Does Jesus Really Want Me to Gouge Out My Eye or Cut off My Hand?
The Literal Sense of Matthew 5:29–30
Jesus takes lust seriously—even unintentional lust:
In view of the serious nature of sexual sin, Jesus urges extreme measures: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matt. 5:29–30).
This is a challenging message because Jesus’ meaning is so clear: we must do whatever it takes to avoid the sin of adultery. It would be better even to cut off members of the body rather than be thrown, body and soul, into hell forever.
Still, this passage always raises the major question: is Jesus really calling us to mutilate our bodies for the sake of the kingdom? There are two unsatisfying ways of answering this question.
Bad Interpretation #1: “Don’t Take it Literally”
The first unsatisfying way to interpret this passage is simply to insist on a non-literal interpretation: “The point of these admonitions is clear without pressing for a literal understanding of the words.”1 This approach seems to make some sense in that it relieves the difficulty of such a horrifying duty.
This approach does not work well, though, when we remember the overall point that Jesus is making throughout this section: the requirements of the law reach infinitely further than any of us would imagine. If it is true that anger renders us liable to the death penalty (Matt. 5:22), is it so outlandish to believe that we should rather cut out our eyes and cut off our hands rather than go to hell?
We cannot smooth out this passage simply by wishing away its offensiveness. We need a better explanation for what Jesus is saying than to simply wave the difficulties away as “non-literal.”
Bad Interpretation #2: “Literally Mutilate Your Body”
Still, it is also an unsatisfying interpretation of this passage to do precisely what Jesus suggests here. We never read in the Bible anywhere else of people gouging out their eyes to prevent themselves from lusting.
In the only passage that comes even close to suggesting such an action, Paul commends the people of Galatia for their willingness to gouge out their eyes for his sake—but with an acknowledgement that it would not have helped anything (“if possible”), and that they did not ultimately do such a thing (“you would have”; Gal. 4:15).
Clearly, the application of what Jesus says is not for us to gouge out our eyes or to cut off our hands. What, then, should we do with this passage?
The Literal Sense of Matt. 5:29–30: Hyperbole
To begin, while it is not satisfying to label this as “non-literal,” it is right to recognize that the literal (i.e., plain, natural) sense of this passage is a form of speech called hyperbole.
As hyperbole, the meaning is “that whatever hinders us from yielding that obedience to God which he requires in his law, ought to be cut off.”2 It is here, however, that Jesus is pressing us to think through what must be cut off in order to eliminate hindrances from obedience to God.
If it were possible to eliminate the sin of lust by cutting out our right eye, or by cutting off our right hand, wouldn’t that be a sensible thing to do?: “No man hesitates to have a virulently diseased part of his body amputated by the surgeon in order that he may not lose his life.”3
The question, of course, is not whether we would amputate gangrenous sin before it spread to kill the whole body. The question is whether the amputation of a member of the body would effectively accomplish that goal.
Eyes and Hands Don’t Cause Sin
Of course, as Jesus intends us to see, such an action would not solve our problems, since it is “quite possible to be blind or crippled and still lust.”4 Jesus may even be hinting at this conclusion in the way he advocates for cutting out/off only the right eye and the right hand, since the left eye and the left hand would still be capable of leading us into sin all by themselves.5 As Jesus made clear in v. 28, the problem of lust is not generated by the body, but in the heart.
I think John Nolland is on the right track, then, when he writes this:
But perhaps the question of literalism is not quite the right one. The challenge is to go to whatever extreme are necessary to eliminate sin. By taking up dramatic and extreme instances, the text urges such a level of seriousness about avoiding sin that there will be unrestrained commitment to use all possible means to avoid it (with no particular interest in distinguishing between strategies that relate to the inner life, the physical body, or the arrangement of the external circumstances of life). The goal is what is important here, not the means.6
While it is unhelpful to label this passage as “non-literal,” it is fair to ask whether a literal application is what Jesus (literally) intends. So, when we recognize that the proposed solution would not solve the problem, we see that Jesus is making two points in a deeply profound way: (1) we must do everything possible to avoid sin; and (2) bodily discipline—or even mutilation—cannot ultimately solve our problem, since the true roots of sin go all the way down into the heart.
It is with the heart that Jesus insists we must deal, not the body alone.
The Broken Body of Christ
Of course, while we cannot heal our hearts by the mutilation of our own bodies, we must never forget that Jesus came to heal our hearts through the mutilation of his own body. Gouging out our eyes, or cutting off our hands, could never cleanse the impurities of our hearts; however, Jesus’ broken body and shed blood is the only way to purify our souls.
Jesus came to do whatever it takes to purify our desires, even when it cost him the sacrifice of his own body at the cross. We are washed clean, down to the depths of our concupiscent souls, by the shed blood of our Savior.
Brothers and sisters, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So honor God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20).
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1 - 13, ed. David A. Hubbard, Glenn W. Barker, and Ralph P. Martin, WBC 33A (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993), 121.
John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 1 (1848; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 291.
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: The Wartburg Press, 1943), 227.
Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, NAC 22 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 109.
“All excuses which blame the body and man’s bodily nature as though these creations of God make lust and other sins inevitable, a mere function of our bodily being, just the course of nature, end in the absurdities of successive amputations until the whole body is thrown.” (Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, 228.)
John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).