Open Matthew 5:29-30.
Dick Johns was a carpenter and family friend when I was growing up. He was a bit of a loner, but had such a generous heart. He spent countless months constructing buildings for missionaries in Papua New Guinea. One day, Dick lost an eye. We were never sure, but his friends believed Dick took Matthew 5:29 literally and plucked out his own eye.
If you asked Dick what he thought this text meant, he would have told you something like this. Your soul is much more important than your body. Your body is temporary, but your soul is immortal. The most important thing in life is that you end up in Heaven, not Hell. Better to lose an eye from your body now than for your soul to suffer torment forever.
But read the text again:
Matthew 5:29–30 (ESV)
29 … For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 … For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Whatever Jesus meant by hell (Gehenna in Greek), it was not a place where disembodied souls or spirits suffered. It was a place where bodies were thrown. He said that twice. Better to lose a body part than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.
How can we read these verses so often and never notice that Jesus was talking about bodies being dumped into Gehenna? It’s what we call cultural blindness. We bring our assumptions to the text, and those assumptions limit what we see. Our assumptions have developed in the western branch of the church, growing from Roman Catholicism and the Reformation. The eastern branch of the church (e.g. Greek Orthodox) is just as ancient, but has never understood how those of us in the western branch could have made such a mistake. (See the quotation below.)
In this brief post, we can’t wander into the other passages where Gehenna is mentioned. We need to get back to why Jesus talked about pulling out your eye or chopping off your hand.
The context in which this makes sense is the legal system God gave to Israel, where every violation of the Law received a matching penalty. If you blinded someone, your eye would be removed. If you maimed someone, you would be maimed. Quite literally, it was “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Exodus 21:24).
There are still cultures today where a thief may have his hand cut off if he’s caught. It’s more than retribution; it’s social shaming. With a hand missing, you’re dependent on others to give you a hand. With an eye missing, you don’t look so good.
Jesus is saying, “Judge yourself!” Don’t wait for someone else to find you guilty of adultery; pronounce the penalty on yourself and remove your guilty eye. Don’t wait for a court to judge you guilty of murder: pronounce the penalty on yourself and remove your guilty hand. Then God won’t deliver you over to your enemies, as happened when the kingdom fell apart. When Babylon invaded, people lost more than an eye or a hand; their whole body was thrown into Gehenna, the notorious valley within sight of the temple mount. If they had judged themselves, they would not have been judged by God.
We already saw that the horror of all the bodies being burned in Gehenna was judgement the people suffered for the murderous attitudes of their leaders. Jewish literature also described ineffective communal overseers as “weak eyes” (b. Taan. 24A). 600 years after the kingdom fell to Babylon, they still didn’t have the kingdom back. As the Pharisees and lawyers keep reminding everyone, it’s as if the nation was still under God’s judgement. Under their leadership, the people would never have the kingdom back (5:20). The leaders must take personal responsibility for this failure. They needed to judge themselves. Cryptically, Jesus is instructing them to remove themselves from office so the whole body of the nation won’t continue to suffer judgement. They should stand down and make way for the leader God has anointed, the king who can restore the kingdom.
Jesus didn’t say that outright of course. If he had, instead of cutting off their own hand of power, they would have cut him off! His kingship claims were necessarily oblique, but they are the heart of the story. As Israel’s true leader, Jesus did have a plan to restore the kingdom to his people.
Does this make more sense of Jesus’ words than my friend Dick Johns did?
What others are saying
Here’s an example of how the eastern Orthodox church has understood hell differently to the west, even accusing us of misrepresenting God.
Christos Yannaras, Elements of Faith: An Introduction to Orthodox Theology, trans. Keith Schram (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2006), 112:
The changes which this theory occasioned in the faith of the Church is literally incalculable. It changed the truth of God by subordinating the freedom of his love to the relentless necessity of an egocentric and savage justice which demanded sadistic satisfaction. The God of the Church, from being a Father and “passionate lover” of mankind, was transformed into an implacable judge and menacing avenger whose justice rejoices (according to the view of Augustine) when it sees the sinners who are being tormented in hell.
Yael Shahar (contemporary female Jewish writer), Jewish Politics and the Art of Accountability (2016):
In Mishnaic times, the tension between governor and governed was evident. “If the eyes are weak, there’s no need to examine the rest of the body for illness.” (Taanit 24a) This acerbic critique of the government (the “eyes of the community”) was delivered by one Oshaiah the Younger during the rule of the grandson of Yehuda HaNasi in the 3rd Century CE. Misconduct at the top weakens the entire social organism.
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