CUT OFF YOUR HAND?

By Michael Riley


If your right eye offends you, [then] cut it off and throw it from you...
if your right hand offends you, [then] cut it off and throw it from you.
— Matthew 5:29-30

In the vast expanse of the Scriptures few have caused more heartache, fear and anguish than these words of our Lord. The directive is impossible to carry out. Those upon hearing or reading these words for the first time are left, I suspect, utterly aghast. Reactions from "are you nuts?" to "if this is Christianity, then I want no part of it" would not be much of a surprise. Was Jesus really establishing such a harsh rite or commandment? Are we to take His words literally?

WHY NOT?

Over the years I've read many commentaries on these passages and have never found solace in any of them. Matthew Henry's commentary is typical. For example, he stops just short of taking the words literally-- but doesn't explain by what authority he does so. He states:

It is a severe operation that is here prescribed for the preventing of these fleshly lusts... if there were no other way to restrain them (which, blessed be God through His grace, there is), it were better for us to pluck out the eye, and cut off the hand than to indulge them in sin to the ruin of the soul. And if this must be submitted to... much more must we resolve to keep a constant watch over our own hearts... so [we ] walk in the Spirit, as that we may not fulfill the lusts of the flesh; and this will be as effectual [emphasis mine] as cutting off a right hand or pulling out a right eye; and perhaps as much against the grain to flesh and blood; it is the destruction of the old man. ( Matthew Henry, p.1224)

Mr. Henry-- in the light of applying such an obviously draconian "solution"-- engages in a bit of sleight-of-hand, or so it seems to me, in order to shift the focus off the clear wording to engage in self-mutilation in defeating sin to the daily application of God's grace to defeat sin. He argues that the flesh will be as equally amenable to correction by God's grace as to the cutting off a member or two. In essence, he "spiritualizes" the words of Jesus and seeks escape of the harsh directive by having one walk in the grace of God. Those who have been accused of promoting "greasy grace" as mankind's only hope of salvation-- and have taken loads of abuse for so doing-- might be somewhat bemused by this commentator's desperate situation and the corresponding attempt to explain away the harshness of these scriptures through the use of "grace."

Even when the best attempt to lessen the severity of Jesus' teaching is employed, one still cannot be easily reassured that Jesus, if here, would agree with such attempts to "explain away" His bold and clear words. (Are they really that clear?) And if we think Jesus would actually mean what He seems so clearly to say, would not our fear of Him-- and not our affections for Him-- become paramount in our minds? Would such a state of existence actually be better for us? Would our relationship with Him actually improve? If you are like me, you almost have to feel sorry for this commentator-- and a thousand others just like him-- who does the best he can to explain what-- in any other book-- would clearly be an intolerable and impossible situation. I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here.


A "HARD SAYING"?

As time went on, no one could remove from my mind the disquieting effect these words created. How could a God of love make such an unrealistic set of demands? After all, He did create the world as it is, didn't He? He created our bodies and gave us our senses as well as our faculties, didn't He? Yet, now, after so equipping us in weakness--for our flesh is indeed weak--His demands would bid us become cripples to stop sin! Further, His words here are not at all consistent with His own actions! What did He do when he was here? He healed people! He restored sight, hearing and strength to limbs long rendered useless by disease or other frailty. Now, would He bid His followers down through the ages to voluntarily cripple themselves--to saddle themselves with the very disabilities He so graciously relieved during His presence on Earth? At the very least, one could be forgiven for throwing up one’s hands and exclaiming, "This is a hard saying. Who can hear it?"

Just what would the world look like if Christians actually obeyed this commandment literally? (It's really too depressing to contemplate, don't you think?) While, thankfully most do not, unfortunately, some have taken these words literally. To say that I have been troubled by these words is an understatement, to say the least. I suspect, I am not the only one who has been troubled by these words of Jesus. So you might be able to catch a glimpse of my joy when a solution presented itself which cleared up this matter in its entirety!

The reality is that when this Scripture is translated properly, there is no need to escape anything. There is no draconian directive to contemplate or even to obey. No decision to make. One can celebrate God's grace without deciding between it and self-mutilation.

"But God who is rich in mercy" alleviated my sorrows, mistrust, and fear through, of all resources, an intermediate Greek grammar book called Greek Grammar--Beyond the Basics by Daniel B. Wallace. I had been studying Greek for five or six years when I came across this book. The author covered many aspects of tense, mood and other aspects of grammar in the koine (common) Greek of the New Testament including conditional sentences such as the one used in our opening Scripture. I have quoted from his text in its entirety so that the reader can fully appreciate his insight into the grammar of this verse. I will provide the necessary background for the reader to understand conditional sentences--albeit in a shortened discussion after Mr. Wallace's discussion of this type of verse:


