Monday, September 25, 2006

This is a Hard Saying, #1: If your right eye causes you to sin...

Back after a bit of a hiatus -- between work, a summer class at Rutgers, Bible study, Tuesday nights at Andy's Corner Bar, and myriad other activities, this blog was pushed aside. I'll try to post something at least once a week now, but I've assumed another set of committments to my time: work, RCIA team, Bible study, dance lessons at some point...

"This is a hard saying", murmured the crowd of disciples upon hearing Jesus talk about his flesh as true food and his blood as true drink. Jesus's ministry was full of hard sayings. In volume 1, we consider Matthew 5:29-30:
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 to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.
These admonitions, echoed in Matthew 18:8-9 and Mark 9:43-48, seem to say that the flesh is so evil we are better off removing those parts of it which cause us to sin than to perish because of them. And yet, the Word of God humbled himself and took on our humanity in the form of Jesus Christ, so while man's intention may be inclined toward evil from the very beginning (Genesis 8:21), we can feel comfortable saying that flesh, in and of itself, is not evil. Indeed, the Bible tells us of a bodily resurrection, so let us not assume flesh is evil.

And, if there is a bodily resurrection, is it not odd that we would not be restored fully, both in spirit and flesh? Would we not have perfect sight, perfect hearing, perfect taste? Would we not be spotless and without blemish before our God? The other places in the Gospel where these sayings come up mention "enter[ing] into life" and even, in Mark 9:47, "enter[ing] into the kingdom of God". The stump on a man, in heaven, walking without an arm (cut off for fear of sin) would be a testimony to sin, and there is no place for that in the Kingdom of God. I think the only wounds we will ever see on another body in heaven are the blessed ones Jesus bore, not as a testimony to our sinfulness, but to God's saving love. What, then, does Jesus mean when he says it is better for us to remove a body part that causes us to sin than to be condemned by it?

I have never known a person who sinned because of an arm, a hand, or even a finger; nor have I met a person who sinned because of a leg, an eye, an ear, or any other body part... except the heart. The heart is mentioned over and over again in Scripture, especially in the Gospels. Jesus says...
  • "Blessed are the clean of heart." (Matthew 5:8)
  • "Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be." (Matthew 6:21)
  • "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart." (Matthew 11:29)
  • "You brood of vipers, how can you say good things when you are evil? For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34)
  • "Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them." (Matthew 13:15, cf. Isaiah 6:10)
  • "For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy." (Matthew 15:19)
  • "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart." (Matthew 22:37)
... and that's just one book of the Bible. God promises that He will be our God, and we will be His people, that He will give us a new heart: His spirit in us (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19-20; Ezekiel 36:26-28). Finally, Jesus reminds us that "whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39). What is this life we are to lose? Must we all be martyrs like St. Stephen? I don't think that is Jesus's intent here.

We must lose our material life, our worldly life, and in doing so, we will gain the life we have pushed aside, one which embraces the values of Christ, not of the world. And therein lies what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 5:29-30. Remove from your life that which causes you to sin. If alcohol causes you to sin, remove the alcohol, not the hand holding the bottle or the arm which raises it to your lips. If pornography causes you to sin, remove the pornography, not your genitals. If crude or racist humor causes you to sin, remove that influence, not your ears. If a person who says "Jesus is asking me to give up what I love?" that is indeed a clear sign of what sin has done: we love worldly things so much we cannot fathom sacrificing them for the infinitely more awesome gift God is offering us. A life of sin does not get one "thrown into Gehenna" but leads one there. We can choose to deny ourselves the worldly pleasures and accept God's promise... or we can accept our worldly lusts and, in doing so, deny ourselves the kingdom. God offers us this choice; He challenges us to love what is good.

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