Saturday, November 3, 2012

In which Jesus tells you to cut off your hand

I've heard Matthew 5:21-30 explained as "thinking about doing something bad is AS BAD as actually doing it." Umm, no. Though Jesus does compare anger with murder, and lust with adultery.


Jesus starts out by referencing the commandment against murder. So far so good, everyone can agree murder is wrong.

But then he says that anyone who "is angry with his brother" will also be judged/punished.

He says it 3 different ways:
  1. Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment
  2. Anyone who says to his brother "raca" is answerable to the Sanhedrin
  3. Anyone who says "you fool" will be in danger of the fire of hell
I don't necessarily think there's a ton of meaning in which action is paired with which consequence, and how each one gets progressively worse- no, I think he's just trying to say the same thing 3 different ways. For emphasis. Not to compare between the 3 scenarios. Also I don't know what "raca" is. Must be something bad.

And then there's this scenario about if you're at the altar, trying to "offer your gift" and you remember you had a fight with someone, leave your stuff and go make up with them. I don't think this is for us to follow literally- if, in the middle of church, you suddenly remember you had a fight with someone, I don't think you have to get up and leave immediately. It can wait a half hour, yes?

BUT Jesus' point here is that God is much more concerned with how we treat other people than whether we're doing the proper religious actions. If you're generally angry and rude to other people, then it doesn't matter how much you go to church- God's not going to be happy with how you're behaving.

But let's back up for a second and ask...

What does Jesus mean by "angry"?

According to the footnote, some manuscripts say "angry with his brother without cause" rather than just "angry with his brother." Surely anger is just an emotion- it's totally normal to feel anger, and just like with any emotion, you can use it for good or evil.

Right? That's what I've always been taught- that any emotion is fine, you can't control feeling a certain way, but it's what you choose to do with it. Do you obsessively think about how angry you are? Do you write monologues in your head in which you tear down the person you're angry with? See, that's where anger becomes a sin.

At least, that's what I think. Jesus doesn't really address the "what is anger"/"it's normal to feel angry but you choose how you respond" thing here.

Also, what is this bit about reconciling with someone in order to avoid jail?

Jesus says if someone's accusing you and taking you to court, you should try to work it out with them before you actually get to court. And why, Jesus, should we do that? Because if you don't, you might get thrown in jail!

Image source.
Umm. I was expecting something a little more abstract and religious-sounding, something about spreading the love of God, living in peace, you know... This sounds way too selfish and practical.

I mean, there are practical benefits to not being a jerk. It's not wrong to benefit from doing the right thing.

It also sounds like Jesus is saying you have a lot more control over the situation if you're just one-on-one with your "adversary", trying to work things out, rather than at the mercy of "the system" which is large and impersonal and might not treat you fairly.

Also, notice that Jesus never mentions who's right and who's wrong.

There's no "he started it" or "but I'm allowed to yell at them because I'm right and they're wrong." Nothing in this whole passage even acknowledges the idea that, in a disagreement, someone is "right" and someone is "wrong". Jesus just wants people to be reconciled with each other. That's interesting.


Just as in the previous section, Jesus starts out by referencing a command his audience knows well: "Do not commit adultery."

Okay, what is "adultery"?

Is it when a married person cheats on their husband/wife? Is it having sex outside of marriage? defines adultery as "voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than his or her lawful spouse". Okay, we'll go with that definition.

But then Jesus says "anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Does his audience consist entirely of straight men? Okay I'm going to go ahead and say if I'm lusting for a boy then that falls under this statement too.

So what is lust? If he's comparing it to adultery, then it must be a desire to cheat on one's partner. Right?

Well, let's throw in my belief that God's intention for sex is that it's only within marriage. So I define "lust" as "when you want to have sex with someone you're not supposed to be having sex with." Even if you're single and have no "partner" to cheat on. (And don't give me that mythology about "saving yourself for your future husband". So if he doesn't exist, then ... then what?)

OH ALSO hey did you know that girls lust? Or maybe I'm the only one?

But wait. It can't be bad to just NOTICE some guy is really really hot. You can't control that thought.

Yeah, I agree. So "lust" isn't the same thing as thinking about sex, being attracted to someone, etc. I think it becomes lust when you are objectifying someone- when in your mind you don't respect them as a person because of how hot they are. And when you focus on that forbidden sexual desire rather than trying to ignore it. 

So what's this about cutting off our body parts?

This is just silly. Your hand/eye isn't what "causes" you to sin- it really comes from your mind/heart. So cutting off the parts isn't going to help.

