epiphany 6a: cut it off, pluck it out

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Gospels / Lectionary / New Testament

Matthew 5:27-30
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Even if only a small portion of Jesus’ followers today followed through with the plain-sense meaning of this teaching, we’d run into mangled faces and hacked off limbs every time we went to the grocery store, the movies, or work.

When we went to church we’d encounter people resembling the cast of a horror movie.

Jesus says that if you’ve looked with lust upon another person, you’re to pluck out your eye. If you’ve touched someone in lust you’re to hack off your hand.

Apparently, the excruciating pain of mangling yourself, and the life-long consequence of that gruesome action, is better than “for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

Of course, even the most stringent of biblical literalists don’t advocate for taking this teaching word-for-word. Though, had Jesus said something a little less extreme, like “slam your hand in a door,” instead of cutting it off, this one might have more of a following.

I’d agree with the conventional literalist, that while Jesus’ point is a good one, he never intended his followers to actually pluck out their eyes or saw off limbs. Jesus didn’t mean for anyone to actually do what he said here.

The most compelling evidence for this is, of course, that there are no reports that any of Jesus’ disciples walked around with empty eye-sockets. Had this been a serious component of Jesus’ message, one would assume that his followers would have had to look more like the sinners that they indeed were.

Sadly, not everyone got the message. A Christian theologian from the early third century, Origen, evidently castrated himself to bring his soul into a more pure state.

But, if Jesus didn’t really mean what he said here in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, then why did he say it at all?

He said it to make a point.

Jesus uses incendiary language here that is so over the top to drive a message home: sin isn’t just about what we do, it’s also what we think about. What we look at. What we ogle.

For Jesus, there is a radical shift of disposition between looking at another human being with lust, and living by the standards of the Kingdom of God. In a person’s heart there is no room for God if all there is, is lust.

And Jesus believes this so deeply that he conjures up gruesome language, and uses imagery that is so graphic that one might be justified to cover the ears of nearby children.

Lust, and interior disposition are that big a deal.

And, Jesus puts it in the context of salvation and damnation: if you live with lust you will be “thrown into hell.”

Lust has consequences.

To take this one step further, there were two major words that Jesus could have used to refer to what we commonly call “hell.” There is the Greek word “Hades,” which Jesus does use from time to time. And then there is the word, “Gehenna,” which is the word that Jesus uses here in Matthew 5.

The reason I bring this up, is because “Gehenna” was a place that the people Jesus was talking to could have actually visited. Maybe earlier that day. Probably at some time in their life.

“Gehenna” didn’t just have spiritual, after-life connotations. It’s a place. Like, a geographical place.

On a map.

It’s also called, “The Valley of Hinnom.”

The Valley of Hinnom was literally the trash dump for the city of Jerusalem. It must have been a truly gross and frightening place, because fires burned night and day consuming the trash, and packs of dogs wandered through it constantly ripping at the bits of edible refuse.

It was a smelly, smoky, scary place. No wonder people referred to it when they wanted to talk about “hell.”

Not only that, but in earlier biblical times the Valley of Hinnom was a place of pagan worship. Hundreds of years before Jesus, and a long time before it was a trash dump, it was the cultic center for revering the god Molech.

People would travel from near and far to come and worship Molech, and make sacrifices to him.

And, what did the god Molech desire as sacrifice?

Children.

Children were brought to the Valley of Hinnom to be killed in the honor of this “god.”

I love the fact that the Israelites thought so highly of this god and his disgusting devotees that they chose to house their trash in his “sacred” site.

There’s a statement there.

But, it also does much to color the emotional and spiritual weight of The Valley of Hinnom: it is a dark place, where dark and evil things were done in the name of dark pagan magic.

And, as one approached this awful place, one would have been overcome by the stench and the rising smoke. And the haunting reminders of the screaming children.

And the silenced children.

When Jesus speaks of lust, he tells his followers to knock it off. For such things are worthy of being thrown into a place like the Valley of Hinnom.

There’s a cold shower for you.

Jesus doesn’t explicitly talk about salvation here, per se. This isn’t a “how to get to heaven” kind of teaching.

But, he is talking about damnation.

According to Jesus there are ways to find oneself on the path to Heaven. And there are ways that pave the road to Gehenna.

And, it’s not all about confessions of faith, and praying sweet little prayers.

For when Jesus talks about the way to hell here, it’s about what goes on inside you. It’s about burning desire, that may or may not ever be acted upon.

But, for Jesus, what one thinks, where one looks, and what one chooses to orient their life around has eternal, and possibly damnable, repercussions.

And Jesus is so crystal clear about that, that he uncorks some serious language, and summons the memory of dark demons.