Jesus says some pretty wild things, but this week’s lectionary reading includes one of his most extreme statements in Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” I’ve only known of one instance in which somebody actually obeyed this teaching, and it was fictional. My favorite novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote a novel called Son of the Morning about a boy prodigy Pentecostal preacher named Nathan Vickery who falls into fornication and publicly gouges out his eye as an act of penance. So what do we do with this extreme teaching of Jesus besides creating a nation of cyclopses?
Throughout this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is intensifying the Ten Commandments. It’s not just a sin to murder; it’s a sin to be angry with someone or insult them (Matthew 5:21-22). It’s not just a sin to commit adultery; it’s a sin to look at another person with lust (Matthew 5:27-28). What really interests me about verse 29 is the implications it has for the meaning of hell. When I’d read it in the past, I thought that he was talking about a punishment that we would receive after we die (and maybe that’s the primary meaning). But this week, the thought hit me that sin actually throws our body into a kind of hell immediately after we do it. Just like coming together to share communion is a foretaste of heaven, sin is a foretaste of hell.
What I mean by this is that sin isolates us. It puts us in the position of telling lies and hiding from other people. It creates a fear of the moment when other people will find out about what we’ve done. There’s a sort of private terror that we live in after we’ve sinned. Now often we smother that terror with denial and justification, so it doesn’t seem like terror, but there’s violence inside of us, particularly if we have sinned against a particular person with whom we have to interact on a regular basis after it. Perhaps one way we could define hell is to live unreconciled to the truth.
This seems consistent with another teaching Jesus gives in the same passage from this week: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). There’s something essential about being reconciled not just to another person, but to the truth. When we do things that hurt other people or corrupt ourselves, we need to confess the truth to somebody and name what we did as wrong so that we can be reconciled with the truth.
A number of Christians respond to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:29 by creating a living environment that’s completely firewalled against temptations: avoiding all secular music and movies, making women dress in burkahs or the Western equivalent, etc. I think that you have to do this in certain circumstances, particularly with addictions, you have to do this. Alcoholics should not go and hang out in bars. But it seems to me that it doesn’t work very well to raise children in hyper-protective environments, because when things are taboo to people who don’t understand their danger, the taboo creates a temptation rather than alleviating it. Paul talks about this in Romans 7:7-10:
I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.
I’ve been thrown into hell a fair amount in my life. It’s often a product of my cynicism and my lack of discipline. What has been most helpful to me is to be in relationships with wholesome, spiritually mature people whose good-naturedness is contagious. I also need friendships that are vulnerable enough so I can confess my sins when they happen and be reconciled to the truth. For me, there’s a little bit of hell and heaven in every week. God has been gracious enough to work on my ugly parts so that my life can be a little more heavenly all the time.