Isn’t it Violence for Jesus to Tell Us to Cut off our Hands to Avoid Punishment?–No!

Does Jesus promote violent acts? I don’t think so. Sometimes those who DO think Jesus promotes violence bring up a passage where Jesus tells us to severely injure ourselves. Mark 9 reports this saying of Jesus:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.

It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.

Why would Jesus say this?

Jesus Teaching by James Tissot

Jesus teaching by James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why Would Jesus Say this to Us?–Hyperbole!

I would say this example is not used much by believers who think Jesus promotes violence, for there are few believers who follow through literally on these ideas. However, there have been some from time to time, the most famous of whom might be the ancient Church Father, Origen, who is said to have castrated himself.

Most who use this passage to show Jesus’ violent side seem to be unbelievers who challenge the idea of a consistently loving Jesus. However, the question remains: Why would Jesus say this? I think the simple answer is hyperbole. I agree with my friend, Newton Finn, who commented on this saying in another venue:

Severe sayings like these–difficult, if not impossible, to take literally–seem to be hyperbolic, involving the use of vividly and shockingly exaggerated imagery to drive home a point not merely on the intellectual level but also on the deeper emotional level.

I couldn’t have said this any better myself!

Newton continues:

Might there be something in Jesus’ harshest teachings akin to a father telling his child, to “scare the life out of him” to insure his safety, that if he runs into the street, he’ll be squashed into a pancake?

I, myself, probably would not use the phrase ‘scare the life out of him’ though it is not inappropriate. I would say, instead, that Jesus uses hyperbole to catch people’s attention and strongly emphasize the importance of his point. And Jesus uses hyperbole all the time in the gospels.

What is Jesus’ Point in this Hyperbolic Saying?

If this is so, then what is the important point Jesus makes?

I think it has to do with our new life as followers of Jesus who identify with the kingdom of God. In order for us to participate in the fullness of this new life, there may be hindrances that stand in our way that we need to get rid of. And I am not speaking of legalistic rules we have to follow but personal hindrances.

I think hindrances differ from person to person, and I’m not even going to suggest possibilities. Jesus did, though: he suggested that some people cannot live in the fullness of new life because of attachment to money. He used another example of hyperbole in Mark 10 to make this point:

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

In fact, he told one candidate to sell all he had to give to the poor; but the inquirer sadly declined. This does not mean that the rich cannot experience new life but that, for them, money can be a hindrance to their total commitment to the kingdom.

Hebrews 12 says something similar about hindrances in a sports metaphor:

Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus.

Each of us probably knows what these hindrances are for ourselves. We should always be watching against such things.

What about Hell where the Fire Never Goes Out?

By the way, Jesus’ use of ‘Hell where the Fire Never Goes Out’ is not a reference to eternal torture in a lake of fire, as some people believe. Jesus never taught the existence of such a place. Instead he uses the familiar imagery from Jeremiah of Gehenna, a local valley in Jerusalem, often combined with another familiar passage in Isaiah.

Jesus uses this imagery a lot. If you want to read more about these sources, see Jesus and Old Testament Imagery.

Jesus’ words in today’s saying might seem like a threat, but I think most of Jesus’ ‘threats’ are not threats at all but warnings. He does not threaten us with punishment for our actions, rather he warns us of the natural consequences if we allow certain things to prevent us from experiencing the fullness of life he intends for us. And he delivers his point very effectively through exaggeration—hyperbole.

So is Jesus violent? If he is, there is no support for it in this saying! What IS here is a warning for us to not miss the fullness of new life because of conflicting hindrances.

Articles in this series: Does Jesus Demonstrate Threats and Violence?
Does Jesus Demonstrate Threats and Violence?
Does the Cleansing of the Temple Show Jesus’ Violence? – I Don’t Think So
Addendum to the Cleansing of the Temple—What about the Fig Tree?
What does it Mean that Jesus Brings, not Peace, but a Sword?
3 Possible Reasons Jesus Told His Followers to Carry Swords
Isn’t it Violence for Jesus to Tell Us to Cut off our Hands to Avoid Punishment?
Jesus’ Final Act of Anti-Violence—Crucifixion

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27 Responses to Isn’t it Violence for Jesus to Tell Us to Cut off our Hands to Avoid Punishment?–No!