DANIEL B. WALLACE

"Jesus often put forth a number of challenges to current Jewish orthodoxy, such as that appendages and external things are what defile a person. Reading the text in light of that motif yields the following: "If--and let us assume that this is true for argument's sake--your right hand offends you, then cut it off and throw it from you!" The following line only enforces this interpretation ("For it is better for you that one of your members should perish than that your whole body should be cast into hell"). Jesus thus brings the Pharisees' view to its logical conclusion. [emphasis mine] It is as if he said, "If you really believe that your anatomy is the root of sin, then start hacking off some body parts! After, all wouldn’’t it be better to be called 'Lefty' in heaven than to fry in hell as a whole person?" The condition thus has provocative power seen in this light. Just the opposite of Jesus' affirming that appendages cause sin [emphasis mine] (as many have assumed, since a first class condition is used here), he is getting the audience to sift through the inconsistency of their own position. It is not the hands and eyes that cause one to sin, but the heart." (Greek Grammar--Beyond the Basics; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House 1953 pp. 679-712)

That last comment brings up another piece of evidence in the discussion of the true meaning Jesus was trying to get across to his audience. To assert that sin lives in appendages would seem, at first glance, to contradict another passage which equally asserts that sin is a matter of the heart. "Peter said, 'Explain the parable to us.' 'Are you still so dull?' Jesus asked them. 'Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man "unclean". For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man "unclean"; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean'." (Matthew 15:15-20)

Based on this, then it seems clear that Jesus does teach that sin is a function of the human heart and not our members and, from other passages, we learn that He is the only cure for that problem. This would have been the logical outcome of correcting of the orthodox position once they realized sin is really a matter of the heart, not of the eyes or hands. And once men realize that sin is a matter of the heart, then turning to Him becomes our only solution. So the searcher, skeptic, agnostic or atheist--when confronting these two dissimilar instructions--might legitimately enquire as to what the correct teaching is. Does sin live in the members, the heart or both?


CONVERSION OR AMPUTATION?

To answer this question, we might first notice how Jesus cradles the assertion of sin existing in the eyes or hand in the middle of the protasis of a conditional sentence whereas in the above scripture (Matthew 15) sin's existence in the heart is given as a statement of fact. Put another way, if the solution for sin that lives in the eye or hand is to cut it off, then it must be equally true that the solution for sin living in the heart is to cut out the heart--in short, to commit suicide. This is the logical conclusion of the orthodox thinking of the Pharisees in Jesus' day. And it's this fallacious thinking He wanted to correct.

Now let's consider conditional sentences briefly. Most English-speaking people are familiar to some degree with the if-then structure of language. The if portion of the statement is called the protasis. The then portion is called the apodasis. The usage of this structure is very broad, running the gamut from making simple connections in meaning to crafting rhetorical and logical expressions of thought i.e. arguments. (I am not referring to the heated exchange of words here.) The Greek of Matthew 5:29-30 depicts what is called a first class condition type. Grammarians have noted that four such distinct conditional sentence types exist in the Greek New Testament. Wallace asserts, "In the first class condition the conditional particle turns such a presentation into a supposition." [Emphasis mine] Further, when translating a first class conditional sentence, ei [if] should never be translated with the word since because the Greek had several words for since and no doubt our Lord could have used them if He had wanted to. The young man in endnote #6 (see endnotes) lost his eye because he translated the Greek of Matthew 5:30 with the word since. What would have been useful to the young man--and would have saved his eye--was to see that, "There is great rhetorical power in if. To translate ei [if] as since is to turn an invitation to dialogue into a lecture." [Emphasis mine]

In short, Jesus was engaging in persuasion, in reasoning, in dialogue! He not only wanted His listeners to focus in on the logical problems associated with what they currently believed, but He also wanted to encourage them to think, to reason and to come to the correct conclusion on their own. He did not take a sledge-hammer approach to teaching here. The Lord wanted to "correct" their view of reality and thus bring their orthodox position into line with the reality He had set up in this world. He, thus, reasoned with them. What an amazing and humble God we serve that He should even consider reasoning with those He has created.

I have no doubt that when the time is right, God will have no need to use such restricted methods to get His point across--"but then face to face." Until that time, His servants are charged with engaging men's minds, wills and emotions with persuasion and reason. This, ultimately, is what we see in Matthew 5:29 and 30--not a directive to engage in self-mutilation.


CONCLUSION

It has seemed to me for a long time that many attacks on Scripture have arisen out of ignorance caused by the failure to correctly understand what it teaches. Such misunderstandings invariably arise from weaknesses in translation from one language to another. I admit freely that Scriptures like Matthew 5:29-30 have been instrumental in causing such misunderstandings, but I also maintain that when properly understood, they fit in perfectly well in the overall opus of Scripture. Part of our service to the Lord should be spent ensuring that those we have influence with should get at least a fair hearing on "difficult" Scriptures such as this one. The last thing we should do is to let any interpretation of Scripture go unchallenged which would cause ourselves or any rational person to walk away from our Lord . Satan, I should think, rather likes the darkness, fear and mistrust which the orthodox interpretation of this scripture generates, but I don't think we should help him or his efforts.