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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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up vote 9 down vote accepted

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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One-eyed and one-handed people aren't immune from sin (though zero-headed people are!) So Jesus' teachings in this passage shouldn't be read as a practical method, but instead intended to demonstrate the seriousness with which we must attempt to deal with our sin: if gouging our eyes would fix our sin (even though we know it won't) then we should not hesitate to do so.

Jesus never gives us any genuine silver bullet for our fight against sin, so there must not be one, or else he surely would've told us! There's no easy or permanent or universal or even approximately reliable solution for removing the sin from our lives this side of heaven. But we must still treat it seriously, and we can know that God will help us regardless.

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Jesus was using hyperbole - a literary device, an exaggeration, to get a truth across. Even if someone has no eyes and no hands, it still doesn't stop them lusting after others because sin arises from the heart - Jesus obviously knew this and taught it elsewhere in the Scriptures. Jesus used this literary device to emphasise the seriousness of sin. It would be better to end up in heaven physically maimed, than end up in hell with both eyes and both limbs. The English language teems over with literary devices to get our point across. Take the expression 'it's raining cats and dogs' we know it isn't literally raining cats and dogs - but the rain is coming down so heavily, the weight of it is tantamount to cats and dogs falling on our heads. Literary expression used = cats and dogs. Truth it's meant to portray = it's raining heavily.

Literary device used by Jesus = pluck out your eye

Truth it's meant to portray = cease from sin because sin will take you to hell, but it's better to end up in heaven maimed than have physical wholeness and end up in hell.

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I'm reminded of when the mini-skirt first came out and the preacher said that whoever looked would be struck blind. I used to walk around town with one eye closed because I was only willing to risk one eye! Not!

Jesus' point was that there was no excuse for sin and that his followers were to resist sin even to the point of shedding their own blood:

Heb 12:3 Think about the one who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you may not become tired and give up. Heb 12:4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

This "no matter what" is illustrated in the way that S, M and A risked death rather than compromise:

Dan 3:16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar, "It's not necessary for us to respond in this matter. Dan 3:17 Your majesty, if it be his will, our God whom we serve can deliver us from the blazing fire furnace, and he will deliver us from you. Dan 3:18 But if not, rest assured, your majesty, that we won't serve your gods, and we won't worship the golden statue that you have set up."

And Paul:

Act 21:13 Then Paul answered, What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. Act 21:14 And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done.

Rom 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of [FOR] Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? Rom 8:36 As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." Rom 8:37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

And all the saints:

Rev_12:11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.

So the believer is to be willing to endure the loss of life and limb in order to be faithful to God.

But he goes even further suggesting that inflicting damage on one's own body is worth it if it keeps you from sin:

Mat 19:9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery." Mat 19:10 The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." Mat 19:11 But he said to them, "Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. Mat 19:12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it."

I'm reminded of the scene in a certain movie where the protagonist saws off their own thumb in order to escape handcuffs, so they will live. It was a difficult but wise choice.

But self mutilation was not the way he taught that people were to deal with sin in a general sense. Others, including Origen considered self-mutilation a duty:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/scholarsandscientists/origen.html

The context of Jesus' teaching was that of contrasting "binding and loosing" with "obedience". He was saying that the law was not invalidated because what it demanded was inconvenient or "impractical" as he suggests the priests would opine:

Mat 5:17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish [parse into do this but don't worry about that] the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish [parse into do this but don't worry about that] them but to fulfill them [restore their integrity]. Mat 5:18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Mat 5:19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Mat 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

SUMMARY

So his point is that obedience to the Torah was to be "perfect" like the father in the sky is perfect, not that temptation should routinely be remedied by self-mutilation.

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You've got it all wrong because you are answering the eye and hand instructions from the viewpoint of a Pharisee.

First, there was not a single Christian at the Sermon on the Mount.

Second, it was still the Old Testament/Covenant. Jesus was speaking to Jews who knew nothing else for getting right with God than their conduct. Jesus was shortly to introduce Himself as the Once-For-All perfect Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

That means Jesus was (in effect) saying, "If you are trusting in your good works to get you righteousness enough for heaven - more righteous than those Pharisees on yonder hill, and as righteous as God Himself, then I will take every one of the Big Ten and magnify them beyond your capability to obey. Lusting becomes adultery. Anger becomes murder. Love your enemies. Give your coat to the thief who took your robe", and etcetera. Those Jews instantly knew that good works would never suffice. Jesus was jerking the works rug from under their feet and replacing that false rug with God's Grace.

What wonderful news! No more animal sacrifices! No more rules and regulations! This Messiah wants our belief in Who He is and what He will do for us! The burden is lifted! Liberty to the captives!

But - if you would rather play the Pharisee and make the hand and eye represent something else, and you would rather get your post-salvation sins forgiven by forgiving others, re-dedicating, asking and begging God to forgive you, repenting of your sins (only one place in the KJV where a person did that is Judas in Matthew 27:3, and still went to hell), confessing your sins as you go, then that is your choice. You are believing in a "different Jesus." That is fatal.

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I'm very grateful for your participation here. Please keep in mind that this is not a Christian site. Be sure to check out what makes us different from other sites that study the Bible. – Paul Vargas May 5 '15 at 3:19

In short, to pluck out the eye here, symbolizes to stop contemplating the things that tempt you. As for hand, to stop doing things that bring about temptation. To prove this, imagine a person has cut out his eye because he could not stop lustfully looking at women. But in his inward imagination he continues to lust after the images of women that he still remembers. But is this not something that is as evil as the real thing, according to verse Matthew 5:28? Yes. How then would the act of tearing out the eye help here? Would it not be a useless superficial act, while the inward part is full of dead man's bones, as Jesus put it?

In general, Bible is packed with analogies, and care must be taken to not take things literally that aren't meant to be taken literally. This requires good knowledge of the entire Bible, since oftentimes a full piece of truth is scattered around, and a person is required to "search the Scriptures" in order to gather the puzzle pieces. In Matthew 13:34 we can read: "All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable". I don't believe Matthew 13:34 refers to unbelievers, but rather those believing in Jesus, since the crowds contained believers as well. As for unbelievers and this verse, there do exist people who read the Bible who do not profess themselves as Christians. This is how it works: we "hear"/read the Bible/Word/Jesus as we read the Bible (this includes the entire Bible, since the entire Bible is the Word/Jesus), and then in our private, inward part the Holy Spirit explains the meaning. This is illustrated by Jesus showing to his disciples the meaning of his words later in private.

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