  1. Pingback: Isn’t it Violence for Jesus to Tell Us to Cut off our Hands to Avoid Punishment? — Jesus Without Baggage | Talmidimblogging

  2. Pingback: 3 Possible Reasons Jesus Told His Followers to Carry Swords | Jesus Without Baggage

  3. Pingback: What does it Mean that Jesus Brings, not Peace, but a Sword? | Jesus Without Baggage

  4. Pingback: Addendum to the Cleansing of the Temple—What about the Fig Tree? | Jesus Without Baggage

  5. Pingback: Does the Cleansing of the Temple Show Jesus’ Violence? – I Don’t Think So | Jesus Without Baggage

  6. Pingback: Does Jesus Demonstrate Threats and Violence? | Jesus Without Baggage

  7. tonycutty says:

    I think you’ve made a fair assessment of Jesus’s intentions and meaning here. Nice one.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. fiddlrts says:

    It does seem bizarre to take this particular saying literally. (Particularly when one doesn’t necessarily take the less hyperbolic commands of Christ literally at all…) Although I have heard stories from ex-fundie friends of people who did literally blind an eye because of their problem with lust.

    It would seem to me, however, that anyone with even a high school education in literature could recognize the hyperbole and dramatic language at work. Symbolic and even bizarre words and actions (see the stuff some of the prophets did) are the stock in trade of literature and history. The human tendency to understand stories as both symbolic and “true” despite not being either literally true or realistic dates back to the dawn of time, and it is only those without imagination that seem to have difficulty with the concept.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree Fiddlrts. Non-literal expression is deeply integrated into our languages. It does not take away from the way we communicate–but enriches it. And it is not a modern development; I like your statement that it “dates back to the dawn of time.”

      Non-literal expression is an effective tool in human communication. Converting literature to literal expression only is like changing our world from color to black and white. It is especially devastating when we try to do that with the Bible.

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  9. Cheryel Lemley-McRoy says:

    As a biblical Hebrew student, I’m learning Hebrew idioms and euphemisms. Some of the things Jesus said that puzzle us are just that. Perhaps if you talked to a Hebrew scholar, I recommend Dr. Roy Blizzard of Little Rock Arkansas, he could tell you what these sayings would mean to an ancient Jew.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve always liked the hyperbole of Jesus. It reminds me of the commentary a stand-up comedian might make. Sometimes the shock of a statement can provide a little clarity to the real message. Jesus is good at offering the shocking statement or the confusing parable. I’m not sure how someone finds a Jesus in the text who actually advocates violence, especially since Jesus is himself, a victim of state violence. Thanks for the post!

    nicholastangen.com

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Nicholas, so do I! Jesus was a great teacher and used language very well. It is too bad that some people cannot see his richness because they read him in a bland way.

      Like

  11. Chas says:

    Tim, the problem with using hyperbole, and certain other facets of rhetoric, is that it assumes that all listeners are capable of understanding the deliberate exaggeration. However, some afflictions, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism, can distort the ability to discern such things, so that a sufferer might take such statements literally. I therefore stand by what I have written on your blog before: I do not, and cannot, believe that Jesus would have used rhetorical tricks when he spoke in public (although he might well have done when speaking to people whom he knew).

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, you raise a good point and an important one. Not everyone understands the point of hyperbole and other devices.

      We assume that Jesus spoke to be understood, but it seems that he sometimes deliberately spoke in ways so that certain people would not understand. While he addressed the masses, and the Pharisees, Jesus often seems to target those who ‘had ears to hear’–a special audience: those who were ready to hear his message.

      I think of his parables. He often had to explain them later to his own disciples. And his discussion on parables with his disciples in Matthew 13 is interesting:

      “The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.'”

      This might seem somewhat selective and perhaps unfair, and I have no answer as to why that was. In fact, I don’t have much in the way of answers at all about why Jesus did not seem to speak literally. I would very much like to hear your thoughts on the Matthew 13 discussion.

