Matthew 5:29-30, right eye, right hand, or Gehenna
5:29 “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.(Matt 5:29-30 WEB)
5:30 If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.”
This is a tough saying, for we all find it impossible to avoid wrong thoughts triggered by what we see, or inadvertently end up with a hand in something wrong. We may successfully resist the temptation of physical adultery, yet still know that our thoughts betray us. Is Jesus really suggesting self-harm as a valid way to avoid sin? A few have certainly assumed that was so. However, the overwhelming majority prefer to interpret the passage figuratively or as a case of exaggeration for effect.
So what was Gehenna, if it was so important to avoid ending up there? In Jesus’ day it was a rubbish dump, just outside the city-wall of Jerusalem, but one that served an important sacred function. Ritual cleanliness was a key part of the Jewish sacrificial system and there had to be a place to dispose of objects that became defiled beyond use. Gehenna was where any such item would have been burned or smashed. Thus, the focus of this passage is on remaining useful in the service of God.
This saying is probably inspired by a passage in the book of Job, in which Job declares that he has not deviated from God’s righteous way and sinned with his eye, his hand or his foot. All three organs are mentioned by Jesus in very similar teaching in another context, yet here the choice, to mention only the eye and hand, and specifically the right ones, appears deliberate.
Traditionally the right has been associated with goodness, the left with evil, whilst the eye cast light, determining how other people were viewed, and the hand wielded power. Hence, a good eye looked upon a person benevolently or with honour and offering the right hand place conferred authority or blessing. A simple interpretation of these metaphors suggests that it is better to break a friendship, withdraw from a benevolent relationship, or to step aside from a position of authority, than let it cause you to stumble into an unholy relationship and become entirely worthless. Indeed quite similar ideas are explored in some of the earliest commentaries on this passage.
Other commentators, noting the extremity of the actions required, emphasise the importance of radical separation from any causes of sin. Whatever it might cost the disciple, it is, they suggest, better to pay that cost than to let sin render you fit only for Gehenna. The weakness of this idea lies, as Jesus had just pointed out, in the sinfulness of human thoughts, for no matter how much is cut away, the ultimate cause of sin will still remain. Such a simple metaphorical interpretation would have been consistent with the general ethics of Judaism, whilst the Pharisees of Jesus’ day would have been perfectly comfortable with its radical separation approach. However, if you factor into your interpretation the Hebrew Bible’s sole reference to gouging out the right eye, the punishment the prophet Zechariah mandates for a worthless shepherd, and the military purpose of cutting off hands, then a different message emerges. One where the radical action is not aimed at avoiding sin, but at pointing out the way to escape the consequences of the sin that ensnares us all.
In the ancient middle-east, the gouging out of one, or both, eyes and the cutting off one, or both, hands were standard punishments for rebellion. The Bible refers to such practices in several places, e.g. when Dathan and Abiram rebel against Moses, when Sampson is captured by the Philistines, or when Nebuchadnezzar subjugates Hezekiah. Hence, Zechariah announces that the rebellious shepherd (i.e. leader) will be struck on the arm and the eye. In Judges the men of Jabesh Gilead are invited to accept the authority of Nahash the Ammonite and have their right eye gouged out, or face total destruction. The practice was still extant in the time of Jesus, for, from first-century Galilee, the Jewish historian Josephus provides a first-hand account of such an incident. Josephus states that, in quelling a rebellion, he offered the rebel leader a choice, accept submission by cutting off their own right hand or face a worse penalty.
Only Jesus had the authority to atone for sins and appoint a priesthood, so if what you saw ensnared you, or what you did left you trapped in sin, then the only way out of that was to stop rebelling against Jesus and accept him as your Lord, whatever the personal cost of doing that might be, even if, as a first-century leader might have anticipated, that would require the voluntary loss of both eye and hand in an act of supreme contrition. Yet the experience of the early Church was that, if the willingness for such contrition was evident, the sacrifice of hand or eye was no longer a necessity.
Further notes are also available on the similar passage in Mark 9:36-50.