THE SURGICAL EXCISION
“If your hand or your foot proves a stumbling-block to you, cut it off and throw it away from you. It is the fine thing for you to enter into life maimed or lame, rather than to be cast into everlasting fire with two hands or two feet. And if your eye proves a stumbling-block to you, pluck it out and throw it away from you. It is the fine thing for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than to be cast into the Gehenna of fire with two eyes.”
There are two senses in which this passage may be taken. It may be taken purely personally. It may be saying that it is worth any sacrifice and any self-renunciation to escape the punishment of God.
We have to be clear what that punishment involves. It is here called everlasting and this word everlasting occurs frequently in Jewish ideas of punishment. The word is aionios (GSN0166). The Book of Enoch speaks about eternal judgment, about judgment for ever, about punishment and torture for ever, about the fire which burns for ever. Josephus calls hell an everlasting prison. The Book of Jubilees speaks about an eternal curse. The Book of Baruch says that “there will be no opportunity of returning, nor a limit to the times.” There is a Rabbinic tale of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zaccai who wept bitterly at the prospect of death. On being asked why, he answered.
“All the more I weep now that they are about to lead me before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is He, who lives and abides for ever and for ever and for ever; whose wrath, if he be wrathful, is an eternal wrath; and, if he bind me, his binding is an eternal binding; and if he kills me, his killing is an eternal killing; whom I cannot placate with words, nor bribe with wealth.”
All these passages use the word aionios (GSN0166); but we must be careful to remember what it means. It literally means belonging to the ages; there is only one person to whom the word aionios (GSN0166) can properly be applied, and that is God. There is far more in aionios (GSN0166) than simply a description of that which has no end. Punishment which is aionios (GSN0166) is punishment which it befits God to give and punishment which only God can give. When we think of punishment, we can only say, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” Our human pictures, and our human time-scheme, fail; this is in the hands of God.
But there is one clue which we do have. This passage speaks of the Gehenna (GSN1067) of fire. Gehenna (GSN1067) was the valley of Hinnom, a valley below the mountain of Jerusalem. It was for ever accursed, because it was the place where, in the days of the kingdom, the renegade Jews had sacrificed their children in the fire to the pagan god Moloch. Josiah had made it a place accursed. In later days it became the refuse dump of Jerusalem; a kind of vast incinerator. Always the refuse was burning there, and a pall of smoke and a glint of smouldering fire surrounded it.
Now, what was this Gehenna (GSN1067), this Valley of Hinnom? It was the place into which everything that was useless was cast and there destroyed. That is to say, God’s punishment is for those who are useless, for those who make no contribution to life, for those who hold life back instead of urging life on, for those who drag life down instead of lifting life up, for those who are the handicaps of others and not their inspirations. It is again and again New Testament teaching that uselessness invites disaster. The man who is useless, the man who is an evil influence on others, the man who cannot justify the simple fact of his existence, is in danger of the punishment of God, unless he excises from his life those things which make him the handicap he is.
But it is just possible that this passage is not to be taken so much personally as in connection with the Church. Matthew has already used this saying of Jesus in a different context in Matt. 5:30. Here there may be a difference. The whole passage is about children, and perhaps especially about children in the faith. This passage may be saying, “If in your Church there is someone who is an evil influence, if there is someone who is a bad example to those who are young in the faith, if there is someone whose life and conduct is damaging the body of the Church, he must be rooted out and cast away.” That may well be the meaning. The Church is the Body of Christ; if that body is to be healthy and health-giving, that which has the seeds of cancerous and poisonous infection in it must be even surgically removed.
One thing is certain, in any person and in any Church, whatever is a seduction to sin must be removed, however painful the removal may be, for if we allow it to flourish a worse punishment will follow. In this passage there may well be stressed both the necessity of self-renunciation for the Christian individual and discipline for the Christian Church.
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