It’s the metaphor Jesus used when he brought up ge-Henna.
Matthew 5.27-32, 18.8-9 • Mark 9.43-49 • Luke 16.18
In case you didn’t read the last lesson on how the command “Don’t murder”
Matthew 5.27-28 KWL
- 27 “You heard this said: ‘You will not adulter.’
Ex 20.14, Dt 5.18
- 28 And I tell you this: Everybody who looks at a woman to covet her,
- has now adultered with her in their heart.”
(The Textus Receptus has “You heard this said to the ancients.” It borrowed “the ancients” bit from Jesus’s previous instruction,
First of all, I need to remind you of the historical context of adultery. Our culture assumes it means extramarital sexual activity. (Popular Christian culture includes all nonmarital sexual activity.) But that’s not what adultery meant in the 14th century
God, and our current laws, did away with patriarchy and slavery. Yeah, various sexists try to re-implement it. Nevertheless, in the United States anyway, we live in a free society. Married women voluntarily belong to their spouses. Underage girls belong to their parents till they reach an age where (supposedly) they’ll be responsible. Every other woman is free: She belongs to no one but herself. And if she doesn’t agree to be yours, sex with her is rape.
Yep. That’s what Jesus’s teaching now means in today’s culture.
If you thought doing away with patriarchy made things lighter, or gave us a bunch of loopholes, it really didn’t. Everybody who looks at a woman to deliberately covet her, who has no business nor permission to imagine such things of her, has raped her in their heart. People object to radical feminists (or even ordinary feminists) using such terms to describe the way men leer at them, or referring to their objectification as “rape culture.” Turns out they’re absolutely right.
And I remind you: Jesus’s instruction was addressed to the young men in his class, but it applies just the same to women. Covet a man who’s not yours, and it’s either mental adultery or mental rape. So don’t go there.
Again: Temptation isn’t sin.
As I pointed out in the previous lesson, temptation isn’t sin. If you see an attractive person, and you’re tempted to covet them, stop. There’s a whole other command against coveting what’s not yours,
Problem is, that’s not the way popular Christian culture interprets Jesus. To them, temptation is as good as sin—because they honestly don’t expect us to practice any self-control. Hey, they don’t. Why should we?
Again, in popular Christian culture, adultery is any nonmarital sexual activity. Most of the reason Christians interpret the word this way is ’cause they’re trying to discourage such behavior. And rightly so. The authors of scripture considered all sexual activity, appropriate or not, to be marital.
Combine this wrong thinking about temptation, with this inaccurate thinking about adultery, and you wind up with a really difficult scenario for a lot of Christians. And this is part of the reason a lot of Christians think the Sermon on the Mount is meant to be an impossible standard, meant to make us despair of ever following Jesus, and give up and depend on grace. I’m not saying we shouldn’t depend on grace; we absolutely should. But embracing disobedience in favor of grace?
Back when I was a teenager, our youth pastors taught us we teenage boys shouldn’t even look at teenage girls, lest we lust for ’em. Now, if you’ve ever been a teenage boy, you know full well you don’t even have to look at a girl to lust for ’em. Puberty means teenage boys’ bodies are flooded with all these new hormones, and they haven’t yet learned self-control, so they’re a big ball of overemotional, horny lust. It’s gross, but that’s puberty for you. Adult men often forget how awful this time was—how gross they were at that age—and aren’t as patient and gracious with the boys as they oughta be. (And since some adult men never did learn any self-control, women often assume men are always this gross.)
So, in hearing this interpretation, a lot of us boys struggled. Really struggled. Many of us gave up on Jesus in despair. Or sometimes no despair at all: “Well, if I’ve already committed adultery in my heart, may as well commit it for real.” So much for preventative measures.
It’s because we were trying to do the impossible—to not just resist temptation, but avoid it in the first place. Which can’t be done. Even Jesus was tempted!
Because sin is just that bad.
The next bit, about gouging out eyes and cutting off hands and feet, is regularly used as an example of Jesus’s hyperbole: He exaggerated in order to make a point. He actually used this imagery twice in Matthew. (And once in Mark, when talking about salt.)
Mark 9.43-49 KWL
- 43 “When your hand trips you up, amputate it. It’s better for you to enter life crippled
- than have two hands and go into ge-Henna, into the endless fire.
- 45 When your foot trips you up, amputate it. It’s better for you to enter life limping
- than have two feet and be thrown into ge-Henna.
- 47 When your eye trips you up, toss it. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom one-eyed
- than have two eyes and be thrown into ge-Henna.
- 48 Where their worm doesn’t stop and the fire doesn’t end.”
