful relationships. If God calls us to become married, we make a lifelong commitment to grow in grace with our marriage partner. But sometimes our longing for companionship becomes so supercharged that it explodes. The very love we want so desperately is the very thing that blows up with destructive force. The ancient word for that explosion is lust.
Potiphar’s wife casts her eyes on Joseph. She sees him, she wants him. We can speculate like Doctor Phil as to the exact causes of that attraction: maybe her husband wasn’t paying her enough attention, or he was working long hours, or he was gone from home a lot, or she was feeling neglected, or maybe her imagination was igniting a fire. We don’t know exactly what was going on – and given the nature of human passion, neither did she. Attractions happen all the time.
What we do know from that old story is that she was having what Walter Wangerin calls “a maybe moment.” He describes it like this:
Even when that friendship is altogether innocent, your friend may send the signal, or you may sense the feeling, of further possibility. It occurs in a glance more meaningful than friends exchange. It arises from a touch, a hug, a brushing of flesh that tingled rather more than you expected – and you remember the sensation. A mutual understanding seems to establish itself between you, unspoken. Perhaps you succeeded together with a difficult project at work, and you celebrated the triumph; but a greater closeness crept into the celebration. Perhaps one or you supported the other in a crisis; but the dependency became more personal, more valuable than the crisis truly warranted. This is the moment of “maybe.”
In that moment nothing more is communicated than this: our friendship could turn into something else. Neither of you need say, or even think, what that “something else” might be. . . (As for Me and My House, p. 196)
The situation can go on from there, says Wangerin. Perhaps the stirring feelings will dangle for a while, or we dance around them. Maybe we flirt with the feelings as much as we flirt with the other person. But if we don’t kindly say No at that “maybe moment,” there can be further entanglement and potential explosion. As Wangerin says, “Let no one seriously insist ‘I couldn’t help it. I don’t know what came over me.’” We know exactly what came over us, and “only the willfully blind are taken by surprise.” (p. 197)
Like gluttony and greed, lust is a sin of the appetite. Gluttony consumes food because the soul is malnourished, and greed pursues cash because the heart is hungry for security. With lust, our longing to be close to another soul begins to consume us. We, in turn, desire to consume one another. In this most haunting obsession, we ignore one another’s actual life stories to simply desire the flesh.
Joseph is the Pool Boy at Potiphar’s house; Mrs. Potiphar doesn’t know about the coat of many colors, or how his brothers sold him like a slave. She doesn’t know the name of Joseph’s father, where the family lives, or what they do. All she casts her eye upon is a body that she wants to consume.
It seems to me that the best way to counter lust is to splash cold water on the daydream. To avoid the isolation of our imaginations. To stop reducing other people into mere objects. That is what Jesus is saying as he warns how we are already committing adultery when we look on somebody else with lust. It’s that possessiveness, that acquisitiveness, that hunger for somebody we don’t know very well. When the daydream slips over you, snap out of it – and look at that person as a person, rather than a piece of meat.
In February, when the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition arrives in the mailbox, we can start asking some different questions. Whose daughter is this? What did her parents do for a living? Has she had the opportunity to get a good education? How did she vote in the last election? Is she happy with her life? Would she be comfortable in a church like ours? What will she do thirty years from now, when swimsuit modeling won’t reward her as well? Those are pretty good questions to ask – and my wife makes me ask them every February when her son’s magazine arrives.
The antidote to lust is love – real honest love – love that sees another person for who they actually are, and who God created them to be. That’s how God loves us in Jesus Christ. We are seen in all our flairs and flaws. Love is honest enough to see the imperfections, but pressed toward the redeemable possibilities. And love that looks like God’s love will always work for the benefit of the beloved. Unlike lust, love is not demeaning and small, but expansive and empowering. Love will not “insist on its own way,” which is frequently the way of consumption. Rather, the deep love of Christ sets all of us free to appreciate the peculiar particularities of how God created us and what God calls us to be.
No human relationship is equally matched, completely satisfying, or perfect in every way. That’s what makes our relationships so challenging and delightful. But the best relationships are the ones that find contentment in what God provides. We revel in the gifts and graces from God that come in the midst of our commitments. And we pray for God to show us that the grass on the other side of the fence is just that: it’s grass. It’s a bounded acre of what we already know. If we are unhappy and disordered within our own skin, reaching beyond the fence will only deepen the unhappiness and increase the disorder.
So we live by our commitments; and by the true intimacy of loving people as they really are.
Tom Troeger wrote a hymn that we’ve never sung, mostly because the tune in our hymnal is too difficult. But the words set forth the greater challenge of a faithful life. The hymn is called, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea” (PH 283), and it celebrates how God creates life yet keeps it in creative discipline. The third stanza says:
The line, the limit, and the law / are patterns meant to help us draw
A bound between what life requires / and all the things our heart desires.
The next stanza offers a word of confession of who we are and what we’re prone to do:
But, discontent with finite powers, / we reach to take what is not ours
And then defend our claim by force / and swerve from life’s intended course.
But then there’s the final stanza, and it points to the discipline that liberates us in Christ:
We are not free when we’re confined / to every wish that sweeps the mind.
But free when freely we accept / the sacred bounds that must be kept. (Tom Troeger)
(c) William G. Carter
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