'Better to Pluck Out Your Eye'
Why does Jesus use such disturbing imagery when cautioning us against sin?
Of all the sayings of Jesus thought to be difficult, or "hard," none are more macabre than his sayings of plucking out one's eye, or cutting off a hand or foot (Matt 18:8-9; Mark 9:42-48). The picture is so grotesque that Matthew, who normally follows Mark, reduces it (from Mark's seven verses to two) and Luke omits it altogether (cf. Luke 17:1-4).
Jesus' description is somewhat reminiscent of Jewish proverbial wisdom. Jesus ben Sira, the sage of the second century B.C.E., warns men not to look at a virgin, lest they stumble and incur penalties on her account (Sir 9:5; cf. 23:8;Pss. Sol.
16:7). We read in one of the minor tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, "Do not permit your ears to listen to idle chatter, because they are the first of the (body's) organs to be burned. Do not eye another's wealth, because it may cast you into heavy darkness and gloom . . . let not your feet hurry you to commit sin, lest the Angel of Death come to meet you" (Derek Eres Zuta
But Jesus' teaching that it is better to cut off hand or foot or to pluck out an eye to avoid causing offense is far more graphic than this proverbial wisdom. After all, the wise sayings just considered warn against allowing eyes, ears, and feet to get one into trouble. They say nothing about cutting them off or plucking them out. What then is Jesus' point and why does he make it by employing such disturbing imagery?
The context provides our first clue. Jesus has warned his followers of the dangers of causing the faithful to stumble, or--simply put--to lose their faith in Jesus' message and mission. Instead of causing someone to stumble, it would be better to tie a millstone around one's neck and throw oneself into the sea; better to cut off a hand, or a foot, or pluck out an eye, and so forth. The point that Jesus is making is that responding in faith to his message is so important, that every distraction and obstacle must be avoided. It is bad enough if one's pride or wealth stands in one's own way (as seen, for example, in Mark 10:23; Luke 16:19-31; 18:9-14), but if one places the stumbling blocks in the way of another, that is far more serious.
Jesus uses extreme hyperbole in other contexts to make the point that the stakes are very high. This is why he says, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Matt 6:24). One's loyalty to God is so important and so absolute, that there can be loyalty to no one else. Jesus speaks of following him in the same way: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).