This is one of the most misunderstood verses in the bible. Was Jesus really commanding self mutilation?
Jesus liked to use shocking, provocative language to make His hearers sit up and listen. A good technique, because you certainly wouldn’t forget what He had said, which was very useful in a culture that had an oral tradition with no books around. The technique that Jesus was using was called ‘Hyperbole’ this means to make extravagant statements or claims, which are not to be taken literally. It is the opposite of understatement. Jesus used this technique on a number of occasions, for example “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (Matthew 23:24) or the famous “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.” (Matthew 19:24)
Another reason it should not to be taken literally is the logic of tearing out just one eye. One could just as easily lust with the other one. Lusting can be just as strong in the thought life with both eyes closed. No, Jesus was referring to the seriousness of sin. We cannot play ‘fast and loose’ with what we look at with our eyes. To avoid sinning we are to deal radically with the problem. As I said last week and previously, it is an issue of the heart. It is the heart that makes the decision to take a lingering look, to dwell on what shouldn’t be dwelt on and defy the purity that God requires. Some images you can’t help seeing, but it’s what you make a choice to linger on that is at issue here. I find Job’s attitude useful from the Old Testament “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman.” (Job 31:1) (NIV)
One of the interpretations of the first part of this verse is “If your eye causes you to stumble” The Greek word for stumble is ‘skandalizo’ where we get our English word scandalize. It does not mean to trip up like you nearly fell over. It means to cause to do wrong. This word was commonly used for a stick put in a trap used for bait. When the prey would enter the trap the ‘skandalon’ would snap shut the trap, catching the animal. This is just the sort of meaning which Jesus was conveying. We look at things that we shouldn’t and suddenly we are trapped!
Finally, the warning is strong. Jesus did not pull any punches when he said that it would be better for our body to be thrown into hell. Jesus talked about hell many times. He was referring to a valley outside Jerusalem called Hinnom where the rubbish from the city was burned. It was considered a place that was cursed because it was the site where ancient worshippers offered their children to be burnt alive to the pagan god Molech. After king Josiah pronounced the place unclean (2 Kings 23:10) it became the town rubbish tip and because of the constant fire and smoke, it became a vivid picture of hell’s eternal fires.
This week’s subject may be really difficult to take action on, but if we are struggling, act we must. We need to determine in our hearts that we are going to change and ask the Holy Spirit to help us. Another excellent way to deal with this kind of sin is to be accountable to someone. If Jesus felt it necessary to warn about the fires of hell, it must be an important subject that demands our full attention.