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      • Chas says:

        Tim, I agree that people have to have been prepared by God to hear His words, whether these are the Gospel, to guide us into the Kingdom, or certain other things that He wants us to hear and understand once we are in the Kingdom. I think that the writer of Matthew was aware of at least the first. Potentially there is a hard message in this explanation that is attributed to Jesus, because it seems to imply that those who are really in the Kingdom will reap the benefit, while those who think they are in the Kingdom, but actually are not, will potentially lose even that benefit (This is emphasized in Luke’s Gospel, where it says ‘even what they think they have will be taken from them). In regard to the actual words in Matthew 13, perhaps the meaning would be clearer if it said, ‘though looking, they do not see; though listening, they do not hear, or understand,’ which would show that they were trying, but not succeeding.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Chas, I think what you say makes sense. One thing I would say is that I don’t think Jesus deliberately excludes anyone from his message; they just don’t get it because they are not ready to get it. I think everyone will understand it at some point and be able to decide if they are going to ‘hear’ Jesus.

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          • Chas says:

            Tim, I feel sure that God does not exclude anybody from His Presence; in fact He draws us all toward Him, but it is people who exclude themselves by being unwilling to listen to His prompting. However, as you have written, they will be unable to listen until they have been made ready, but whether they then have ears to hear is the key question.

            Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, let me add this as well. I know that sometimes we do not agree on something. This is one example, and of course another is the extent to which we can identify for certain when we are hearing directly from the Holy Spirit.

      However, the reason this happens is that we are both thinkers, and those who think for themselves often come to different conclusions than another who think for themselves. When I cannot agree with someone, it does not imply that I am right and they are wrong; it just means that we don’t see things the same way.

      I respect you highly and do not want to alienate you from the blog. I always enjoy your insights and your take on things even though, occasionally, I don’t see things the same way. One major contribution you make on this blog is in interacting with other commenters. This may be of more value than you are aware. Your voice is a good one and a strong one, and I think you help readers a lot with your responses.

      I hope you are not upset with me because that is not my intention.

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      • Chas says:

        Tim, you will not alienate me from the blog. God brought me here and only He can take me away from it (since I know that you are unlikely to banish me). Our difference on the above point centers ultimately on whether we believe that the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are an approximation to what he really said, or whether they are merely words that come from other people, but which God has used to give us understanding. God can give, and in my view is giving, understanding to others through our interactions on this topic. We should never underestimate Him.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          I am glad to hear it, Chas! And you are right that I am not going to banish you! Why would I even think of doing that?

          Like

  12. newtonfinn says:

    Perhaps one of our problems with understanding Jesus’ teaching is that we often tend to focus on a particular saying or parable, which may appear in different contexts in different gospels or may be lumped together with similar material and thus essentially be context-less. To me, the ultimate revelation given to us in Jesus was a life (more precisely, the last two or three years of a life), which we should strive to understand as a whole. That life comes to us in the form of a story, told biblically in four separate versions, each from its own unique perspective.

    How far would we get in comprehending and experiencing the thrust and significance of a short story–like Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”–if we were primarily focused on pulling out and analyzing specific lines or paragraphs? Which is not to say that particular sayings and parables cannot be illuminated by such an approach, or that it is not interesting and edifying to put sections of scripture under a microscope, but only that the illumination so derived must be seen as “a” point of light in a larger constellation that, only in its fullness, is “the” light.

    I appreciate the way that “Jesus Without Baggage,” no matter what part of Jesus’ teaching is being explored in a given post, remains cognizant of the necessity of this holistic hermeneutic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      Newton, the justification for examining particular passages in detail is that God can give us new understanding by that route, if He wishes to do so. An analogy would be what we can learn about microorganisms by examining them under a microscope, or about what we can learn about the universe by studying one cataclysmic event in it.

      Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Newton, I think you are right. The most important aspect of the Jesus story is the overall impact it has on us. I think the portrait of Jesus in all the gospels is remarkably consistent. It is this that we should grasp before trying to examine each detail.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Jesus’ Final Act of Anti-Violence—Crucifixion | Jesus Without Baggage

  14. michaeleeast says:

    I couldn’t agree more!!

    Liked by 1 person

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