[Jesus said:] You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
– From “The Sermon on the Mount,” Matthew 5:27-30 (ESV)
This is an offensive passage. Our loving Lord Jesus just told us to cut off our hands.
There’s this book called The Brick Testament made by an atheist which depicts Biblical scenes using legos. The original goal of this book was to demonstrate how nasty, in the illustrator’s view, the Bible was. It was specifically anti-Bible. Imagine the creator’s shock when many churches ordered it unironically to demonstrate these same stories. In this Brick Testament, this passage is illustrated quite graphically under the subject heading “self-mutilation,” something quite justly condemned in our society, I suppose to try and get us to reject this as a medieval-style encouragement of enactment of mental health issues.
Look how evil Christianity is! God wants us to literally mutilate ourselves! Meanwhile, good people are trying to prevent people from mutilating themselves.
And, like many “offensive” passages, it gets a lot of awkward handling. Pastors that I’ve seen talk about it have, with one voice, assured their hearers that God is not speaking literally here. Of course, to the enemies of Christianity, “don’t take it literally” seems like a cop-out, an indication of insincerity and hypocrisy and even “picking and choosing,” and to believers like me, who are inclined to concrete thinking, it leads immediately to the question: “Well, how are we supposed to take it then?”
It is this question that I’m going to try to answer.
First, I’m going to start with the strong presumption that Jesus doesn’t actually want us to tear out our eyes and cut off our hands. This presumption is not based merely off of modern sensibilities. This isn’t watering down the Faith for modern audiences. No, ancient Church documents address the issue rather directly, by rejecting as clergy men who had castrated themselves voluntarily and without medical justification. The issue wasn’t castration: Those who had been castrated violently by others or born as eunuchs were specifically excluded from this rule. The issue was that people had taken the passage wrong, were trying to stop themselves from sinning by cutting off the body part they blamed for the sin – and the Church had to take a stand against the extreme results of this misinterpretation. The Church went as far as to identify this particular misinterpretation as a heresy.
So please. No mutilation, no self-castrations. If you reach that conclusion, you’re reading it wrong.
So how do we read this, then?
One non-literal way to read this is as hyperbole. Jesus is trying to shock us into thinking differently about sin. But instead of cutting of our hands, or our eyes, or our genitalia, He perhaps wants us to do something less extreme and in a similar vein.
Alcohol, like our body parts, is a good thing – scripture tells us that God made wine to gladden human hearts. Even though it is a good thing, however, there are people for whom it is difficult to drink alcohol without sinning in some way, people whose relationship with alcohol has degraded so far from merely being gladdened by it that, in order to prevent all kinds of misbehavior, they must cut it out of their lives.
Similar arguments can be made for other drugs, or even situations like technology overuse or other seemingly trivial habits. It is very important to be vigilant about the consequences of our addictions and our habits and our predilections, and to make sure they don’t give occasion to hurt our fellow human beings and our own ability to do good things.
But I don’t think that goes far enough. I think the same logic even works in the full form. If our hands were causing us to sin, if our eyes were, if our genitals were, then Jesus’s argument makes sense as stands. Being in sin, being cut off from God, and very importantly, hurting other people, are very serious problems, that do require drastic measures to avoid.
Remember that this passage is, in context, discussing lust. Jesus has just been talking about lust. Now, lust in the Bible means a perversion of the sexual urge, an inappropriate application of it. It is a similar concept to the modern concept of “objectification.” Objectification, we know, leads to horrible, horrible crimes. Who hasn’t watched the celebrities being dethroned by the “Me Too” movement? That is what Jesus is talking about.
Wouldn’t it be better for someone to cut off their body parts, than to commit a sexual assault? Based upon this very principle we have chemicals that can be used to keep pedophiles from having their urges.
But wait. Didn’t I say earlier that the Church had called that interpretation a heresy? How do we reconcile this? Should men, in fact, be eagerly signing up for castration to avoid hell fire?
Well, I think we do need to take Jesus’s words seriously, even literally, but not take them as an edict. I think the proper interpretation requires us to imagine that part of Jesus’s humanity allows him to have a different tone of voice. A friend I discussed this passage with put it the best: Jesus is taunting us.
IF, our Lord says, IF our hands cause us to sin, cut them off. Now, do they? Do our hands – or other members – literally override our brains and make us do something involuntarily like zombies? Do we really lack that much self control? Do we really believe our hands and our eyes cause us to sin?
But, how many times do we use that as an excuse? For objectification if not in its most criminal manifestations, how often do we say things like “boys will be boys” or “my eyes just went that way” – remember, in this passage, sin begins with the gaze. We blame our body parts for actions we really have responsibility for.
We pretend all the times that our hands cause us to sin. But if we’re going to pretend that, we’d better be able to follow through with it. If our hands did cause us to sin, it would be the best thing to do to throw them away. Maybe we should reconsider our excuses. Maybe we should keep the blame where it belongs – in our minds, and in our hearts.
God hates excuses. God hates sin, and God hates excuses.
There is a common trope of men responding to feminist statements by saying “not all men.” Perhaps this is because the man in question has a bit of lust in his heart, and wants reassurance that his lust isn’t as bad, because he hasn’t gone as far with it, because he hasn’t done as much damage with it.
But Jesus here tells us that even a little bit of lust is bad. And I think I’ll go further and say that if you meet a man who tells you that he has absolutely no lust in his heart, they’re committing two sins, because lying is a sin too.
Everyone: man, woman, child, and yes, even infants – everyone has sin in their hearts. Everyone objectifies their fellow humans, whether sexually or otherwise. It’s not because of our body parts misbehaving. It’s because of a disease in our souls. And the faster we can acknowledge it, and not blame our bodies or our habits but take responsibility for it ourselves, the faster we can be healed of it.
As St. John puts it in the Bible in his first general epistle: If we say we that have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, [God who] is faithful and just [will] forgive our sins, and [God will] cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Or, as recovery programs put it: The first step is admitting you have a problem.
There is a cure for these issues in our hearts. But it doesn’t come from excuses, or denial, or from minimizing the issues. It comes through repentance, which is earnest acknowledgment of the problem, and through Jesus’s unconditional love for even sinners like us.