7“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! 8If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. Matthew 18:7-9
I remember preaching on this verse as a young pastor and during the sermon I noticed a man in the audience who I knew had some issues with mental illness. I thought to myself, “If he misunderstands what I am saying, this could get ugly, really fast”. What I didn’t need was for this young man to mistake a provocative illustration by Jesus as a command for extreme self-mutilation. Fortunately the young man did not rush out and cut off a hand or gouge out an eye. But then again, as far as we know, nobody in the entire history of Christianity has actually done this. Of course there was the church father Origen in the 4th century who apparently castrated himself, but that was all about wanting to be eunuch for God and a different issue all together.
The tragic fact is, most people go the other direction. Most people completely ignore this verse. It seems that once we decide that Jesus is not asking for us to donate our limbs, digits, or other body parts in the name of holiness, we take a collective sigh of relief and decide there is no need to ask further questions. We decide what Jesus did not mean by these words, but we don’t bother to ask “What did he mean?” Okay, so now I am asking. What did Jesus mean when he said it is better to cut off a limb and enter eternal life minus a body part than to enter hell physically whole. The answer is simple. It is the application of the answer that is difficult.
Simply put, Jesus is saying that anything that causes you to sin and therefore negatively impacts your relationship with God should be removed from your life. This is such a serious issue that even if it is your own arm or eye you need to get rid of it. If we assume that Jesus was using hyperbole, which He often did, then what is the application? It shouldn’t take long for any of us to answer that. Just ask yourself, “what seems to regularly trip you up in your relationship with God?” Now there are some easy and obvious things. If sex in movies has a way of dragging you down then maybe you need to cancel your premium channel subscription. Sure you would have to do without the other movies offered but there are ways of seeing those without opening yourself or your family to something that would be harmful.
The traditional list of sex, drugs, and other vices is usually where people go with this. But let’s consider some non-traditional options that are far more insidious. For most people in western culture and in growing parts of the rest of the world, materialism is having a huge impact on our relationship with God. When it comes to your house for example, is it a source of pride for you? Has the desire to “move up” in the world by being in the right neighborhood with a house you really can’t afford, put you in a position of financial risk AND caused you to be further from the Lord? Maybe you are attached to your pride, or arrogance as much as you are attached to your eye or arm? Are you attached to your comfort and pleasure as much as to an ear or a leg?
The point is, anything that you love more than you love Jesus has the potential of destroying your relationship with God. It requires a great deal of honest reflection and inner searching of your attitudes and actions. This is not an easy thing to do. It means being willing to ask yourself some hard questions and facing the consequences. Those consequences can be difficult because we are facing the loss of something that is precious to us. What must happen is that Jesus and our relationship with Him must be more precious than anything, even and eye or an arm.