Are We To Take This Controversial Bible Verse Literally?

“And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” Matthew 18:9

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This passage is very difficult. How are we to take it? First, it must be understood in context. This verse is directly related to an earlier passage in Matthew (Mt. 5:29-30) concerning the sin of adultery in which he uses the same figure of speech. It is to be understood, in that case, in relationship to sexual immorality. If it is taken in absolute literal terms, then, in these days of sexual license it would seem that there ought to be an awful lot of people who had, by the grace of God, come to realize the error of their sinful sexual ways, walking around with missing hands and eyes. In the case of today’s verse, which uses the same metaphor, it is to be understood in relationship to the idea of causing the innocent to sin.

Are we to take this incredible action literally? Are we to believe that Christianity has codified these actions as a legitimate punishment on those who have been found guilty of sexual immorality, or for having led the innocent astray? Are we to take this as an argument for some equivalent of Sharia-like law in a Christian context? Christian theology and practice does not support this interpretation. What is Jesus’ intention here then?

It is clear that the language being used is hyperbole. It is a figure of speech that uses exaggeration to emphasize a deeper and more important truth. In this case Jesus’ hyperbole concentrates our attention on the fact that we should let nothing, especially momentary physical distractions, derail us from valuing and living in accord with the eternal things of God. What needs to be recognized is that Jesus is calling us to take a serious look at the condition of our hearts. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Mt. 15:19) It is much harder for us to change our hearts, to sin no more, than to pluck out an eye, or to cut off a hand. Those actions would not necessarily bring about the change of heart, the metanoia, the conversion, that Jesus is calling us to here.

Jesus is challenging us to do spiritual surgery, not physical surgery here. He is much more concerned with the disfigurement of our souls due to sin than with the disfigurement our bodies.
He is challenging us to look within, to recognize what it is in us that causes us to sin, that needs for be “cut out and thrown away.” All of us know how hard it is to turn away from the habits of sin. The effort to change from sinner to saint can be far more painful than physical pain of any kind. It requires the full strength and determination of our body, our intellect, our will, and our soul, to turn away from the easy temptations and the immediate gratification of our sinful behaviors. To turn away from vice and to take on the struggle to develop the habits of virtue, is very difficult. Indeed, it is so difficult that we cannot do it without God’s grace. To bend our will to the will of God is a matter of choice. To make that choice, to let go of the past and to go bravely into the future in faith and hope, is not easy. But, as Jesus is telling us here, that choice is absolutely essential for the well being of our eternal souls.

Lord, help us to turn away from those things that take us away from you. Give us the grace of courage, so that we may pluck out the sources of our sins from our hearts. Make us strong in faith and hope, so that we might turn back to your everlasting love and be with you forever in heaven. We pray these things in your name, Jesus. Amen!

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.