What did Jesus mean when He said in Matthew 5:29, 30: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, dig it out and throw it away from you! For it’s better for you that one of your members should be destroyed and not your whole body be cast into Gehenna! And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away from you! For it is better for you that one of your members should be destroyed and not your whole body go into Gehenna!”?
Does he really want us to maim ourselves? Some people have taken His words literally and done just that. Probably the most well-known was Origen, the great theologian of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, who took these words literally along with those of Matthew 19:12, about making oneself a eunuch: he castrated himself.
In the context of Matthew 5, Jesus had been speaking of sexual desire, although later He uses similar words in a different context, that of causing others, especially children, to stumble (Matthew 18:1-10 – especially verses 8 and 9).
If we recognize the ferocity of sexual temptation, we should have no problem recognizing that our eyes are the members of our bodies that most quickly lead us toward sexual sin, whether mental or physical. (I of course, am speaking as a man; I can’t presume to speak for women; and I’m 71 years old!)
Visual stimulation is relentless and in our day and age it is even more so. Everywhere we turn we are confronted with sexually provocative images. We don’t need to turn to what is known as pornography. These images are everywhere: magazines, billboards, television.
Would literally digging out an eye help me in my struggle? Both eyes? Maybe a little, but I have enough images stored up in my mind to suffice!
Perhaps Paul was speaking similarly in Romans 6, only he was speaking more literally, if a bit euphemistically. “Stop letting sin reign in your mortal body so as to obey its desires, neither go on presenting your members as weapons of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as alive from the dead and your members to God as weapons of righteousness” (6:12, 13).
“For even as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness and further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, to sanctification” (6:19).
So what is meant by “dig out your eye and throw it away”? I believe it means to commit our eyes (and every other member of our bodies) to God – for His use. It means I need to protect my eyes from temptation, as Job did. Job 31:1: “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?”
Sexual desire is God-given and not evil in itself. God told Adam in the garden to “become one flesh with his wife” (Genesis 2:24, 25; also see Hebrews 13:4). But we are not to feed those desires wrongly.
Sometimes we may just have to avoid some situations – even those that just tempt us visually. Paul told the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18), but he told Timothy to “flee youthful desires” (2 Timothy 2:22). I might add that those desires still need fleeing even when one is in his 70s.