“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Really?

Q.  Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”  Are we supposed to take him literally?

It’s often claimed that when Jesus said this, he was engaging in “hyperbole” or intentional overstatement (exaggeration, if you will), a device that rabbis often used in his time.  We do see Jesus employing hyperbole in other instances, for example, when he said. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  If that is the case here, then Jesus would be saying, “Okay, I don’t literally mean for you to go all the way and pluck out your eye or cut off your hand, just try to keep them under better control.”

But I wonder whether we shouldn’t take him a bit more literally.  The key is in the word “if.”  I think Jesus might be calling the bluff of people who say, “I just can’t help it, my body responds automatically and there’s nothing I can do about it.”  For example—“I just had to look at that pornography, it came up when I was searching for something else (really, really), and once my eye locked onto it, I just couldn’t look away.”

What if a person who made that claim took Jesus literally?  They’d have to admit that even if this truly were the case, they could still keep from sinning by plucking out their eyes—if they really wanted not to sin.  But taking Jesus literally actually would force them to admit, “All right, it’s not my eye that’s causing me to sin, it’s my heart, which needs to change.”

Similarly for a person who said something like, “I just had to take that money, it was left right there on the table with no one watching it, and before I knew it my hand had scooped it up.” If that really were the case, the person could still keep from sinning by cutting off the offending hand—but of course the hand is not to blame, and taking Jesus literally forces us to admit this.

So perhaps this is not just an overstatement or exaggeration that we are supposed to dial back a few degrees, but an astute and literal observation designed to make us look at our hearts and wills rather than blaming our bodies for the wrong things we do—since, as Jesus observes, we actually could do something about our eyes or hands if they really were responsible.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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