Pluck out your eye? Putting it in Context

If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. Matthew 18:9

Eye patchSome of the sayings of Jesus are so strong that we wonder if Jesus really wants us to take them literally. Should we really pluck out our eye, as the verse above says? Is it really harder for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than a rich man to enter God’s kingdom? Is is really better to be drowned with a millstone than to lead a little one astray? Jesus’ words can make us wince when we aren’t quite sure how to take them.

One thing to keep in mind is that exaggeration was very much a part of Jesus’ rabbinic culture. To drive home the importance of what they taught, rabbis often spoke this way. For instance,

When three eat at one table and words of Torah are not spoken there, it is as if they ate at the altars of the dead… But when three eat at one table and bring up words of Torah, it is as if they ate from the table of God! (Mishnah, Avot 3.2-3)

The point of this teaching is to emphasize that people should try to always include discussion of the scriptures when they eat together. Likening a meal without Torah study to worshipping in an idolatrous temple is a strong overstatement intended for emphasis. Here’s another example:

The pain of humiliation is more bitter than death. Therefore, one should rather fling himself into a fiery furnace than humiliate someone in public. (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a)

Here we have a saying that sounds a lot like “pluck out your eye.” The point is to emphasize the utter importance of never humiliating another person. In the same way, Jesus was stressing the importance of avoiding sin in every possible way.

Knowing this aspect of Jesus’ culture should give us some sense of how his audience heard statements like, “Unless you hate your mother and father… you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). He sounded like many other rabbis who said extreme things to reinforce the importance of their teaching. People took these teachings seriously, but knew they were overstatements for effect.

Don’t forget that a person can be deadly serious even as they exaggerate. Imagine that your mother shouted at you, “When your father gets home and sees you, he’s going to go through the roof!” Just because your father won’t literally go through the roof when he gets home doesn’t mean that you’re not in big trouble.

We must be careful never to minimize Jesus’ high calling away as exaggeration. But at the same time, we gain wisdom for understanding Jesus’ words by getting a better idea of how they would have been heard in his time.

Comments

18 Responses to “Pluck out your eye? Putting it in Context”

  1. 1
    RedWell|January 4, 2012

    Helpful stuff, thanks. Too bad Origen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origen) didn’t get the memo.

  2. 2
    Kurt Willems|January 4, 2012

    Hi Lois,

    I completely agree with your application of the plucking out the eye passage here. The difficulty comes in asking questions of which sayings are indeed intentional exaggerations and which ones are clear. I believe the sermon on the mount contains both. The passages on nonviolent resistance in matthew 5, do not follow the excessive rabbinic pattern. For instance… I don’t see how Jesus saying “love your enemies…” and then adding that we should pray for our persecutors could fit the exaggeration category. The same is true in the preceding verses about “not violently resisting and evil person”. but this is a much longer conversation :-)

    (FOR THOSE WONDERING WHY I GO OFF ON A TANGENT, LOIS AND I ARE IN A SMALL DISCUSSION ON THE NONVIOLENT TEACHINGS OF JESUS: http://wp.me/p1uh82-15Y )

  3. 3
    Lois|January 4, 2012

    Kurt –

    Thanks for your thoughts and comments here. (I’ll respond about nonviolence on your site.)

    My one comment is that by pointing out this style of teaching, I’m not saying that we can split Jesus commands into two categories – clearly literal (we should do them) and exaggerated (we can ignore them).

    Even when Jesus uses overstatement, he’s being quite emphatic and serious about his point. Even if he isn’t literally commanding that we “pluck out an eye,” he’s still stressing the importance of going to every extremity to avoid sin. Even if he wasn’t telling followers to hate their parents, he’s still insisting that being a disciple take precedence over every other human relationship.

    When I didn’t know about this hyperbolic style of speaking, I actually found it easier to set aside Jesus’ commands. I’d say, “whew, glad I’m saved by grace” and ignore them altogether.

    (I’ll continue on your blog…)

  4. 4
    Joel Scott|February 10, 2012

    ‘m surprised this is a problem for most Americans. We use quite a bit of hyperbole. I thought its use by Jesus was obvious in all the Gospel passages to which you refer.

    I’m equally surprised by your conclusion that, since hyperbole was used, you could ignore those passages. For what it’s worth, I had the opposite reaction!

