A Question I Was Asked:

Does Jesus Really Advocate Self-Mutilation?

The Question:

Can you please explain Matthew 5:29-30 because this has always been a mystery to me. Why would our Lord wish us to gouge out an eye, or cut off one of our hands? Sin is bad but self-mutilation?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay, let us look at these verses:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, 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 hand causes you to stumble, 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. NIV).

You have to check the context! When we look at the surrounding verses, first of all verses 27-28:

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

and then verses 31-32:

"It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce' But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

it becomes obvious that this speaks of sexual sin, but more especially adultery. Barnes wrote of this in this way,

'The right hand is selected for the same reason as the right eye, because it is one of the most important members of the human body. The idea is, that the dearest earthly objects are to be sacrificed rather than that we should commit sin; that the most rigid self-denial should be practiced, and that the most absolute self-government should be maintained at any sacrifice, rather than that we should suffer the mind to be polluted by unholy thoughts and impure desires.'

The Manifold Temptations of the Modern World...Does Our Lord Understand?

In the days of Jesus one could - in many cases - probably go through one's life without even encountering the most serious of temptations.

In our day and age, however, temptations are to be found everywhere; at the bus stop, on advertising hoardings, on magazine and newspaper covers, in the widely-accepted but highly provocative manner in which some women attire themselves. Even governments, in insisting that homosexuality is not evil but simply 'an alternative manner of sexual-expression' which may be freely employed and enjoyed by any who might be interested, are promoting sexual temptation. Suddenly, all of society seems to teach that it is good and healthy to 'do your own thing,' and to 'look for your own personal fulfilment,' and newspaper 'agony aunt' advice columns now (I am told) teach that adultery is not necessarily wrong but is 'perfectly fine for some people at some times.' Respect, decency and modesty, meanwhile, are concepts which are now often simply laughed at.

All of the above mean that nobody who lives in the West can go through life without often encountering horrendous temptations. We should recognise this and also recognise that Satan will not be slow to throw temptations at the Christian. Yet we may be assured that our Lord understands the predicament of Christians in this modern age:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15. NIV).

Of course Jesus' comments here were - and are - a very dramatic and very drastic way of looking at sin. He did this so that His comments would really hit home - and, boy, they really do hit home. It is plainly better that all master their weaknesses (and lust and adultery are especially pinpointed) without any such self-surgery. Sin is not to have dominion over us! Yet the reality is that some - perhaps even many - believers do not master all their problem areas in this present life, but we need go keep hammering away at eradicating these things. Jesus' comments are real and meaningful, however, Christians should understand that in seeking to understand any biblical subject, all biblical references to that subject should be taken into account; for sure, sin is serious and is the reason Jesus had to provide a perfect sacrifice for sin. However all sin (excepting the unpardonable sin), may be confessed to our Lord and we may request His forgiveness, which He will freely offer. Moreover, the true believer will be covered by His bounteous grace. Nevertheless, our Lord wishes to eradicate sin from the lives of His saints. Being covered by His grace does not mean we should go on weakly accepting character-destroying weaknesses. We are expected to put up a defence against the darts of the devil!

So Jesus used vivid imagery here in order to strongly 'hit base,' because He knew that all people seek to carefully cherish and protect their physical bodily parts during this physical life. Jesus is saying, 'sin is more important than your physical bodies.' Now that is a strong approach indeed! Jesus, then, is - effectively - saying, 'this matter is more important and more vital than those parts of a person's physical body which that person will spend their entire lives trying to protect!' Nevertheless, dramatic though it is, this is not all which the New Testament teaches us about sin. There is forgiveness, grace and mercy too. For the Christian, an ongoing attitude of repentance (as and when we fall short), is absolutely vital.

Almost certainly our Lord was using hyperbole (pronounced 'hoop-per-bully,' accent on middle part of the word) in these verses, that is, a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect (as in 'I could sleep for a year,' 'my head was pounding all night' or 'this book weighs a ton'). He wanted to stir and alarm people into taking sin seriously, but He is not advocating self-mutilation which was a practice of the pagans. Yet it is obviously true that to lose a vital body part is less serious than to face eternal condemnation.

Finally, it is interesting that these verses do not appear in Luke's parallel 'sermon on the mount' account (Luke 6). As is now quite well-established, Matthew wrote primarily to Greek-speaking Jews (with their many sensitivities about the law), but the Luke and John gospels have a more universal scope, looking to the Gentile world, and to the future.

Robin A. Brace. July 7th, 2013.