Matthew 5.29-30 KWL
- 29 “If your right eye trips you up, gouge it out and throw it from you. It’s to your advantage:
- One of your limbs can be destroyed, and your whole body might not be thrown into ge-Henna.
- 30 If your right hand trips you up, cut it off and throw it from you. It’s to your advantage:
- One of your limbs can be destroyed, and your whole body might not go off into ge-Henna.”
Matthew 18.8-9 KWL
- 8 “If your hand or foot trips you up, cut it off and throw it from you.
- Which is better for you? To enter life crippled or limping?
- Or having two hands or two feet—to be thrown into the fire of the age to come?
- 9 If your eye trips you up, gouge it out and throw it from you.
- Which is better for you? To enter life one-eyed?
- Or having two eyes—to be thrown into the fire of ge-Henna?”
Ge-Henna is one of the words which get translated “hell” in a lot of bibles, following the
Jesus spoke about your hand, foot, or eye causing you to skandalídzei/“trip up.” In context he’s talking about temptation, and that’s how people tend to interpret it. Temptation trips us up. That was the original sense of the
Trouble is, offend currently means “feel upset”—same as our English word scandalize, which is based on skandalídzei. So people assume this word has to do with emotion or outrage. If your limb outrages you, lop it off. Of course, if you’ve given in to temptation, and are hip-deep in sin, you’re long past the point of outrage. Still, some bibles made the same mistake popular Christian culture does, and confuse temptation with sin. Hence “sin” (
The point of this statement is how sin is so destructive, so bad, we ought to be willing to lose a limb in the struggle against temptation. Better to live in God’s kingdom maimed or half-blind, than wind up outside the kingdom altogether.
Problem is, few of us are willing to take sin and temptation so seriously. We might mention sin is bad and destructive and to be avoided… but never say it takes serious effort on our part. Never say it takes dedication, commitment, persistence, and self-control. Those who do, get called legalists. Even though it’s not legalism. Legalism is about expecting your works to save you; we’re only talking about obedience. But Christians don’t wanna obey. So they redefine obedience as legalism, and disobedience as grace. That’s their loophole.
And Jesus’s teaching here, that temptation is so bad we oughta be willing to saw off our own hands in self-defense? Yes it’s still hyperbole. But few Christians bother to seriously consider what Jesus meant when he taught it. “Oh, it’s a grab at our attention,” we say… and shrug, and give it none of our attention. It’s just Jesus being wacky.
We don’t just miss his point; we fully ignore it.
Sin is bad. Don’t do it! Stay the
Jesus, divorce, and adultery.
Jesus discusses divorce in greater detail elsewhere in Matthew and Mark, but for now we just have this brief statement, which ties together with the whole adultery theme.
Matthew 5.31-32 KWL
- 31 “And this said: ‘Whoever may divorce his woman: Give her a divorce scroll.’
- 32 And I tell you this: Everyone who divorces his woman outside of a sexual reason,
- makes her adulter—and when anyone marries the divorcée, he adulters.”
Luke 16.18 KWL
- “Everyone who divorces his woman and marries another, adulters.
- One who’s married to a man’s divorcée, adulters.”
In that other story, Jesus was asked about the Jews’ common practice of no-fault divorce. Yep, they practiced it back then too. Learned it from the Romans; justified it by the fact there’s a command in the Law allowing for divorce.
In contrast, Jesus stated divorce is valid for only one reason: Lógu porneías/“a porn-word,” meaning something to do with inappropriate sexual activity. In other words the woman already cheated on her husband. If she didn’t cheat, divorcing her was essentially gonna make her cheat, ’cause it wasn’t a legitimate divorce: Anybody she gets together with in the future, counts as an adulterous relationship.
In our egalitarian culture, this works both ways. If the man cheats, it’s grounds for divorce. Might be with another person; might be pornography. After all, we did just discuss adultery in one’s heart, and isn’t that idea the entire basis of pornography? Porn’s cheating. Don’t kid yourself.
And porn’s a common temptation for married men. Especially since on the internet, it’s everywhere. Do a simple Google search, and you’ll find it on accident. (Or at least that’s the excuse your teenage boy will use.) Not every man is willing to pluck out his own eye, or cut off his own hand, lest he lead himself astray with it. As for cutting off one’s own foot… well, some of us know “foot” is a euphemism for “genitals” in the Old Testament.
But that’s how dangerous temptation is. That’s the level of commitment God wants for those who will follow him: We have to love him more than our own lives and comfort. We have to be willing to go to extremes to resist the things which tempt us, and do anything but sin. Not resort to legalism, and force others to cater to our hangups;
Lust is a tough one. Probably the toughest one for most of us. But unless we get hold of it, we’re unfit for marital relationships. So it’s gotta be conquered.