Tear out your eyes and cut off your hands

August 25, 2020

by Barry Fike

       We’ve had a lot of problems with this with our western mind because we want to know if we are supposed to do this literally or not.  If Jesus is talking in a literal sense it is a wonder that most men today still have their right eye and their right hand.   As is obvious from the previous study this is not a literal command and must be taken in light of the contextual placement it is found in.  Exactly what is Jesus saying in this context about a man’s responsibility to his neighbor?

          This section is related to the subject of reward and punishment.  The Rabbis believed that justice must rule in the divine government of human beings and that God rewards the good according to their merits and punishes the wicked according to their transgressions.  In fact this exact statement is made in its rabbinic parallel passage in Mishnah, Order Tohoroth, Tractate Niddah 2 and 1, “If the hand offends thee, let it be cut off.”  The passage reads, “The hand...(that promotes self-abuse), let it be cut off.” 

          The Rabbis state that the Bible gives them ample evidence for this claim.  “By the plan which the Egyptians planned to destroy Israel, I judged them.  They planned to destroy Israel with water and I will punish them with nothing else than water.  Absalom gloried in his hair; therefore, he was caught by his hair.”

          A famous rabbinical story that could be considered a parallel regards Nahumn of Gamzo.  “It was related of Nahum of Gamzo that he was blind in both eyes, that both hands were amputated, both legs cut off, and his body entirely covered with boils, so that (the feet of) his couch rested in basins of water to prevent the ants from climbing up to him.  On one occasion his couch was resting in a ruined house and his disciples wished to remove him.  He said to them, “First clear out the furniture and lastly my couch, because so long as my couch is in the house you may be assured that the house will not collapse.”  They removed the furniture and then the couch; immediately afterwards the house fell in.  His disciples said to him, “Since you are a perfectly righteous man, why has all this suffering come upon you?”  He answered, “I am myself responsible for it.  Once I was going to my father-in-law’s house, and I had with me a load borne by three asses: one of food, other second of drink, and the third of various kinds of dainties.  A man chanced to meet me and cried, Rabbi, give me something to eat.  I said to him, “Wait unto I alight from my ass.”  When I had alighted and turned round, I discovered that he had died.  I fell upon him and said, May my eyes that had no pity on your eyes become blind; may my hands which had no pity on your hands be amputated; and may my legs which had no pity on your legs be cut off.  Nor was my mind at rest until I said, May all my body be full of boils.  They said to him, “Woe to us that we see you thus!”  He replied to them, “Woe would it have been to me if you did not see me thus!”  (Taan. 2 1a)[1]   What was considered abusive by this rabbi, he wanted taken away so that his walk with God might be closer.

          Jesus is drawing a parallel between adultery and lust and states that lusting after a woman is to be equated with the actual overt act of adultery.  In the presentation of this teaching, Jesus uses a method of instruction that can be equated with the first of the seven rabbinical principles for interpretation formulated by Hillel a generation before Jesus.  This first of these seven principles is known as kahlvahomer, meaning easy or light, and homer, meaning heavy or difficult. 

          Jesus equates the idea that if the light (kal va homer) transgression of looking upon a woman and lusting after her is a sin, then it naturally follows that to commit adultery would be a sin.  If doesn’t matter if a transgression is heavy or light.  It is to be dealt with.  While the transgression is still light or easy, one should stomp on it, cut it off, i.e., bring it under control before the anticipated act is actually committed and one is then burdened with the heavy weight of sin, guilt and the consequences of one’s actions.  Rabbis preached about sin by comparing small sins to greater ones. 

          “To which is gossip more similar, robbery or murder?”

          “Murder, because robbers can always give back what they’ve stolen, but gossips can never repair the damage they’ve done.”

          To them, humiliating someone publicly was also like murder, because “the pain of humiliation is more bitter than death.”  The rabbis called such sin “whitening the face because when a person’s face pales with shame, it’s as if the pallor of death has overtaken him or her.  “Therefore,” they said, “one should rather fling himself into a fiery furnace than humiliate someone in public.”[2]

          Both Jesus and the rabbis taught that the time to avoid sin is when it is small, before we slip any further down the slope.  The rabbis said, “At first the evil inclination is like the threat of a spider’s web, and in the end it is like the ropes of a wagon” (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52a). 

          Such concepts remind us of Jesus’ striking exhortations in these verses that tell us to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye should they cause you to sin (also in Matt. 5:29, 30).  The Rabbis knew the great damage that even tiny sins can do.  A little bit of gossip can ruin a reputation.  One sharp retort can ignite a war.  The goal of their exaggerations was to impress upon their listeners the dire consequences of sin.  Jesus, to, was urging is listeners to avoid evil at all costs.  Is strong warnings express his anguish at the destruction that ensues when we do not resist temptation at the very beginning.[3] 


              [1] Roy Blizzard. "As I See It." Yavo Digest. N.p., n.d. Web. Vol. 3. No. 19. 9.


              [2] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a. 


              [3] Spangler, 170.