And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. (Matt. 5:29-30)
This same saying is found in one other passage in Matthew (18:9-10) and in Mark’s Gospel as well (9:4248). What did the Lord Jesus mean?
This passage is widely regarded to he very difficult to understand. Nothing in the context of the three places in which it occurs gives any further details which might help us understand it. This would have been a great place for the disciples to ask the Lord to explain what He meant.
Let’s begin with the easier task of determining what this passage doesn’t mean.
Clearly Jesus was not speaking literally of dismembering our bodies. He had some sort of spiritual application of this illustration in mind.
Most commentators take it that the reference to one’s eye or hand refers to sins in one’s life. Plucking it out or cutting it off is taken to refer to turning from the sins in question.
Most identify the types of sins which need to be turned from as those which the Roman church calls mortal sins: adultery, murder, homosexuality, etc. Rarely are sins like jealousy, covetousness, and hatred mentioned.
I once heard this passage preached in this way: Is there some sin to which you are clinging which is keeping you from God and eternal life? If so, give it up. It is better to give up your sin and go to heaven than to keep the sin and spend eternity in hell.
A number of commentators make similar statements. Witness, for example, the following two quotes. The first is on the Markan parallel and the second on our passage.
“It is better to be a disciple and to enter eternal life (cf. Mk 10:17, 30) in God’s future kingdom (Mk 9:47), and to do so maimed, minus earthly possessions that have been renounced, than to be an unbeliever. An unbeliever retains his allegiance to this world, refuses eternal life with God on His terms, and so will be thrown into hell” (John D. Grassmick,
The Bible Knowledge Commentary, NT Edition, p.147).
“To abstain from even wishing to possess one’s neighbour’s wife is far from being enough. To lust after her, or any woman, is a breach of the commandment. Not only is social purity binding on both the married and the unmarried, whether male or female, but purity of heart (Mt. 5:8) is absolutely indispensable for admission to the Kingdom. so indispensable is it, that no sacrifice ought to be regarded as too great, if it is the only means of securing the necessary cleanness of thought and will” (Alfred Plummer, Matthew, p.81).
Is this sort of interpretation likely what Jesus meant? A consideration of other statements by Him suggests otherwise. To the woman at the well Jesus said nothing about her needing to give up her sinful lifestyle. He offered her living water as a free gift (John 4:10). Jesus said nothing to Martha about needing to turn from her sins. Rather He said that whoever believes in Him shall live even though he dies (John 11:25-26). Jesus was called a friend of sinners because He accepted them as they were (cf. Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34-50; 15:1-2). In His conversation with Nicodemus Jesus gave no mention of turning from sins. The only condition He gave for eternal life was faith in Him alone (John 3:16). He called people to recognize their sinfulness and then look to Him to forgive their sins (Matt. 9:10-13; Mark 2:16-17; Luke 7:36-50; 18:9-14).
F. W. Beare recognized the difficulties with such an interpretation. Note especially the last two sentences:
“If this [Mt. 5:29-30] is to be taken as a ‘demand’ of Jesus, then it must be said that he is demanding the impossible, for it is the universal experience that the sexual impulses are uncontrollable. Like Paul, we can ‘delight in the law of God in our inmost self,’ and yet find ‘another law in our members, at war with the law of our mind and making us captive to the law of sin which dwells in our members’ (Rom. 7:22-23). There is surely an underlying thought here that when we judge others we condemn ourselves. We all stand in need of God’s forgiveness, and we cannot hope to overcome the evil in us but by divine grace (Matthew, p. 152, italics added).
Whatever He meant, Jesus was not teaching salvation by self sacrifice. Jesus taught that the sole condition of eternal salvation is faith in Him alone (John 3:16; 6:47; 11:25-27). Salvation is not of works; there is no room for any boasting (Eph. 2:9; Titus 3:5).
There are several options which adopt a Free Grace understanding of the text. I will address those options next month.