“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell.”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
Just how deep does this problem go?
It is amusing to watch aging officials in business attire and hard hats grab a shovel at a ground-breaking ceremony and move a shovelful of dirt. Anyone with common sense knows this is only a photo-op that contributes nothing to the completion of the project. Are we making the same token efforts in living for God?
Before I state what this passage does mean, it is prudent to eliminate what it does not mean. Jesus is not teaching self-mutilation, which is prohibited by the Law of Moses (Deut. 14:1). Logic should also tell us the same thing since the sin of lust would simply continue with the remaining eye and hand! Further, New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg tells us, “It is quite possible to be blind or crippled and still lust.”
No, Jesus is using provocative language to get the audience “to sift through the inconsistency of their own position” and conclude that “it is not the hands and eyes that cause one to sin, but the heart.” Remember that in the immediate context (5:28) Jesus has already identified the heart as the place where the adulterous decision is made.
In instructing his disciples about the kingdom, Jesus was overthrowing the then-prevailing idea that keeping the commandments outwardly — not murdering or committing adultery — was sufficient. Jesus shows instead that the commandments actually penetrate to spiritual issues of the heart.
If Jesus is not advocating actual removal of an eye or a hand, what is he saying? David Turner explains Jesus’ point by saying, “It is better to deal decisively with lust than to be thrown into hell because of it.” R.T. France offers a broader view by explaining, “The theme is impediments to salvation, and the importance of eliminating them at all costs, a theme which could have many different applications to relationships, activities, mental attitudes and the like.”
In these verses Jesus opens a subject that recurs often in Matthew: to cause someone to stumble, or a cause for stumbling. In this case it is a heart devoted to lust that causes someone to sin. The Greek verb underlying this concept is skandaliz? — related to our English word scandal — and it means cause to stumble. From the physical idea of stumbling there emerges the figurative idea to cause to do wrong or sin, and that is the meaning we see in Matt. 5:29–30.
Jesus is telling us that the state of the heart is what leads to sin, not the eye or the hand, and radical action is required to bring things right. Prior to this day, Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (4:17). Sadly, some disciples who were confronted with this demand from heaven eventually fell away by rejecting it. For them, the gospel and the person of Jesus the Messiah became a stumbling block (13:21).
Be clear about the fact that Jesus says the end of any disciple who refuses to repent will be a stumbling entry into hell itself!
The insecurity of half-measures
If you have given your heart to Jesus Christ, you have no reason to fear the future. But make sure that you have not fallen into the half-measures that the Pharisees proclaimed, which Jesus declared insufficient for the kingdom. It is simply too easy to get complacent and think you are special to God because you have not murdered anyone, stolen anything or committed adultery.
Jesus has made it possible for us to repent, receive the Holy Spirit, resist sin — even sexual sin — and live for God. His grace to us is boundless!
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 109.
 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 693.
 David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2008) 171.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 206.
 Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), skandaliz?, to cause to stumble, q.v.