Okay first of all, don't take it literally. Don't ACTUALLY cut off your hand. Jesus is saying sometimes you have to take drastic measures to avoid sin- and if that's the case, then that's what you need to do.


Long long ago, Perfect Number found this passage really helpful. It was right after she broke up with her ex-boyfriend, and she had been so depressed and worried, thinking her life was hopeless and meaningless if she didn't have a boyfriend/husband, and then God showed up and turned her whole life around and showed her that God is all she needs. (See this blog post for the full story- it's one of the most important events of my life.)

SO ANYWAY, after God changed her life, and she realized she could have a totally awesome happy life while single... sometimes she doubted. When she saw anything romance-related in a movie, when she heard any song vaguely related to relationships, the message she heard was "you'll never ever be happy, your life is meaningless because you're single, and even if you got married, well, all guys are horrible and untrustworthy, so you'll never ever be happy." And she couldn't get it out of her head. (In feminism, we call this a "trigger".) She knew that God is all she needs, but that promise felt like the farthest thing from reality when she saw a kiss on TV.

And she thought, the only way to be free from these lies that my life is meaningless, etc etc, would be to totally avoid seeing/hearing anything romance-related. Oh, but surely that's too extreme. I can't do that. But then she remembered Jesus' words- "if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away." No, no one can tell me this is too extreme. So that's what I did, for a long time- maybe 6 months? Any time I heard a "love song", I either got out of there or immediately put in my earbuds and listened to my iPod instead. I closed my eyes when there was a kiss in a movie. I did not watch movies with a love story (so like, all movies). I even avoided sermons about marriage.

And it worked, it totally worked. A trip to the mall would no longer cause hours of sad, existential crisis as I contemplated whether I'd ever be happy. And after a while I got over it, so those kinds of influences don't affect me anymore, and I no longer have to avoid them.

In summary, if you know of something that will really cut back on the temptation you're facing, but you think "oh, that's too extreme"- well, it's not. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.

So, in this passage, Jesus is saying that thinking about doing something bad is just as bad as actually doing it.

Umm, no. Were you paying attention at all?

First of all, let's talk about this "thinking about doing something bad" bit. When the emotion of anger comes up, or the thought of having sex with someone you shouldn't be having sex with- that's not wrong. Who can control what thoughts pop into their head? But then the big question is what you do with it. Do you think about it more and more, in a way that very much disrespects other people?

Also, let's talk about "just as bad". Okay, no. Jesus says that what's going on in your heart when you're super-angry or lusting is the same sort of thing that is going on in one's heart in the case of murder/adultery, and you'll be judged for that. Can we all agree that being angry is NOT "just as bad as" killing someone? And wanting to cheat on your partner is NOT "just as bad as" actually doing it?


Also, I have heard it said "anger is as bad as murder and lust is as bad as adultery, because it means you WANT to do those things, and it's just the fear of getting caught that's stopping you." Umm, no. When I'm angry, there are a lot of reasons I don't go around killing people, and not many of them are "well I could be arrested." Of course I would never do that. That doesn't mean it's okay to yell at someone. That doesn't mean Jesus is okay with little minor forms of anger/lust.

This passage is NOT about being angry enough to kill someone. It's about ANY amount of hostility, hate, and disrespect you may have toward someone. (Same thing goes for the teaching on lust.)

Summary/ take-home message:

I feel like I'm writing to myself here, because lately I've gotten angry over things that are really not a big deal.

In this section, Jesus is elaborating on what he said last time, about fulfilling the law- he fulfills it by getting to the heart of why these things were even laws in the first place. In the case of these 2 commands- "do not murder" and "do not commit adultery"- he makes them even more strict. Having an attitude of hostility or lust is also wrong.

It's kind of ridiculous. His standard is too high- nobody could follow this! But unfortunately... as I read this, I think, "he's right." Hating someone, objectifying someone- those things are definitely wrong. And I've done that, and everyone's done that.

Stay tuned next week, where we see even more cases where Jesus' standard is high.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Salt and High Standards (Matthew 5:13-20)

Next post: Okay, "turn the other cheek" makes no sense (Matthew 5:31-48)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.


  1. Awesome Post! Loving this series. You are so just so honest and blunt in your questions, so cool. :)

  2. ^_^ Thanks!!! Glad you're enjoying it.

  3. Very thought-provoking- I have heard this passage referenced too many times as meaning "thinking something is just as bad as doing it." Enjoyed your post!