Jesus offers an abundance of wisdom on how to live simply and generously, and what to think of your possessions and finances. Each day we're picking a chapter and verse out of the Gospel of Matthew to talk about.
Today’s passage might be the toughest one we’ll cover, taken once again from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this is without a doubt the most extreme thing Jesus ever said:
"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." (5:29-30)
Wow. Tear your eye out, cut your hand off? Eesh. Before you go Kaylee Muthart'ing yourself (too soon?) let me unpack that... We have categorical, empirical, absolute textual proof that Jesus is only speaking figuratively here. Tons and tons of people sinned around Jesus and he never once made any of them cut off any ‘members.’
See, Jesus always says the exact right thing to his audience. He knows that sometimes the only way to get someone’s attention is to say something extreme. That’s not to say that Jesus doesn’t mean what he’s saying here, or that he’s speaking carelessly, flippantly, he's just speaking in a manner that will perfectly hit home with the person he's speaking to.
In this case, when we examine the full passage, Jesus is talking primarily to a group of men and he's talking about sex. He just got finished explaining that, "You've always heard it said, 'Do not commit adultery,' but I'm telling you that if you so much as look at a woman with lust in heart, you've already committed adultery."
That's extreme. And that would have immediately caused every man in the audience to perk up. Because, what has nearly every man in human history done? We've all looked at a woman and thought, Oh geeze goodness. That's the G version.
Jesus catches their attention and then says the most extreme thing he could possibly say to an audience like that, to really pound home his point. "If you're having problems keeping your eyes above her neck, maybe you should tear those puppies out. Get rid of them."
That's what Jesus does—he connects with his audience to say exactly what they needed to hear, exactly how they needed to hear it, to maximize the effectiveness of his teaching at all times.
Take for instance the Samaritan woman he encounters in John 4. He tells her to go and get her husband, to which she replies, "I have no husband." Then Jesus, showing that he already knows her heart, her past, and her intentions, says: "The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true." He says something extreme to stun her by demonstrating his intimate knowledge of her past.
Or take for example the rich young man that Jesus encounters in Luke chapter 18. The young man asks, "What do I have to do to be saved?" and Jesus responds, knowing this man loves his possessions far more than he'll ever love God, "Sell everything you have and give to the poor."
Jesus isn't telling all of us to sell everything we have. He's speaking directly to that young man and he's speaking in an extreme, objective manner to shake him from his pride, arrogance, complacency, and greed. This is one of Jesus' oratorical tactics—say something crazy that only a few people will understand, those who needed to hear it the most.
I'll give a third example: In Matthew 16, the disciples forget to pack bread for their daytrip. They're afraid Jesus will find out about their mistake. Seemingly randomly, Jesus says, "Beware of the bread of religious people." And the disciples are like, "Oh crap he knows we forgot bread..." and then Jesus goes, "Guys. I don't care that you forgot bread, don't you remember I literally just made bread out of thin air for that crowd a few days ago?" (Jesus had been teaching a large crowd and they got hungry, so he fed everyone in the crowd from just one boy's sack lunch).
Jesus knew they were worried about bread, but he wanted to teach them a much more important lesson about how the religious establishment (called the Pharisees) often use their religion with bad motives. So, knowing his audience, he said, "Beware of the lies those religious people are feeding you." Only, he said it in such a way as to immediately grab their attention. This is why Jesus is a master teacher.
Ok, back to tearing eyes out. Plenty of Christians, in the name of piety or an ascetic sort of idealism, have acted literally on Jesus’ words here, and I guess I admire their devotion. But Jesus never asked them to mutilate themselves and I’m certainly not joining any of them. Origen, for instance, an early Christian theologian, actually castrated himself in the name of piety!
I think we can all agree that’s taking things a little too far. There are also plenty of instances in Scripture where people did the opposite of what Jesus said and he was totally fine with it. I’ll name one such instance, much later in this same book of the Bible:
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.”
But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her. (26:6-13)
To get the full picture and prove my point, you’ve got to read the context, the end of chapter 25 before the passage above. I'll summarize it for you. Jesus was commanding his disciples to serve the poor. Feed them, clothe them, give the thirsty a drink, welcome the stranger into your home. And Jesus says this famous line, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you’ve done for me.”
In other words, if we come to the aid of the poor, needy, orphaned, widowed, anxious, ill, and oppressed, we’re serving Jesus as much as we’ve served them. That's what's so cool about Jesus' teachings, and we so often forget it. He only gave us two commandments: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.
The cool thing is that we can kill two birds with one stone, that is, the act of loving your neighbor as yourself is in itself an act of loving God. "Whatever you did for the least of these, you've done for me." So to bring it back around, the disciples have that idea in their heads—Jesus says to love and serve the poor—when a woman walks up and breaks an expensive bottle of oil to bathe Jesus.
This was an offering of love, the gift of what was most likely that woman’s most valuable possession. The disciples—again, with Jesus’ own words fresh on their minds—indignantly decry the woman’s act: “We could have sold that and given all of the money to a homeless shelter!”
How many times have you heard a skeptic say that, that all the money you're spending on _________ could be used to help those in need? The intention is wonderful. But remember what we talked about yesterday, that Jesus values mercy over ritual?
This woman gave without shame, without fear of how weird it must have been to have some lady bathe your Rabbi in perfume at the dinner table, she gave from a sacrificial and willing and joyful heart. And she gave everything she had. That’s well worth an exception to Jesus’ commands.
See what I mean now, when I say that there are instances in the Bible where people do the opposite of what Jesus said and he was fine with it? Yes, Jesus said "if your eye is causing you to sin tear it out." He also said, "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light."
What he means in both instances is that what we choose to look at can dramatically affect our minds and our well-being. He means, take drastic steps to ensure that you aren't fixating on harmful things. Christians like to make the same mistake the disciples made, treating everything so black and white.
That's one of the reasons we're so divided as a nation right now. No one on the religious right knows how to compromise and no one on the liberal left seems to know what the word 'tolerance' means, and no one on either side will let anyone be content to hang out in the middle. In the gray areas of this, the human experience. I digress.
Ok, back to cutting hands off. Here’s why this is such a timely and meaningful message to us today, to those like us who desire to live simply. For weeks, I’ve been railing against the negative effects of social media.
Snapchat streaks are redefining our friendships, picture-perfect Instagram posts eat away at our self-image, Facebook is fragmenting us as a society, segregating us into our group’s echo chambers and making us more divided and more partisan and more angry at those who aren’t like us, Youtube is cutting into our sleep.
These so-called 'services' have a profound effect on our attention spans, our happiness, and our sense of self-worth. If your Facebook profile causes you to hate your fellow man, cut it off. Delete it. If your Instagram feed makes you hate yourself, cut it off. Delete it.