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The passage from the Sermon on the Mount (and see also Matthew 18:8-9) is a familiar one:

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." - Matthew 5:27-30 (NIV emphasis mine)

Was Jesus teaching people to actually take up dismemberment as a way to fight sin? Is he merely speaking in the language of hyperbole? Are eyes, hands, and feet symbolic of other things? Or is the teaching getting at something else? How should these sayings be understood?

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The immediate context is adultery, which occurs in the heart. The adultery enters the heart through the eye, and clears the heart through the hand. Under these circumstances, one would be ceremonially unclean only until evening (Lev 15:16-17). That is, there was no sin under these circumstances in the Law of Moses that would have required blood sacrifice (sin or guilt offering), but Jesus indicated that in fact under such circumstances there was an actual act of adultery, because the sin occurred in the heart in concert with the eye and hand.

Now, is Jesus talking about the actual surgical removal of the eye and hand?

The problem is not the eye or the hand, but the heart. Jesus does not mention that two eyes be gouged, or that two hands be hacked off, which would eliminate the possibility of the sin of adultery from ever occurring again. (The problem is the heart.) So, Jesus is not making an actual reference to the removal of parts of the body, because leaving one hand and one eye (without rectifying the heart) does not eliminate the possibility of a repeat of the same sin of adultery in the heart from occurring again. It is the heart that is the problem.

So the "removal" of the right hand and one eye has a different meaning. That meaning is to block the eye and hand from processing the images of lust (and therefore adultery). As Martin Luther once said, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” What he meant by that was that we cannot give harbor to lust either passively (eye) or actively (hand). We must eliminate the passive and active ways that the sin of adultery therefore can compromise our heart.

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