THE SURGICAL CURE
If your right eye proves a stumbling-block to you, tear it out and throw it away from you; for it is better that one part of your body should be destroyed, than that your whole body should go away to Gehenna. If your right hand proves a stumbling-block to you, cut it off and throw it away from you; for it is better for you that one part of your body should be destroyed than that your whole body should go away to Gehenna.
Here Jesus makes a great and a surgical demand: he insists that anything which is a cause of, or a seduction to, sin should be completely cut out of life.
The word he uses for a stumbling-block is interesting. It is the word skandalon (GSN4625). Skandalon is a form of the word skandalgithron, which means the bait-stick in a trap. It was the stick or arm on which the bait was fixed and which operated the trap to catch the animal lured to its own destruction. So the word came to mean anything which causes a man’s destruction.
Behind it there are two pictures. First, there is the picture of a hidden stone in a path against which a man may stumble, or of a cord stretched across a path, deliberately put there to make a man trip. Second, there is the picture of a pit dug in the ground and deceptively covered over with a thin layer of branches or of turf, and so arranged that, when the unwary traveller sets his foot on it, he is immediately thrown into the pit. The skandalon (GSN4625), the stumbling-block is something which trips a man up, something which sends him crashing to destruction, something which lures him to his own ruin.
Of course, the words of Jesus are not to be taken with a crude literalism. What they mean is that anything which helps to seduce us to sin is to be ruthlessly rooted out of life. If there is a habit which can be seduction to evil, if there is an association which can be the cause of wrongdoing, if there is a pleasure which could turn out to be our ruin, then that thing must be surgically excised from our life.
Coming as it does immediately after the passage which deals with forbidden thoughts and desires, this passage compels us to ask: How shall we free ourselves from these unclean desires and defiling thoughts? It is the fact of experience that thoughts and pictures come unbidden into our minds, and it is the hardest thing on earth to shut the door to them.
There is one way in which these forbidden thoughts and desires cannot be dealt with–and that is to sit down and to say, I will not think of these things. The more we say, I will not think of such and such a thing, the more our thoughts are in fact concentrated on it.
The outstanding example in history of the wrong way to deal with such thoughts and desires was the hermits and the monks in the desert in the time of the early Church. They were men who wished to free themselves from all earthly things, and especially of the desires of the body. To do so they went away into the Egyptian desert with the idea of living alone and thinking of nothing but God.
The most famous of them all was Saint Anthony. He lived the hermit’s life; he fasted; he did without sleep; he tortured his body. For thirty-five years he lived in the desert, and these thirty-five years were a non-stop battle, without respite, with his temptations. The story is told in his biography. “First of all the devil tried to lead him away from discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, cares for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table, and the other relaxations of life, and. at last, the difficulty of virtue and the labour of it … The one would suggest foul thoughts. and the other counter them with prayers; the one fire him with lust, the other, as one who seemed to blush, fortify his body with prayers, faith and fasting. The devil one night even took, upon him the shape of a woman, and imitated all her acts simply to beguile Anthony.” So for thirty-five years the struggle went on.
The plain fact is that, if ever anyone was asking for trouble, Anthony and his friends were. It is the inevitable law of human nature that the more a man says he will not think of something, the more that something will present itself to his thoughts. There are only two ways to defeat the forbidden thoughts.
The first way is by Christian action. The best way to defeat such thoughts is to do something, to fill life so full with Christian labour and Christian service that there is no time for these thoughts to enter in; to think so much of others that in the end we entirely forget ourselves; to rid ourselves of a diseased and morbid introspection by concentrating not on ourselves but on other people. The real cure for evil thoughts is good action.
The second way is to fill the mind with good thoughts. There is a famous scene in Barrie’s Peter Pan. Peter is in the children’s bedroom; they have seen him fly; and they wish to fly too. They have tried it from the floor and they have tried it from the beds and the result is failure. “How do you do it?” John asked. And Peter answered: “You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts and they lift you up in the air.” The only way to defeat evil thoughts is to begin to think of something else.
If any man is harassed by thoughts of the forbidden and unclean things, he will certainly never defeat the evil things by withdrawing from life and saying, I will not think of these things. He can do so only by plunging into Christian action and Christian thought. He will never do it by trying to save his own life; he can do it only by flinging his life away for others.
Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary