There are times as we read the Bible that we must look behind what is said to grasp what is meant. What exactly did Jesus mean by saying that thing about a camel going through the eye of a needle? I can just imagine someone going through our writings in a thousand years trying to understand what we meant by “Elvis has left the building” or “not playing with a full deck.” We approach our next “Jesus Said That?!” statement with that thought in mind.
Matthew and Mark both record a particularly radical statement made by Jesus. Matthew actually includes it twice. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29–30, NASB95) Matthew repeats Jesus’ statement again in a different context, see Matthew 18:8-9. The context of the first is lust and divides Jesus statement about adultery in the heart and His realignment of divorce. The context of the second are the stumbling blocks of sin, and pride. Mark also records the saying in Mark 9:42–48. The context is again stumbling blocks with a view of causing others, especially children, to stumble or sin.
If Jesus really meant his followers to gouge out their eyes or chop off their hands, then his followers have been super disobedient for 2000 years. A clearer understanding is that Jesus was speaking hyperbolically, providing an extreme example to make a radical point. We talk hyperbolically all the time and don’t think much about it – “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” or “I cried my eyes out.” We aren’t literally so hungry we could eat an entire horse. And as far as I know no one has ever wept so hard that their eye has fallen out. We are using an extreme picture to express our feelings. We are really famished. We are really sorrowful. Jesus really, really wants us to follow Him with radical obedience.
How do our eyes cause us to stumble? What is Jesus trying to get us to consider? Lust and sexual sin are, of course, one of the ways our eyes “cause” us to sin. Our eyes seem to be drawn to the attractive and sensual. The problem isn’t our eyes which simply converts light to a signal our brains can interpret but the mind and imagination that controls our eyes. While blinding our eyes may remove a temptation it doesn’t fix the underlying problem of a lustful imagination. Radical obedience begins by controlling our eyes and where our imagination goes with what we see. It may be putting away things that seem harmless but open a doorway to lust and adultery. But sexual desire is not the only context which Jesus made this call to radical obedience.
We often limit lust to sexual temptations while lust can be about anything we desire more than God. The tenth commandment says in brief, “you shall not covet.” But something looks appealing. We can imagine the good feelings we’d have if we only had it. The interesting thing about coveting is that it doesn’t mean that we actually get the thing, just that we want it. We can covet all kinds of things. We can covet tangible things like a new car or a new dress. We can covet intangible things like the way something would make us feel. We can covet a better job. We can covet people and power. We can even covet being liked, wanted, and appreciated. The problem is when our desires become larger in our eyes than our desire for God.
The last way our eye can cause us to stumble is the way we see ourselves. This could be arrogant pride where we see ourselves as better, stronger, or smarter that we really are. But, we could also have a low opinion of ourselves which can also be a form of pride. We can see ourselves as being so important that we’re standing right next to God. Ok, most of us know better. Sometimes we are better, stronger, or smarter. The challenge is how we handle that. Do we serve others with our strengths or only seek the acclaim of others? Some of us, however, see ourselves as so small that we have to get a ladder to look a worm in the face. Both of these self-images can cause us to stumble and sin. We can think we have it all together or that God doesn’t even know we exist. Both are false pictures.
In the same way as our eyes, our hands can be instruments of sin. Our hands communicate how we might be feeling. Open and outstretched hands indicate acceptance and generosity. But our hands can also be clinched into a fist, ready to express our anger and hate. Anger is a topic Jesus also addressed in nearby verses. ““But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” (Matthew 5:22, NASB95) Is it then a stretch to see that Jesus wants us to “cut-off” our anger.
Our hands can also be used to fulfill our lust by stealing something. We want something so we just take it. Maybe we justify it by saying I deserve it more than they do, or they’ll never miss it. But stealing is stealing. Most of us don’t take things, we know better. But how often do we steal someone’s dignity through gossip? Steal someone’s worth through rumors. Steal someone’s value by failing to thank them for their service. Steal someone’s legitimate authority with hate-filled words. Maybe we’re guiltier than we think.
Lastly, our hands indicate who holds the reigns of our lives. Are we in control or have we turned the reigns over to Jesus? That is really the ultimate point of Jesus’ call to a radical obedience. Are we willing to trust Him to guide our eyes and our hands? Are we willing for the sake of loving Jesus to “cut-off” anything that gets in the way of loving Him more?
Radical Spiritual Surgery
We can safely say that Jesus did not intend his followers to gouge out their eyes or cut off their hands. But He was making an extreme and radical point. Anything that prevents obedience or creates sin in us must be radically dealt with. Sometimes that means “cutting-off” friends and family – not in the sense of shunning but changing the degree to which our relationships affects our choices. We may also need to “cut-off” activities, destinations, habits, desires, goals, and rights. Sometimes it means cutting off something for a season to bring it into proper use and perspective. Sometimes it means cutting something out of our lives for good. The question is whether we’ll trust Jesus with the scalpel.
So, I leave you with these questions. What makes you stumble and sin? What do you need to “cut-off” from your life so that you can be radically obedient in your love for Jesus? Will you trust Jesus with the scalpel?