What Did Jesus Really Mean When He Said “Tear it Out and Throw it Away” in Response to Sin?

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.” -Matthew 5:29

God’s Law was handed to Moses on Mount Sinai during Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. Some 1,200 years later—that is perhaps as much as thirty generations later—Jesus Christ was born incarnate among the Jews in order, as He said, not to abolish the Law but to be the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17).

During the preceding thirty generations, the Law of God had been argued about and had been sliced and diced by ordinary Jews as well as by professionals of God’s intent, such as by patriarchs, priests, judges, prophets, poets, rabbis, and Pharisees and Sadducees. The Law itself, as handed down to Moses, was just Ten Commandments; that’s all. But by the time a lot of slicing and dicing had been done, and some of the arguments had been put to rest, and the forces of rectitude had been assembled into the sanctified and self-appointed leaders of the people, what had originally been 10 straight-forward commands had become the 613 Laws of Mitzvot, by which all serious-minded, faithful, and Orthodox Jews are supposed to live (then and now), and which are set forth particularly in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Disputing the Law

Therefore, Jesus Christ appeared on earth when, as anyone may suppose, there was still a great deal of lawyerly dispute over the exact meaning of any one term or one requirement within the Law. Pious Jews with theological and legal questions turned to thought-leaders such as the Pharisees, and then these same pious Jews chided less pious Jews for not doing what they themselves had done. Regarding Jesus and His followers, many pious Jews did more than chide. Particularly, the pious Pharisees were infuriated by Jesus and His followers.

After all, the Pharisees knew how the Law was to be interpreted—everyone knew that they and the Sadducees ran Jerusalem and Jewish culture—and they had no interest in hearing from this small-town man of the New Way about favoring the Soul-side over the Law-side . . . notwithstanding the rumors that Jesus Himself performed miracles.

Soul-Side vs. Law-Side

By the terms “Soul-side” and “Law-side,” I am calling what Jesus preached as the Soul-side and what the Pharisees commanded as the Law-side. God sent Jesus as the promised Messiah because during the past thirty generations the Jews had done pretty well in their on-going interpretation of what God meant when He gave the tablets to Moses on Sinai. They had done pretty well, but they had not quite gotten the whole of it completely. Their thought-leaders had become good at focusing their sanctimonious attention on the Law-side, but they had done nowhere near as good a job of understanding the Soul-side.

The precision of the Law-side is easier to establish and to understand than anything on the Soul-side. Regarding the Law, you argue about it, and then you decide about it, and then you make a rule about it, and then you instruct everyone to follow the rule. Many people do follow the rule but also many people don’t. The ones who don’t follow the rule argue back at you, and their new argument starts the whole cycle over again. Meanwhile, the focus of the entire enterprise is on preciseness and on the rules. Today, two thousand years later, our society has changed little in this regard.

Jesus came to bring the Soul-side. He preached about this. Early in Jesus’ public ministry, He saw crowds following Him, so He went up on a mountain and delivered what is the longest sermon we have from Him, the Sermon on the Mount. Here He laid out the Soul-side. His sermon encompassed the Beatitudes, salt and light, righteousness under the Law, anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and loving one’s enemies—it’s all there.

“Tear it out.” “Cut it off.”

Jesus’ “tear it out” and “cut it off” advice is most prominently offered in Matthew 5:27-30—during The Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus’ subject was lust—and it is repeated (and somewhat expanded) in Mark 9:43-48.

You have heard that it is 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. (ESV)

The first sentence above expresses the Law-side. It quotes the Seventh Commandment. That’s the Law. But the second sentence expresses the Soul-side. Though it is subtler, it is, in fact, more direct. Under the Law, sexual intercourse with a person other than your wife or husband is adultery—in biblical conception, the adulterer has stolen what he or she does not own and has caused the other person to break a vow of marital purity taken before God. The act is worthy of hellfire.

On the Soul-side, though, there is a difference between desire and intention. The soul was created as a free entity within humankind. It has its own authority and is, therefore, free. John Chrysostom (A.D. 349-407), in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, points out that the soul can sit alone in the mountains and experience sexual desire. Sexual desire is part of human experience. However, sexual purity is not measured by whether one engaged in the act of adultery itself, it is measured by whether the person in question allowed erotic imagination about adultery to overcome requisite purity, whether the would-be adulterer experiences the lust by seeing the object of desire, or even by just sitting alone in the mountains and thinking about it. The would-be adulterer is propelled into lustfulness. Once the imagination is fired by lust, purity of heart is no more, and God, who knows each person’s heart, is offended.

