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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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3 Answers 3

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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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If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.

This isn't hyperbole (exaggeration), because froma Christian perspective, Jesus is the Truth, and exaggeration is not pure truth, by definition.

The issue is the "If". Compare to John 6:63, "The flesh profits nothing, it is the Spirit that gives life". And, Matthew 15:19, "Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality".

The thing that causes you to sin is not the corporeal body, it is the inward man, and the heart, unforgiveness, offense, bitterness, judgment, covetousness, hatred, etc. Gouging out your eyes would not touch that, but what Jesus is saying is that it is that drastic.

If cutting of your hand could rid you of sin, you SHOULD do it (if only it were that simple). But, it can't. The hand is never truly the thing that offends, and so there is never is an instruction of self-mutilation. The heart is the issue, and the influences in the lives of Jesus' followers the target (others, sources of entertainment, thought-life). It conveys the urgent action recommended to get away from sin. It leaves them to "dig deep" (Luke 6:48), into the issues of their own hearts, and discover their own depravity, come to a deeper repentance and, hence, a greater grace (James 4). And, ultimately, to rely solely upon His Salvation, Jesus Christ.

The usage of the language depends completely upon the "if", but the image it conveys is so drastic and extreme, because the issue of sin in their lives is indeed that urgent. But, the end result is a heart that learns to trust and rely solely upon the Spirit of God within, and no longer upon their "devices".

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I like what you say in general, but I don't know why you say that it isn't exaggeration when the explanation you provide sounds very much like an exaggeration! –  curiousdannii Oct 25 at 11:47
Jesus first insructs in vivid language the urgency. But, the amputation and dismemberment is based on the body part being to blame. There is a culprit, but it isn't the physical hand. You have to cut a little "deeper". –  user6152 Oct 26 at 12:13
Please don't "preach" at readers. Instead, describe your perspective without prescribing it. We're looking for lectures rather than sermons. Please keep in mind that not all of your readers here are Christians. I've made some edits to focus this somewhat, but this answer could still benefit from some additional sources discussing how the original hearers would have understood it. Keep in mind that we stop short of applying the text to modern religious groups. –  Dan Nov 26 at 3:54

Side note: I once heard of a pastor who could not stop from gambling; he cut off his arms to stop gambling. Effective? Yes. Efficient? No.

Going back on track, Jesus uses many parables and hyperboles to mask the true meanings of his words.

Matthew 13:14-16

New International Version (NIV)

14: In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15: For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

16: But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.

Jesus once even stated that he was the bread of life.

John 6:48-59

New International Version (NIV)

48: I am the bread of life.

49: Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died.

50: But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die.

51: I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

52: Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

53: Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

54: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.

55: For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.

56: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.

57: Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.

58: This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Well, obviously, if we take this passage literally none of us ever have a chance at eternal life.

Based on past statements made by Jesus, it's very likely that Jesus was using exaggeration to convey the seriousness of these sins. Evil thoughts give birth to evil acts. What I think Jesus was trying to say is that we must learn to constrain and control our thoughts and minds and make them pure.

Matthew 5:8

New International Version (NIV)

8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

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