Thou shalt not commit adultery-Exodus 20:14
Most cultures, ancient and modern, place a "religious" emphasis on matters of sexuality. If a culture moves from sacred to secular it usually takes some form of religious totem and taboo along with it as concerns human sexuality.
The use of the body in an act of intimacy results in chemical release. The physical result calls in one's body, mind and soul. If the two persons involved are mature, committed and consenting there are few better ways to spend an hour from time to time.
Yet, committed love, focused affection, begins before the physical act (or should) and continues long after the act itself is often practiced. The seventh commandment of the law God sets to protect the committed lover from the selfishness of the human flesh, the kind that most often results in abandonment.
So, let us explore selfishness, which is the root of all evil. We might say active selfishness is the most common and offensive but we might err in this judgment. If we think of active selfishness as the selfishness that reaches out to take from another person we miss the selfishness that pushes away a person to hold things for oneself.
We should peculiarly state the apparent dysfunction of the religious heart. That is, the religious know the rules and apply prohibitions in power, spread over the entire culture. The religious have less success in equitable application of the strictures to personal existence. That is, the religious often condemn in others what we excuse in ourselves.
Divest the seventh commandment of its sternly worded authority for a moment and ask the usual questions. Who shall not commit adultery? What are the penalties for adultery? Are the penalties for adultery equally applied to all participants? What of the wounded victim of twenty years of abandonment, who succumbs finally to love's lost labor?
History tells us that the seventh commandment falls more heavily on the female than the male in civil/religious penalties. In more primitive cultures, a woman taken against her will pays a greater price than her male offender(s). The man gets a fine, or a happy greeting from his drinking buddies. The woman gets a beating, or worse, and usually from a male family member.
A strict constructionist viewpoint of the seventh commandment, however, requires a broad definition of the "Thou," that "shalt not " if we take the text seriously. The text does not allow for harsher punishment of one gender. The Law is for all, evenly. It is hard to burn fine print onto tablets of stone.
The "Thou" that "shalt not" is the one who can, i.e., the one with the power to take. In a paternalistic culture that is the male. In a secularized, egalitarian gender culture (at least as for sexual autonomy) the "Thou" jarringly becomes male and female. The seventh commandment is about power, not sex, and mostly about the misuse of power. One can use power inequitably but you just do not. You do not because you know without ever hearing it stated that it is wrong to use liberty for license.
If, as Niebuhr has it, there is an apparent irreconcilability between the needs of society and the demands on a sensitive conscience, women and men are left to struggle with the religious/social prohibition against family fragmentation (adultery) and the human need for real love as expressed in physical affection. The culture does well enough if families stay together in some form to give a resource pool to its members, so relieving the (always) strapped social services network. The sensitive conscienced man/woman wants life to be more than familial obligation. He/she wants affection, admiration and attention. When one or the other of these three is missing consistently, he/she may perform unethically in order to satisfy basic needs, or simply withdraw into other, more closed ventures.
(Before you ask, no, this does not cover the damaged sexual predator, any more than a stop sign does more than impede the progress of a serial killer. Society needs to identify the damaged in our midst, control and confine them and warn the general populace of their presence.)
The simple fact that many commentators on the seventh commandment proceed immediately to the stark prohibitive statement is evidence of just how much humans in most eras feel the need for someone to provide a track in which they may run, which soon we gutter into a rut. This practice also totally misses the mark Jesus sets.
Follow this, if you are still reading.
The simple prohibition (in commandment seven) itself can be said to protect society. Jesus takes the commandment and makes a direct application to one's individual conscience. Jesus indicates the commandment is not fulfilled by the mere absence of sexual inconstancy. Our Lord takes the commandment, applies it to the male directly and, in so doing, applies the seventh commandment equitably across a male-dominated culture. The Christ takes what seems a cultural taboo down to the level of the single sensitive conscience.
If we wish to think deeply or comment on the seventh commandment, we must decide if we speak to the culture before us or to our own sad heart. Both are appropriate audiences. A person who takes a mate, in sacred or secular fashion, still makes a pact with his society that he/she will work for the perpetuation of that union until it is gone or impossible to continue. A person in a love relationship must work at being in that relationship; affection and sex, communication and conversation, the self-sacrifice of the male and the willing condescension (nee submission of the female), set the tone of admiration and respect to help us over the swelling cataracts of the Love River.
If adultery is selfishness and if selfishness (in the ordinary heart) is the cause and result of abandonment, then we can apply the seventh commandment to the taker and to the keeper. That is, it is as dangerous to keep unto oneself that which might enrich your love as it is dangerous to reach outside the love relationship for satisfaction.
It may be we do not need another commentary on the commandments or another seminar on marriage/divorce costs to society, (used as if to make the religious prohibition against adultery worthwhile). The seventh commandment is deeply personal, not merely social. Jesus knows this truth and, as He finishes the Law, Jesus tells us to watch what we think, not just what we do. He abhors selfishness, even in the name of need, and He who left Heaven to nourish man also hates it when we abandon each other, in or out of a legally recognized relationship. The one is no less "sin" than the other.
Perhaps what we need is to learn to share.