Jesus enjoins the man who gazes at a woman with lust in his heart to tear his eye out and throw it away. This is a horrifying requirement but, as Jesus states, less horrifying than eternity in hell. However, my article today is about whether Jesus means self-mutilation literally.

Did Jesus Intend His Words to Provoke Self-Mutilation as a Response against Sin?

Of course, the idea shocks us. Perhaps Jesus’ purpose is to shock us out of our erotic complacency and our taste for self-justification. So maybe Jesus does mean it—if you stare lustfully at the spouse of someone else, reach up and tear out your eye and toss it away. This is one of the most difficult of Jesus’ dicta for the ordinary person to justify, for most ordinary persons experience lust now and then and not only for their own spouses.

Some early church interpreters seem to shy away from Jesus’ possible literalism here and soften it by making a distinction. They make a distinction between the body member (eye, hand, foot) and the effect of the body member on the person’s soul. It isn’t the eye itself that enflames the lust. The eye merely allows the image of the object of lust to enter the would-be adulterer and his or her soul. The fault is the inflammation of the soul; the eye is a mere accessory.

So for these early Christian thinkers, Jesus’ “tear-it-out” dictum can be categorized as metaphoric. For example, Augustine (A.D. 354-430), in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, likens the tearing out action of an eye to the same action in human relationships between friends and counselors, this way—

“But a counselor in divine matters is actually a stumbling block if, under the guise of religion and doctrine, he is trying to lead us into some pernicious belief.”

Augustine states that such a human relationship must be severed . . . torn out and thrown away.

Yet, Literal Interpretations Did Occur

Literalism in understanding Jesus and self-mutilation did occur. Probably the most famous early Christian self-mutilation, as a preventative of lust, was the self-castration of Origen of Alexandria (A.D. c 185-233). Origen did this in order to free himself of any possible scandalous rumors when he undertook privately to tutor young women regarding theology. He followed Jesus’ implication in Matthew 19:12. Later in life, though, he argued that his action had been extreme and should not be viewed as righteous for possible emulation by those who admired him. Later still, the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) is said to have made a strong stand against any Christian self-mutilation, particularly of the sex organs. (Though in my research for this article I have found references to the existence of that stand at Nicaea, I have not found the text of the Council’s statement itself).

The Purpose of Using Vivid Language

Today, we who read Jesus’ words and take them seriously are understandably alarmed when we are instructed to “tear it out” or “cut it off.” Even as early in Jesus’ ministry as The Sermon on the Mount, there was a troubling question among many Jews who flocked to listen to Jesus—the question regarded His authority. Many of them believed the Pharisees had authority to opine on theological questions, and the Pharisees’ words usually harkened back to the Law of Moses. However, Jesus often ascribed authority to Himself — “Truly I say to you…” And what He said flew in the face of what the Pharisees dictated.

Remember that Jesus said He came to fulfill the Law, which means He was making Soul-sense of what had been narrowly interpreted as Law-sense. On the issue of lust and adultery, He wanted His listeners to take seriously the eternal consequences of damaging their souls and thus limiting their futures to hellfire. To make this point, He used dramatic expressions. Indeed, He caught the attention of His listeners.

Surely some men and woman listening to Him on the Mount had experienced lust when seeing someone attractive with whom they were not morally and legally entitled for sex. Perhaps some had participated in the act itself. Especially, Jesus must have caught their attention. Were they now—they must have wondered up there on the mount—were they now required to tear it out or to cut it off? Or were they now — short of that extreme — were they now being forced to understand the real and eternal consequence of non-marital lust, how it savaged their souls, and how their savaged souls kept them away from eternal bliss?

Note that Jesus used vivid and extreme language at other times as well. He used it, I believe, for its startling effect. He wanted to catch the attention of His listener and to force that person to think deeply about what He was saying, not merely to take it in shallowly. Here’s an example, from Luke 14:26—

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (ESV)

What are we to make of that? What am I to make of that? My parents, whom I loved, are dead, but I have a wife and four children and five grandchildren and a sister, and I don’t hate them, nor do I hate my life. I consider myself a disciple of Jesus. Yet — on the basis of Jesus’ own words — must I understand that I cannot be one?

