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.