THE GOAL WHICH IS WORTH ANY SACRIFICE
If your hand proves a stumbling-block to you, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to go away to Gehenna with two hands, to the fire that can never be quenched. And if your foot is a stumbling-block to you, cut it off. For it is better for you to enter life lame than to be cast into Gehenna with two feet. And if your eye proves a stumbling-block to you, cast it away. For it is better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye than to be cast into Gehenna with two eyes, where their worm does not die and the fire is never quenched.
This passage lays down in vivid eastern language the basic truth that there is one goal in life worth any sacrifice. In physical matters it may be that a man may have to part with a limb or with some part of the body to preserve the life of the whole body. The amputation of some limb or the excision of some part of the body by surgical means is sometimes the only way to preserve the life of the whole body. In the spiritual life the same kind of thing can happen.
The Jewish Rabbis had sayings based on the way in which some parts of the body can lend themselves to sin. “The eye and the heart are the two brokers of sin.” “The eye and the heart are the two handmaids of sin.” “Passions lodge only in him who sees.” “Woe to him who goes after his eyes for the eyes are adulterous.” There are certain instincts in man, and certain parts of man’s physical constitution, which minister to sin. This saying of Jesus is not to be taken literally, but is a vivid eastern way of saying that there is a goal in life worth any sacrifice to attain it.
There are in this passage repeated references to Gehenna. Gehenna is spoken of in the New Testament in Matt.5:22,29,30; Matt.10:28; Matt.18:9; Matt.23:15; Matt.23:33; Lk.12:5; Jas.3:6. The word is regularly translated Hell. It is a word with a history. It is a form of the word Hinnom. The valley of Hinnom was a ravine outside Jerusalem. It had an evil past.
It was the valley in which Ahaz, in the old days, had instituted fire worship and the sacrifice of little children in the fire. “He burned incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burned his sons as an offering.” (2Chr.28:3). That terrible heathen worship was also followed by Manasseh (2Chr.33:6). The valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, therefore, was the scene of one of Israel’s most terrible lapses into heathen customs. In his reformations Josiah declared it an unclean place. “He defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech.” (2Kgs.23:10).
When the valley had been so declared unclean and had been so desecrated it was set apart as the place where the refuse of Jerusalem was burned. The consequence was that it was a foul, unclean place, where loathsome worms bred on the refuse, and which smoked and smouldered at all times like some vast incinerator. The actual phrase about the worm which does not die, and the fire which is not quenched, comes from a description of the fate of Israel’s evil enemies in Isa.66:24.
Because of all this Gehenna had become a kind of type or symbol of Hell, the place where the souls of the wicked would be tortured and destroyed. It is so used in the Talmud. “The sinner who desists from the words of the Law will in the end inherit Gehenna.” So then Gehenna stands as the place of punishment, and the word roused in the mind of every Israelite the grimmest and most terrible pictures.
But what was the goal for which everything must be sacrificed? It is described in two ways. Twice it is called life, and once it is called the Kingdom of God. How may we define the Kingdom of God? We may take our definition from the Lord’s Prayer. In that prayer two petitions are set beside each other. “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” There is no literary device so characteristic of Jewish style as parallelism. In parallelism two phrases are set side by side, the one of which either restates the other, or amplifies, explains and develops it. Any verse of the Psalms will show this device in action. So, then, we may take it that in the Lord’s Prayer the one petition is an explanation and amplification of the other. When we set the two together we get the definition that, “The Kingdom of Heaven is a society upon earth in which God’s will is as perfectly done in earth as it is in heaven.”
We may then go on to say quite simply that perfectly to do God’s will is to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. And if we take that and apply it to the passage we are now studying it will mean that it is worth any sacrifice and any discipline and any self-denial to do the will of God and only in doing that will is there real life and ultimate and completely satisfying peace.
Origen takes this symbolically. He says that it may be necessary to excise some heretic or some evil person from the fellowship of the Church in order to keep the body of the Church pure. But this saying is meant to be taken very personally. It means that it may be necessary to excise some habit, to abandon some pleasure, to give up some friendship, to cut out some thing which has become very dear to us, in order to be fully obedient to the will of God. This is not a matter with which anyone can deal for anyone else. It is solely a matter of a man’s individual conscience, and it means that, if there is anything in our lives which is coming between us and a perfect obedience to the will of God, however much habit and custom may have made it part of our lives, it must be rooted out. The rooting out may be as painful as a surgical operation, it may seem like cutting out part of our own body, but if we are to know real life, real happiness and real peace it must go. This may sound bleak and stern, but in reality it is only facing the facts of life.
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