“If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.” (Matthew 18:8-9)
These verses have sometimes been taken literally and, in extreme cases, used as a reason for bodily mutilation or removal of a hand, foot or eye. But is this really what Jesus meant for his followers to do?
The answer is found in two simple facts. First, Jesus often used figurative language in instructing his disciples and the crowds he taught. In fact, Jesus specifically used the eye and the hand with clear figurative intent on other occasions. Consider these two examples also found in the Gospel of Matthew: “The eye is the lamp of the body” (Matthew 6:22), and “… when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). Clearly neither of these statements is meant to be understood literally.
Secondly, sin is caused by the mind and not by any bodily part or organ (James 1:14-16); and it is not possible for a hand or eye to sin of itself. For example, if our eye is involved in lusting, taking it out does not remove the sin because the mind can still continue to lust. The only way to remove the sin is to effect an inward change of the mind, as Jesus himself taught (for example, Matthew 23:25-27). The Hebrew Scriptures forbid cutting the body (Leviticus 19:28), and Jesus never contradicted any part of the law in his own teaching (Matthew 5:17-20) – only, on occasion, strengthening it.
When we remember that Jesus so often spoke figuratively using metaphors, similes, and parables, we can understand that in speaking of a hand, foot or eye that cause us to sin, he was really referring to someone or something in life that might be instrumental in causing us to sin. In fact, there is good indication that Jesus was actually referring to people in our lives who might cause us to sin. The words of Matthew 18:8-9 and Mark 9:43-47 appear directly after the statement that “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). The context would seem to indicate, then, that Jesus was referring to individuals who might cause sin to occur and who must be “cut off” even if they are as close to us as a part of our own body.
In Matthew 5:29 a similar figure of speech regarding removing a hand or eye is used in a different context, that of adultery, but once again there is no reason not to conclude that it is the person involved in the adulterous behavior that we must remove from our lives, not a physical body part.
This principle was applied directly by the early church in removing or “cutting off” any individual who, as part of the “body” (Romans 12:5), caused others in the church to sin (1 Corinthians 5:1–13, etc.).