“And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).
If anyone were not yet stunned and shocked by Jesus’ words they certainly would have been by now.
Jesus makes this startling declaration in Matthew 5:29-30 in the midst of what is popularly called the Sermon on the Mount. Since Matthew 5:21 He has been making a comparison and contrast between what the Israelites “had heard” in the Law of Moses and its bare minimum standard of righteousness and what “I say to you,” expressing God’s higher standard of righteousness, the one beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matthew 5:17-20). He first compared and contrasted the command to not kill with the higher standard of not only not hating but even seeking reconciliation and terms of peace (Matthew 5:20-26). Most recently Jesus began contrasting what the Law said about adultery with the higher standard of not even looking upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:27-28). Then He starts talking about personal dismemberment: if the right eye or hand causes a person to stumble, they should remove them, for it is better for one part of the body to perish rather than the whole to be cast into the Gehenna of fire (Matthew 5:29-30)!
Jesus’ illustration here in Matthew 5:29-30 has been one of the most abused and distorted of all the things He said and did. Some people have gone to the extreme of actually blinding themselves or chopping off their hands. Others use this passage to mock Christians in their devotion to God, declaring that if they really took Jesus literally and seriously, they should be dismembering themselves! Is Jesus serious here? Should people really dismember themselves in order to avoid hellfire?
Let none be deceived: Jesus is not actually suggesting that His followers should dismember themselves. While there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust, and the unjust will be cast into the lake of fire, actually tearing out the eye or cutting off the hand will not effectively help a believer avoid stumbling and temptation (cf. John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:11-15). Paul puts the challenge well in Colossians 2:20-23: asceticism does not intrinsically help us avoid the indulgences of the flesh. Furthermore, neither our right eye nor our right hand cause us to stumble; they are but servants of the mind, and the stumbling into sin which would occur is on account of the mind and its decisions (James 1:13-15). A blind man or armless man can still stumble into lust.
So if Jesus does not actually intend for anyone to dismember themselves, why does He speak as He does in Matthew 5:29-30? He speaks so as to shock people. He speaks so as to make clear the severity of stumbling and the temptations of sin. Does the right eye, on its own volition, compel us to lust and covet and thus sin? No, but it is easy to give into the temptation to look upon a woman to lust and to do so frequently. Does the right hand, on its own volition, lead us to take what is not ours? No, but once we have seen with our eyes and have lusted in our hearts it is much easier to reach out and grab what is not for us to have.
These are easy sins to have. Lust has become no less of a problem 2,000 years later; modern man has no lack of opportunity to commit adultery in his or her heart. We are becoming too easily sexually desensitized; what once was recognized as sexual deviance is far too often becoming acceptable or even the norm, and many forms of sexual behavior once generally deemed sinful is being accepted and normalized as well. Pornography and romance novels abound as channels of escape. “Hookup culture” provides easier access to opportunities for sexual behavior. To stand firm for sexual purity and holiness requires profound effort from both men and women, husbands and wives; it is always far easier to give into lusts and desires just like everyone else.
Yet sexual sin has always been easy to pursue; such is why Paul must speak of it constantly (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Galatians 5:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8). And in His own way Jesus is also trying to make this clear in Matthew 5:29-30 by setting forth the severity of the consequences of giving in and following the prevalent sexual currents of society. Lusting might be easy; it might seem fun; yet it condemns the whole body to Gehenna, a vivid illustration of hell based upon the burning trash heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. If it would be better for us to dismember ourselves than to find ourselves cast into Gehenna, then we really need to take these challenges, temptations, and causes of stumbling very seriously!
One thing is for certain: few if any have forgotten Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:29-30. It is a very memorable illustration! We should not miss the point: no, Jesus does not want us to dismember ourselves, but Jesus says what He does as He does for very good reasons, and we should not so downplay a literal application that we diminish the force of the illustration. Sin comes with serious consequences, and lust and other sexual sins are certainly no exception. If it is better to pluck out our eye than to give into looking at a woman with lustful intent, then we should recognize how important it is to make the decision to keep our thoughts pure. If it would be better to chop off our hand than to reach out to take what is not ours, then we should certainly understand how important it is to make the decision to be blameless in our interaction with our fellow men and women. Let us strive to serve the Lord Jesus and avoid Gehenna!
Ethan R. Longhenry