  5. 5
    Craig|February 10, 2012

    Thanks Lois! That helps. In recent years I’ve read this passage with an ear for sarcasm. And was ‘hearing’ Jesus say “If your eye or hand is actually capable of leading you into sin, you better cut it off! But how silly, of course it is not the hand or eye that leads us into sin, but our hearts.”
    So I read this as a similar teaching to that found in Matthew 15:18-19 or Luke 6:45. But since we can’t cut out our hearts without dying, is he also talking about dying to self?
    What do you think of this approach to the passage? Is it a mistake to ever read Jesus words and think he’s speaking sarcastically?

  6. 6
    Evona|February 11, 2012

    Interesting. Hadn’t thought of them as hyperbole, although in teaching literature and writing I have often taught hyperbole as a literary form. This opens up a new way of understanding.

  7. 7
    Aubrey Sytsma|March 23, 2012

    These are the kind of verses that people tend to take out of context. You have to look deeper into the meaning in able to figure out what its really seeing. I feel like are very similar to how the people interpreted the scripture back then. We also get into groups now a days and discuss what we think it is trying to say. This allows us to think and have the opportunity to dig deeper in our faith with one another.

  8. 8
    Jenna|March 23, 2012

    This is very insightful. I’ve read these passages and had trouble relating to them because I knew I wouldn’t actually cut out my eye. Understanding that many other rabbis used this form of teaching as well makes it easier to understand why Jesus said these things. It reaffirms his teachings that he doesn’t want us to take them literally but to take the idea behind them. He made them as overstatements on purpose and didn’t expect others to actually do these things, but to remember the point behind them.
    Thank you for your thoughts!

  9. 9
    Jenna Jongekrijg|March 23, 2012

    This helps me a ton with how to react to the passages that seem like an over exaggeration. To notice that Jesus is trying to show how important the passage is by taking it a step further. The difficult part is knowing when he meant to exaggerate and when he is not.

  10. 10
    Layne|March 23, 2012

    Thanks Lois! Reading your post was very helpful, thinking of Jesus teachings of hyperbole makes much more sense. Now as I read the teachings of Jesus I will understand them in a different way.

    Thanks so much!

  11. 11
    Ellen|March 23, 2012

    I found this article very interesting because I had always found these types of passages, like Matthew 18:9, somewhat confusing. It’s helpful to know that exaggeration was a big part of Jesus’ rabbinic culture because this shows the real meaning of the passage. Now, when coming across a passage like Matthew 18, I know that Jesus doesn’t always want us to take his sayings literally.

  12. 12
    Danielle|March 25, 2012

    I enjoyed reading this because I could really relate a lot of it to what we have been learning in class. I feel like some people took Jesus SO literally when he was preaching, that it almost counteracted the lesson for them. This is yet another reason why learning about the culture at Jesus’ time is so crucial to understanding what Jesus meant during his teachings.

  13. 13
    Olivia|March 26, 2012

    Should we really take things literally? I completely agree with you when you say that in that time and culture that it was probably a lot of exaggeration and that the important part of his teachings is what we actually learn from what was taught. I think this article is great because it helps us to understand about the time period and culture in order to realize that we shouldn’t always take everything literally.

  14. 14
    luis carlos|August 12, 2012

    A new discovery to me about the Jesus words’s significance.
    thanks!

  15. 15
    KTR|October 10, 2012

    Well, of course we are to cut off our sinful hand. The question is, with what? Even a double-edged sword is too dull. If only there were something sharper . . . .

  16. 16
    Kaitlyn B.|March 10, 2014

    I never thought about if we should take Jesus word when he says things like to pluck out our eye. I never really questioned it. I think its cool how exaggeration was a part of Jesus culture. I never would have thought that back in that day they exaggerated things. They are kind of like us today and exaggerate things to emphasize their point. Its cool that the people of that day knew to take things seriously, even though they knew Jesus and other rabbis were just exaggerating. I like when it says that just because a person is exaggerating doesn’t mean they aren’t serious.

  17. 17
    Robert cranium|April 4, 2014

    Who was Jesus speaking to when he said pluck out your eye? My interpretation is that he was speaking to those who were not baptisezed. His words were directed to those who could not understand repentance and therefore better to put you eye out. He was challenging everyone to SEE THAT THEY ARE SINNERS. Once you become a baptized believer you no longer are condensed to sin. REPENT.

  18. 18
    Stephen|October 20, 2014

    I was told by jewish believer in the Messiah that eye for an eye meant that if you hurt a person’s eye you would be their eyes till they recovered.

    If you knocked out a person’s tooth then you would prepare food that person could eat till they got better.

    Good article.

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