You Have Heard It Said
We’re close to the end of this series of articles on the hard sayings of Jesus. We hope these articles have benefited you as you think about these hard sayings and how to square them within the larger contexts of Jesus’ teachings and the Scriptures as a whole.
Several of Jesus’ hardest sayings come to us in the context of His famous Sermon on the Mount. Some of these are hard in the sense that they are hard to understand, but others are considered hard sayings because they are hard to follow, even impossible (eg. Matthew 5:20). This week’s hard saying is seemingly both hard to understand and to apply.
Throughout Matthew 5, Jesus repeats a phrase several times: “You have heard that it was said.” What the audience had “heard” was the law of God found in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. In repeating this phrase, Jesus is reminding the people of what the law stated, or at least what the people thought the law intended.
However, Jesus then goes on to re-apply or even re-interpret these laws. For instance, He references how the law states that you shall not murder, the sixth commandment. Simple enough. Most people know whether or not they’ve broken that law. But Jesus turns up the heat by saying that even if you’ve just been angry in your heart towards someone else, then you’re just as guilty of murder as an actual murderer in the eyes of God.
In the very next paragraph, Jesus turns his attention to the sin of adultery forbidden by the seventh commandment. Again, an easy commandment to know whether or not you’ve broken. Jesus however presses deeper by saying that even those who have looked at someone else with lust in their heart have committed adultery. Jesus was far more concerned with the condition of the heart than the compliance of the body.
And yet, Jesus goes on to say something about the physical body and how it might contribute to the sin of lust in one’s heart:
“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.” (Matthew 5:29-30, ESV)
Certainly Jesus isn’t advocating for self-mutilation or self-amputation. Otherwise, we might all eventually be mistaken for pirates, with eye patches and hooks for hands! If He is so concerned about the heart, why insist that a form of physical restraint, even an extreme form, would be sufficient for overcoming the heart struggle of lust? What does He mean when He gives this instruction, and what does it mean for us?
Though Jesus often advocates for self-denial and self-sacrifice, never does He literally insist that we physically harm our bodies intentionally. So, this can’t be what He means here in the Sermon on the Mount.
In the very next chapter, Jesus mentions the eyes once again.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23, ESV)
Our actions and habits undeniably shape our hearts. There is a very strong connection between the things we experience by way of our senses (sight, touch, hearing), and the response of our hearts. Jesus is teaching us that the things we see, especially things we intentionally seek out, can have an enormous effect on our hearts, for good or ill. We must be diligent to protect our hearts by carefully filtering the external influences upon them. This is the instruction we receive in Proverbs 4:23,
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
But when Jesus tells us to pluck out our eye, or cut off our hand, how do we actually obey that? Thinking rationally about this command, if your right eye causes you to sin and you remove it, you still have a problem: your left eye! If your right eye or hand causes you to sin, surely your left eye or hand are equally capable of leading you to sin.
What Jesus is telling us is that sin is so serious that, sometimes, extreme measures must be taken to war against it. That doesn’t mean that we actually remove body parts or physically harm ourselves. Instead, we consider what sort of extreme measures might be necessary to protect us from finding ourselves in situations that will lead to temptation and sin.
That may mean cancelling your satellite TV or streaming subscription because of how tempted you are to consume content that damages your soul. It may mean having passwords and protective softwares put on your phone or computer to keep you away from inappropriate sites. It may mean breaking off relationships with people who are a source of temptation for you. It may mean inviting several close Christian friends to hold you accountable and regularly ask you uncomfortable questions about your sin struggles.
Serious Sin, Serious Sacrifice
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus raises the bar and knocks out from under us any notion that we can actually attain to the level of righteousness that God requires in His Law. He is simultaneously showing us that the height of God’s law is unachievably high and that the depth of our sin is unimaginably deep.
And yet, the gospel is the good news that though we are more sinful than we can even grasp, God’s love and acceptance of us in Christ is even more than we can imagine. The gospel tells us that our sin is so serious that to pay the debt for it, the infinite Son of God had to die for us. But the gospel goes on to tell us that God’s love is so deep that the infinite Son of God was willing to die for us.
Jesus never calls us to do something that He Himself was not willing to do. Just as Jesus calls us to take extreme measures to put our sin to death, He has taken the most extreme measure to put our sin to death. He calls us to metaphorically mutilate our body in order to overcome our sin, but He was willing to undergo literal mutilation in order to overcome our sin.
Just as there are actions and habits that can leave our hearts susceptible to temptation and sin, there are actions and habits that we can give ourselves to that God will use to transform our hearts. They may be painful and uncomfortable, on the level of spiritually plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand. But the good news about what Jesus has done for us finally frees us and motivates us to do the hard work of putting sin to death, whatever the cost.