No. It is incumbent on me to do everything I can to understand what Jesus was really saying when He used vivid and metaphorical language for effect. I am no Pharisee. It would be better for me NOT to strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. And you, too, friend.

How can we help the people in our churches minister to the poor?

I’ve always found it significant that Jesus mentions the poor in his very first sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

We must care about the poor because Jesus did. We don’t have a choice. So how can we help the people in our churches minister to the poor? Here are a few ideas I have; perhaps you have more:

1. Treat the Poor With Dignity.

We’re not smarter, we’re not more talented, and we’re not more valuable than people who are poor. The Bible says, “Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all” (Prov. 22:2). I like to say that our self-worth isn’t based on our net worth.

2. Offer the Poor Opportunities.

The Bible says, “When we have the opportunity to help anyone, we should do it” (Gal. 6:10). As I’ve talked to people in various ministries, they all say that the best way to help the poor isn’t to give them a bunch of money. It’s to give them opportunities.

Maybe people need training. Maybe they need help finding a job. Maybe they need a network of folks who can connect them with mentors and resources. We can teach our members to watch for ways they can give opportunities to the poor.

3. Defend the Poor.

The Bible says it’s our responsibility to care about injustice. We’re called to speak up when we see the poor (or anyone else) mistreated. The poor are vulnerable to abuse. They’re often the ones who get taken advantage of by unfair practices of businesses and landlords. And it’s the poor around the world who are most likely to get sold into slavery.

We can look for opportunities to defend them. In fact, at Saddleback, we’re mobilizing members with legal backgrounds to help us do this.

4. Share What We Have.

This is how we can be the church. The Bible says, “Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and homeless. Give clothes to those in need; don’t turn away your relatives” (Isa. 58:7). We want people to start meeting needs when they find them, not just expect someone at the church to handle them.

A church dispersed can serve many more people than a church gathered. If your church has 100 members for every staff member, your church dispersed has 100 times as many opportunities to help people who are poor than if it’s just left to the staff.

And as we teach people to help the poor, we’re helping them to worship God: “If you oppress poor people, you insult the God who made them; but kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship” (Prov. 14:31).

What Does the Bible Say about Work?

Each week the average adult spends nearly 40% of his or her waking hours working. Given that work occupies so much of our time, it would be rational to expect that God cares about what we produce during those hours and how we go about producing it. In fact, He does. Scripture tell us God Himself worked and that He has entrusted us with important work. In this article, I explore what the Bible reveals about God’s plan for our work.

What the Bible Says about Work

The topic of work comes up at the very beginning of the Bible. In the creation account recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis, we see God at work as He separated the light from the darkness; separated the water to create ground and sky; gathered the waters into seas; created vegetation for the land; made the stars; made living creatures for the water, air and land; and, finally, made the first humans, Adam and Eve. At the end of Genesis 1, God observed the result of His work and we’re told that it was very good.

Genesis 2 provides details of mankind’s first job. God had planted a garden and placed Adam in it “to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). We read that God said it was not good for Adam to be alone so He created Eve to help him. Adam and Eve were to work together to take care of God’s creation in the Garden of Eden. After blessing Adam and Eve, He presented this assignment: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish… the birds… and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28). How wonderful and what an honor it is that God entrusted human beings to take care of His creation.

Is Work a Good Thing in the Bible?

Work, in general, is good. After all, it was ordained by God and Scripture tells us that everything God creates is, in and of itself, good (see James 1:17). Work done well brings a sense of personal accomplishment as we put our God-given talents and abilities to use. When our work helps others, it becomes a way to serve them. God, in effect, designed work so that it might be a blessing to us and to others. The baker who makes bread is a blessing to his customers. The salesperson is a blessing to her customers by guiding them to find the best product or service that meets their needs. The teacher who educates his students is a blessing to them. In each of these examples, the worker likely experiences the joy that comes from doing work that produces something good that benefits others.

On a practical level, work is good because the wages we earn help us meet our financial responsibilities to support our family members, the Church and people God brings to our attention who are in need. Throughout the Bible, we see passages that condemn people who are capable of working and have the opportunity to work but don’t because of laziness (for example, see Proverbs 10:4; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). For society, work is also good in that it contributes to bringing order out of chaos so that people are more likely to experience shalom, a Hebrew word which means a state of flourishing.

