“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right eye causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Matthew 5:29,30
Some years back, when I was newly married, a dear friend phoned to say she wanted me to be the first to know her news, and that she needed to tell me in person. Over a cup of coffee in my dining room she shared that she and another friend from seminary were running away together. The plans were well underway. They were to leave that same week, each from unhappy marriages with children (she to an “abusive” second husband, and he, to a woman with a chronic medical condition for whom he had been caring for years on end). They both had been on track to ordination and were ready to risk potential fall-out- all because they were in love.
At the time, I had done almost everything to keep my jaw from dropping; but after listening to my friend’s happy, breathless revelations and then asking whether she was sure she was doing the “right thing,” I had scrabbled together a few hollow, confused statements of congratulation and condolence. What was there to say, really? Their train had departed. They were on their way and there was no stopping them.
Since then, time and experience have only deepened an appreciation for the complexities and challenges that most marriages face. Bitterness can leaven the sweetness of even the happiest of marital relationships. Tragedy can hit in a marriage just as it can anywhere else, and we, being broken people, can “fall away” in the face of it (be it a love affair, an addiction, the death of a child, or a chronic illness, for example). Few of us have been untouched by the ravages of broken marital trust and divorce.
Which is why I confess that I have been procrastinating a bit on this saying as it pertains to marriage and adultery. Because there is something harsh and uncompromising-sounding about Jesus’ words here. Gouged-out eyes and severed limbs are hyperbole. They are not meant as literal commands. Still, the intentional force of Jesus’ language hits hard and close to home, especially in a time when the prevailing mantra governing sexual ethics is “do what feels good.”
So if Jesus is not speaking literally, what is he referring to when he uses this powerful imagery?
The previous verses (vv. 27,28) give an indication. There Jesus begins with a reminder of the law against adultery only to subvert and amplify our understanding of adultery: “You heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you: everyone who gazes at a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The problem? Lust. And, Jesus is talking about the kind of lust that lingers and takes root in a person’s heart, so that it gradually corrodes a person’s soul and relationships. So that it eventually lands them in “hell,” and this “hell” was an actual place called “Gehenna,” which was a big garbage dump just outside Jerusalem where people sent their refuse and trash to be burned.
It would be better to do whatever it takes to avoid the fate of those who, like “the chaff that the wind blows away” (Psalm 1), self-combust (and in some cases take others with them).
It would be better to lose an eye or an arm than to watch your life go up in flames.
It would be better to live among the walking wounded than to become a casualty to lust.
This fact does not change the reality that letting go of or putting an end to the thing that is causing us to lust can hurt a whole lot. It may even feel a bit like severing a limb. Or, gouging out an eye. But Jesus’ words are as unmistakably discomfiting today as they were in Jesus’ time. They raise our moral horizons from a mere “getting by” with what is lawful, to a living more abundantly in a way that best reflects God’s glory in us.
“I have come so that [you] may have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus says (John 10:10). There is a sense in which when we are tempted to lust, we must simply trust His words. We must believe that His way is really best for us- even as we acknowledge where we may have fallen short. To do this, we may have to put to bed our postmodern misconception that what makes us feel good is actually abundant life.
Thankfully, too, the One who issues this warning is the very same One who judges and redeems. When we fail, and many of us have and will, we also have the promise of One who has himself descended into that place called “hell”- that “nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38). That is a promise to cling to, like an unbreakable vow from the One who is wedded to us forever and loves us most.
Stay tuned for the next in our series, “Weird Jesus Sayings.”