SynopsisJesus continues his sermon, in this passage, and moves on to talk about lust. Jesus says that even though there is a commandment which prohibits adultery, that’s not the end of the story; even lusting after someone makes you morally guilty of adultery, even if you don’t commit the physical act.
… I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (verse 28 (ESV))And then Jesus goes on to make one of his more famous utterances, which I’ll just quote:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (verses 29–30 (ESV))
ThoughtsOnce again, Jesus starts out this passage by reminding his audience that the law is only the surface of the issue, but that real holiness is deeper than just obeying the law. Just because you’ve never cheated on your spouse in “real life,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you haven’t taken emotion and desire that should have been directed at them, and directed it at someone else. (I say “reminding” because I don’t think any of this would have been new to the Jews; like us, I’m sure they were probably concentrating more on the actual rules and regulations than on the heart, but I’m sure they weren’t shocked, either, when Jesus pointed out that the rules are only the tip of the iceberg, and the heart is still there under the water, causing trouble.)
I’ve heard some debate about whether Jesus is being literal when he talks about gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand, or whether he’s exaggerating to make a point. Personally, I don’t think that he’s advocating gouging out your eyes, especially since he phrases it that, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (emphasis added)—if you had a problem with lust, and were blaming your eye, wouldn’t you need to tear them both out?
So I think this is just a metaphor. The point is that you should examine your life, and avoid things that are going to lead you into temptation. Are you a member of a group or an association, and find yourself lusting after someone else who’s part of the same group? Then maybe you need to withdraw your membership. Are you working with a colleague at work that you lust after? Maybe you can get moved to another project. These are just examples, but it would be better not to be in the situation that is causing you to sin than to stay there and continue sinning.
The person who wrote the ESV Study Bible notes for this passage also believes that Jesus is exaggerating: “Jesus uses deliberate overstatement to emphasize the importance of maintaining exclusive devotion to one’s spouse. Even things of great value should be given up if they are leading a person to sin.” Similarly, they point us to Mark 9:42–50 (ESV) and say:
Jesus uses hyperbole (intentional overstatement) to show the seriousness of sin and the fact that nothing, even things of greatest importance to humans such as a hand, foot, or eye, can be more important than God. “Hand,” “foot,” and ‘eye” probably also serve as metonymies (where one thing stands for something related to it) for sins that can be committed with these body parts. (E.g., the “hand” may represent theft or murder done by the hand; the “foot” may represent going somewhere to undertake a sinful act; the “eye” may represent coveting, lust, or adultery, as in Matt. 5:27–30 (ESV).) Of course, Jesus does not mean that people should literally cut off those body parts, for the literal removal of them cannot remove the root of sin in the heart (see Mark 7:20–23 (ESV); 9:45 (ESV)). Jesus’ words serve as a sober warning concerning the severity of sin, which can lead to hell (Gk. gehenna; see Isa. 66:24 (ESV)) and fire that is not quenched (Mark 8:35–37 (ESV); 9:47–48 (ESV)).