When we do work that serves others, we experience joy and contentment from knowing our work matters. Work that doesn’t help others contributes to job burnout because it is a waste of the time and life God has given us. Although most goods and services help people, some are harmful and, as a result, run counter to what God intended for our work. It may be obvious, such as in the case with criminal activities including involvement with defrauding others, prostitution or selling illegal drugs. Harm can also result from legitimate products and services that have been knowingly tainted. A recent example of this is Volkswagen’s illegal emission system that was designed to evade environmental tests while still producing emissions of nitrogen-oxide—a smog-forming pollutant linked to lung cancer—that are up to 40 times higher than the federal limit.

8 Bible Verses about Work

Bible verses that are relevant to work include:

  • Everyone should work if they’re able to. — “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’” 2 Thessalonians 3:10
  • Work for God’s glory and not for personal motivations of money, power or fame. — “…whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31
  • Work with all your heart. — “Whatever you do, work at it with all of your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” Colossians 3:23
  • Pray for wisdom and God’s guidance regarding decisions related to your work. — “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James 1:5 (also see Joshua 9:1-27 which describes the consequences when Joshua and the Israelites failed to consult the Lord and were deceived by the Gibeonites)
  • Pray for the Holy Spirit to produce spiritual fruit in you in the way you go about your work. — “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23
  • Think of your work as an expression of love for God and people. — When asked by one of the teachers of the law which is the most important commandment, Jesus replied: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31
  • Pray for God’s favor and blessing on your work. — “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7
  • Set aside the Sabbath to rest from your work. — “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work… For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Exodus 20:8-11

What If You Don’t Like Your Job?

Work can be difficult at times because we live in a fallen world. In Genesis 3:17-19 we see that because of Adam and Eve’s sin, work is going to be hard. Even good work that we know is worthwhile will require exertion that tires us physically, mentally and/or emotionally. That’s one reason we need a Sabbath day to rest and recover from work.

Sometimes people may find their jobs are especially difficult for reasons related to the tasks to be completed. Maybe the job is not a good fit with your strengths even if you are capable of doing it. Or it might be that the work is beyond your level of competence so that it’s too stressful or so far beneath your level of competence that it’s boring. In these circumstances, it may be helpful to let your supervisor know so he or she can adjust your job responsibilities or provide needed training, mentoring or resources. One possibility is to consider moving to a different position in your organization that provides a better fit for you. If these options aren’t available, then looking outside your organization for new work may be wise.

Another reason people are dissatisfied with their work or want to leave their jobs stems from a breakdown in relationships, such as not getting along with their supervisor, being disrespected by colleagues or a lack of trust among members of a team. In these situations, try to work directly with the party you are at odds with to resolve the conflict or take intentional steps to improve how people relate with one another. If you are unable to make progress, seeking job opportunities outside your employer is reasonable and may be best for you, given the negative effects of chronic stress on your health and your ability to do your work effectively. To help you discern what to do, ask God for wisdom and guidance, and seek the advice of others who will help you determine the best decision.

Presently, Gallup research shows that approximately two-thirds of Americans are not engaged and don’t feel connected to their supervisor or colleagues at work. According to research my colleagues and I conducted, the lack of engagement and connection diminishes employee and organization performance. Before leaving for another job, try to become a positive influence on the culture in your workplace.

Why Christians Should Have the Right Attitude about Work

God cares about our attitudes for they shape what we say and do. If you cultivate an attitude that work is a punishment from God, then you are unlikely to have the enthusiasm and energy to do your best work. Paul was getting at this when he stated: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2).

Having attitudes that are consistent with God’s Word will help us flourish in our work. One example of a Godly attitude is to embrace humility. Paul went on to explain in Romans 12 that we each have unique gifts and roles and that we need one another. He prefaced the analogy of being individual parts of one body by exhorting Christ’s followers this way: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” (Romans 12:3b). Humble individuals know they don’t have a monopoly on the best ideas so they are intentional about seeking and considering the ideas and opinions of others. Having multiple perspectives to draw upon, affirm or challenge your thinking improves the likelihood of making optimal decisions that have the greatest positive impact on your organization.

Is Retirement Biblical?

Retirement is a relatively new practice that’s only been adopted in recent history. It isn’t mentioned in the Bible and many of the faithful whose lives are described in the Bible worked until their final days on earth. It should be our mindset to serve others throughout the course of our lives, including during our twilight years.

God created work for us because it blesses us and others. by doing work that serves others, and doing it with excellence and love, we are participating in building God’s kingdom on earth.