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.
Today’s reading contains such harsh words. We wonder how gentle Jesus meek and mild could ever get away with making such demands, but he did. He often spoke harshly to his opponents, just as he often gave hard instruction to his adherents. None, though, is as harsh as this.
A Michigan State trooper, who used to attend our church, pulled a man over for speeding one day. That man had only one hand, having hacked the other one off at the wrist because he could not stop masturbating and wanted to follow Jesus more faithfully. Every time I read this piece of the Bible, I wish I had been this man’s pastor before he had done what he did.
Jesus means something less gruesome and yet more difficult, I think, than what our half-handed friend took him to mean. We know Jesus wasn’t speaking literally because none of his earliest friends and followers cut off their arms or eyes or tongues. They were there when he said these harsh things, and they could easily have asked him for clarification. Furthermore, if he did mean for the words to be taken literally, he undoubtedly would have repeated them, and scolded his followers for their failure to understand and comply with his teachings on the Kingdom (as he did in many other situations).
No, Jesus meant these words figuratively. As was his way, he often spoke of one thing while intending another meaning entirely. He used parables, similes, and metaphors. When he spoke of seeds, he meant souls. When he talked about fish, he really meant people. When he spoke about cutting out your eye, he really meant “the way you see the world.”
If the way you see the world causes you to sin, then gouge it out. Change the way you see things.
Ah! That’s so much easier, isn’t it?
Not really. Changing our understanding of the world is superbly difficult. For example, we hold dearly to a host of beliefs and freedoms that are neither biblical nor particularly Christian. Democracy. The Constitution of the United States of America. The right to bear arms. Capitalism. Mortgages. I could continue, but I don’t want to belabor the point. The point, by the way, is that many of the things we call Christian and take for granted as part of our spiritual heritage are actually more American than biblical. These things are not necessarily bad, but we do have to sift through what’s what. When we do discover that Scripture decries some American virtues, it can be very, very challenging to repent, change the way we see the world, and so move into the future.
Our half-handed friend misunderstood Christ, but his misunderstanding may have been easier to solve. His obedience took five painful seconds, followed by five months of itching, healing, and changing bandages. He is unable to “sin” with one hand any longer. But for us to truly understand Christ’s words, we can’t just lop our problem off; we have to be changed from the inside out.
The “eye” and the “hand” in these verses refer to the way we see and do things. If the way you do things causes you to sin, then change the way you do things.
So often our sins are sins of convenience. We drink too much because we walk right by a bar on the way home every day. We waste too much money on beer because it’s right there. We eat too much junk because we’re so busy and fast food is so convenient. We sin because of the way we do things. Our routines inevitably lead us into sinful habits and patterns. We know that the environment matters to God, but the best way to preview our work is to print out hundreds of pages and review it on paper. We know we shouldn’t get sucked back into that old relationship, but we continue to keep our ex on speed dial and never refuse to answer the phone when she calls.
We sin because we are surrounded by traps of routine that we refuse to disarm. We sin because we don’t change the way we do things. But changing the way we do things, even a little, would prevent us from being caught up in sin.
Better to change your cell number and not tell your old boyfriend than to get weak in the knees every time he calls drunk and lonely.
The time for us to change how we see the world and interact with it is right now. Change how you see things. Change how you do things. Those changes may inconvenience you in the short term, but suffering through short term change is far better than continuing to be ensnared by the same old sins that have been tripping you up for years.
The alternative is to chop off your hands and gouge out your eyes. But what will you do when you run out of eyes and no longer have hands and still cannot stop falling into the same old sin?
This post is from Seasons of Christian Spirituality.