It Takes Brains

 

Tearing Out Your Eye and Quitting Your Job

Matthew Gilliland

January 15, 2015

Matthew Gilliland holds a J.D. from North Carolina Central University School of Law.


Jesus presents a considerable challenge to every believer in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5:

29If 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 for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And 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 for your whole body to go into hell. (Matt. 5:29-30, NRSV)

On its face, Jesus seems to be suggesting self-mutilation, but that is easily dismissed. Hands and eyes do not choose. They have no agency. They cannot cause you to stumble. Rather, these evils arise from the depths of the human soul, which the Bible calls the heart (Matt. 15:19). Thankfully, through grace we are saved from the duty of cutting out our hearts; Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection to new life has atoned for our sin, so instead we may repent and turn away from our sin and be forgiven. We are not permanently broken, and can be fixed through His grace and favor.

This realization, however, leads us to implications for this passage that can potentially be far more uncomfortable for our daily lives. We are not broken systems. Some systems, however, are broken. Some systems cannot be redeemed – their evil is inherent to them and cannot be excised.

As an example, take prostitution. The job requires fornication, which is sinful. One cannot go about the task of prostitution in a way that is consistent with Christianity, and so if a prostitute is or becomes a Christian, the Biblical prescription would be for him or her to tear that out of their life and throw it away. This is fairly uncontroversial.

But what of the soldier? Most Christians think of the military as an honorable job, and yet there has been no war in history in which a side did not do things that were both sanctioned or sinful. The funding mechanism for war, even in cases of defense against aggressors, is theft. “Collateral damage” is commonplace, and the Christian Right has been quick to justify killing – at least the killing of God’s Own U.S. Military – broadly and with little exception.

The clear conclusion is that this is a broken system. There is no cleansing available to something that involves sin as part of its design. There is no reform available to such institutions. Repentance requires a turning away from the sinful behavior, and in an institution that is built on the sin, that is not possible. This is the sense in which outside influences can “cause” one to stumble. One is still responsible for the choice of engaging with those influences, and turning away from them means cutting them out of one’s life. If your job necessarily causes you to stumble – even a high-paying, comfortable job, or a job others respect you for and think is honorable – tear it away from you.

This also applies to the State as a whole. As Nietzsche said, “The state lies in all the tongues of good and evil; and whatever it says it lies; and whatever it has it has stolen. Everything in it is false; it bites with stolen teeth, and bites often. It is false down to its bowels.” Christians can only serve one master, and in a choice between the State and Christ, one hopes the decision should be easy.

Many early Christians seem to have taken this view. Laurence Vance, in an excellent discussion of The Early Christian Attitude Towards War by C. John Cadoux, notes that the Didascalia (a collection of instructions for church leaders) cautioned against accepting money for the church from executioners, some politicians, killers, and “soldiers who behave unrightously.” Cadoux also cites, among others, the early theologians Tertullian and Origen, who believed military service to be incompatible with Christianity.

If we zoom out for a moment to get some perspective, we can see that this viewpoint is a more consistent application of Scripture to a world marred by sin. All Christians know that murder and theft are wrong. Libertarian Christians simply understand that this also applies to what others excuse as “preventive war” or “progressive taxation.”

That can be a hard truth to swallow.

Take a look at your life. Is any job, habit, or hobby you engage in something that you cannot do without sinning? Are you able to go to the bar without drinking to excess? Can you serve God while fulfilling your contract with your boss? If the answer is no, then cut that thing away from you. It doesn’t matter if it is a “normal” thing, like having a few extra drinks, or even something admired and glorified by society, such as being a cop, Marine, or politician. Look at it. Can you do that without sin?

Here is where the rubber meets the road. As Christians, we are responsible for what we know to be right and wrong. When we receive revelation that something you once thought was right is actually sinful (and this happens to the best of us!), we will have to choose. Will we go with what is easy, normal, and traditional, or will we follow Christ?

This passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is preaching something radical; he is taking the commands of the Torah, and reading into it something beyond a mere adherence to rules. Turning one’s cheek, loving one’s neighbor, and returning blessing for insult are not natural behaviors for sinful people. They require a true change of heart and a firm commitment to cling to Christ even when it isn’t comfortable.

If we heed this admonition, then we may be mocked by the world. Where evil is normal, a righteous man is really, really weird. We could even be accused of evil ourselves those who have stood for peace have often been targets of those promoting war. If that happens, remember Jesus’ promise earlier in the chapter: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:11-12)


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