So in one of the odder passages in the New Testament, Jesus said, if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. There are two striking elements here, beyond the obvious self-mutilation seemingly being advocated.
Think of modern day Middle Eastern law, in which hands can still be cut off for stealing and women stoned to death for accusations of infidelity. For the listeners in the 1st century, this form of justice would be a common occurrence: violent justice enacted externally, by the political or local authority. Jewish law allowed for four forms of capital punishment in cases of adultery, murder, incest, and so on: stoning, beheading, strangulation and burning. Lesser crimes brought about lesser punishment, but still severe by modern standards.
Of course, we in the modern West have a code of laws, but our spiritual or religious and civil laws are separated, whereas in ancient cultures they weren’t. So we read ancient laws in spiritual texts and think, wow, these people are so legalistic and uptight. We make a split between crimes, which are public, and sins, which are private.
But in reality the religious and civil laws were bound up in one. We misread the text through the lens of looking for purely individual morality.
Some of the Jewish communities by Jesus’s day took the Old Testament injunction of “an eye for an eye” very literally, punishing like with like.
Of course the big shift throughout Christ’s teaching, certainly in the Book of Matthew that these lines come from has to do with shifting focus from external, surface level understanding of law to the deeper laws of the inner workings of the spirit, the inner person. He keeps saying “you’ve heard it said, follow the law or else, but it’s the deep laws of the inner spirit that really matter.”
What legalism in community brings about is people being honest and true only out of social pressure, out of fear of punishment. But Jesus is saying basically don’t wait for someone else to punish you. Don’t conform to a social law. He’s saying be mindful of it yourself. Keep order in your own house. You pay attention to the root cause of your crime. He’s inviting us basically to grow up. To take the training wheels off. To have full agency. He keeps expanding definitions beyond the conventional. Spiritual growth is not first and foremost about conformity, about approval or punishment. It’s about building moment-to-moment awareness both internal and external, paying attention to action and consequence, not just an externally imposed moral order.
The other striking element is dropping, letting go. The eye and the hand here represent the root causes of your unskillful behavior, of your addiction, attachment, of sin. You be the one to drop the root cause. Whatever desire, whatever fear, whatever attachment, whatever vision you have in your head of the way things ought to be that is causing you to violate, shame, oppress, exclude, objectify, exploit, or commit violence against others, identify it and drop it.
Since we usually associate feelings of guilt and shame with the word “sin,” since it’s been co-opted by self-righteousness and accusation to create lives bound up in religious fear of punishment, since it’s used for social shaming, it’s used to control behavior of others, it’s used for coercion and conformity, at a level of greater maturity this really isn’t the main focus. As Richard Rohr puts it, our churches don’t create free people, not happy, not creative, but obedient people. That’s what we get with a sin-centric or conformist rather than a wholeness-centric faith community. But fear and conformity aren’t the point. We know what sin is. Pre-schoolers know what sin is: taking what’s not yours, taking more than your fair share, committing violence against others, and so on.
Jesus is saying: pay attention to your own issues and where this comes from, then drop the attachment giving rise to it. That includes guilt from our past over the sins of our past keeping us bound up and stuck in place. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s as much ego in saying “I’m the worst” as there is in saying “I’m the best.” Drop it. That’s the past. And it’s better for us to do without that one piece of us that we think determines our happiness, but is in reality dragging down our entire life, keeping us from true inner freedom. It’s like having your whole life go down the drain (Christ’s metaphor is your whole body tossed into Gehenna) because of your one attachment, your one addiction, your inability to examine your own ego processes.
Since for most of us the issues aren’t obeying the law. I daresay most of us aren’t murderers or rapists. Check. But we still throw ourselves out of equilibrium with desires, with cravings. We don’t pay attention to the subtle ways we want to judge and feel superior, or self-righteous. We condone a casual exclusivist and violent attitude about people in different groups. We’re addicted to ourselves and our habitual ways of thinking that have nothing to do with the deep freedom on offer.
Christ said he didn’t come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, but also got into trouble with religious authorities for not conforming to the religious law of the day. So what gives? He was speaking about something far deeper than the surface 613 laws of the Old Testament. He’s speaking about the real law, the deep structure of the law. The law of spirit, of grace, of unity, of healing, of transformation, of wholeness, of agape, of sacrificial, selfless, timeless love.
But also the law of causality, in which actions have consequences, both internal and external – hardened hearts and social division. He’s referring to the law out of which all things, the moral order and our very notion of justice, out of which creation itself arises. It’s that deeper law that governs morality, the natural consequences of our actions, forgiveness, the need to become whole, and the process of transformation. Once you’re grown, don’t wait for someone else to threaten with punishment, take charge of your own spiritual maturity and be mindful of your actions, your thoughts, your motivations, your thought patterns, your emotional patterns, and their inner source. Then drop it. Otherwise we’ll stay far from the deep grace and freedom in our inmost being.
Otherwise we’ll stay far from the deep grace and freedom in our inmost being.