Difficult Passages Series — Matt. 5:29, Mark 9:43-47 for Feb. 24 2010

1.     Why is this passage listed among difficult passages?

People have always wondered whether Jesus should be taken literally or figuratively here when he speaks of gouging out an eye or a cutting off a hand.  Here’s an interesting historical note I found that assures us the problem is not new.

“Shortly after the publication of William Tyndale’s English New Testament, the attempt to restrict its circulation was defended on the ground that the simple reader might mistakenly take such language literally and “pluck out his eyes, and so the whole realm will be full of blind men, to the great decay of the nation and the manifest loss of the King’s grace; and thus by reading of the Holy Scriptures will the whole realm come into confusion.” So a preaching friar is said to have declared in a Cambridge sermon; but he met his match in Hugh Latimer, who, in a sermon preached the following Sunday, said that simple people were well able to distinguish between literal and figurative terms. “For example,” Latimer went on, “if we paint a fox preaching in a friar’s hood, nobody imagines that a fox is meant, but that craft and hypocrisy are described.” 1

(from Hard Sayings of the Bible, Copyright © 1996 by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved.)

2.     How do we deal with the difficulties in this passage?

There are multiple reasons to say that Jesus is speaking figuratively. 

  1. If we ask why Jesus mentions the right eye or hand, we have to answer that it is probably because the right hand was considered more valuable as most people were right handed.  And often our dominant eye is the same one that we are handed too.  So if Jesus picked these for a reason like that, it means his point relates to the item’s importance to us and its influence rather than to the literal body part.
  2. Speaking of an eye or a hand causing us to sin is easily recognizable as figurative expression.  Jesus spoke of how sin comes from inside us, not outside (Matt. 15:18,19).  Our eye or hand does not cause sin, it is our mind and heart that are led astray (James 1:14,15.  Another way to think about this is to think of the fact that it is patently absurd to think that cutting off the hand or gouging the eye would actually do away with lust against which Jesus was preaching in v. 28.    The very absurdity of it forces us to go deeper and look elsewhere for our answer.
  3.  A couple different people at our Bible study observed that this saying seemed to them to be of the same type as his saying about his body and blood;  “My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (John 6:55 NIV).   In both sayings, Jesus makes his point in such an exaggerated way that one is forced to look beyond the literal meaning.  Those listening at that time had the same trouble discerning between literal and figurative.  Finally Jesus pointed out that    “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (Jn 6:63  NIV).   This helped point the disciples past a strict literal reading of his words.     
  4. There is a consistent record in the church of interpreting Matthew 5:29 figuratively.

3.     What are the key truths or inspirational messages of this passage?

1. One important lesson here is this.  Jesus is asking us to remove things in our lives that are sources of temptation, even things that are near and dear to us.   A good OT example is the reward that Gideon received for leading Israel in battle against the Midianites (Judges 8:25-27).  While it started out as an innocent reward, it ended up as a snare to Israel.

2. Another important part of the passage is the warning about the consequences of not separating ourselves from the source of such temptations.  They can result in the whole self being spiritually lost.  Sin that we harbor, at the very least, hinders our prayers and hardens our hearts, stopping any spiritual progress and making us insensitive to God’s further corrections.  Most often sin causes obvious spiritual retrogression and proves much more addictive and enslaving than we had thought.  Here Jesus warns that such a path leads to hell.

So the key question for us to ask ourselves is this;   Are there things in our lives that are causing us to lose spiritual focus; to make wrong decisions; to persist in sinful actions?  In order to take Jesus’ warning seriously, what are we going to do about them?