What is this verse really about? I’m not 100% sure but this image came up in my newsfeed today and it got me thinking. I’m not claiming any authority to know what this means but I have written down my thinking process o you can read along and see if you come to similar conclusions.
“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18:7-9 NIV)
This is the version of this verse most Christians will be familiar with. As a young single Christian man struggling with reigning in my bodily desires, my main area of persistent struggle involved two eyes and at least one hand so this verse appeared to have a very clear meaning to me. What prevented any serious self-inflicted body modifications at that time was the knowledge that being a blind amputee probably wouldn’t be a great witness to the redemptive power of Christ in my life. I was given some pretty terrible advice around masturbation at that time, but I’m thankful that nobody ever suggested “Well if it is causing you this much of a problem, just cut off your hand and gouge your eyes out”.
But why? For a church that believed the Bible to be the literal word of God, why pick and choose what verses you’re going to follow? I thought about that a lot at the time. Then, like most Christians, I packed that verse away in the closet with the verses about beating your wife and never trimming your facial hair. Today though, I want to kick away the cobwebs and bring this verse out into the open to see what it really says. So let’s break it down.
Firstly, let’s make a note that this chunk is located after Jesus putting a child amongst the disciples and telling them that whoever is least in society will be greatest in heaven Immediately after he tells the disciples not to hate those who are least in society because God care for each one.
Before we get too deep into the specifics, it is important to note that there is no single “correct translation” for words in this context. The Hebrew language and the Hebrew usage of Ancient Greek in the first century are heavy with double and triple meanings. Every word choice carries cultural innuendo and connotations and the correct understanding includes these subtexts for the words rather than attempting to completely substitute an English word in place of the original word. In breaking down the meanings of individual words, I will attempt to determine the active use of the word in context but also reveal the subtle secondary meanings that a native speaker would have understood as part of the meaning.
“Woe to the world for temptations to sin!”
The single word that this version converts into “temptation to sin” is σκανδαλίζω (skan-dal-id’-zo). The roots of the word are to do with falling into a trap and its use at the time could mean anything from tripping over something on the ground to becoming indignant. It could also mean to be caused to sin. So this sentence starts with exasperation; follows with the subject which can be the physical world or society at large, which is being affected by something causing a trip or indignation. We could translate this as “Damn it all for these scandals!”
For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!
This section doesn’t go into why it is necessary for temptations to come but it does call it necessary. The word here is ἀνάγκη, ης, ἡ (an-ang-kay’). The roots imply a timely action to meet an immediate need and are generally positive in their connotation. The word can imply compulsion or even violent force. So temptation is a force for good that is forced onto society and all of the individual members of society.
“but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”
Woah there! It is a good thing but woe to the person who brings it? Pretty much. So if the temptation is my lustful thoughts toward beautiful women then the one who brings temptation or indignation must be the woman right? So fuck her right? Just a second! Check the context, we’re right in the middle of two verses saying that those who are least in society (and women and children were about as low is you could get in that culture) are the greatest in God’s kingdom. So who is responsible for sexually objectifying women? Whose fault is it if a woman who is dressed provocatively is sexually assaulted? Let’s read on!
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away
Boom! You are responsible for what you do with your own body. Jesus doesn’t tell women to cover up to avoid becoming a temptation to men. He instead tells a room full of men that if they are worried that their hands will cause them to commit an act that would cause outrage and indignation in the community that it would be better to mutilate their own body then to act on those impulses. More importantly, he makes it clear where the responsibility lies.
The word here for hand is χείρ, χειρός, ἡ (khire) which can mean the thing at the end of your arm or in can be the means you use to carry out an action. So if your broadband connect is causing you to sin then it would be better to unplug it. The cause is still clear, it is the thing the sinner uses to act on their temptation that causes the sin, NOT the object of their desire. I’ve gone into a lot of detail in a previous post about what the Bible means when it talks about “feet”. This chunk could easily be seen as saying that if your penis causes you to rape, then it would be better to chop it off than to rape somebody.
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.
The new word here is ὀφθαλμός, οῦ, ὁ (of-thal-mos’) which can mean a physical eye but is also talking about the imagination. Again, there is no blame placed on the thing or person you are looking at. The one who brings temptation to men in terms of sexual sin is your mind, your means of action, and your dick.
It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire… It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire
There’s only a few things to address here. The word that translates as one eyed has no added meaning as it would in English. It just means having only one eye. The references to eternal fire and hell fire are both referencing a belief held by Pharisees (a Jewish sect who differed from the traditionalist Sadducees for their belief in eternal life, angels, demons, eternal punishment beyond death, and an emphasis on oral tradition over the authority of scripture).
So to bring it all together:
Damn these actions that cause scandal and outrage in our community! Outrage is important and beneficial to social growth but damn you if you’re the one who brings it! You want to blame your circumstances or opportunities for your actions in harming vulnerable people? Well I’ll tell you this! If your position of authority makes you take advantage of the people in your care, then quit. If your penis makes you rape, cut it off. And if your mind is just hard wired to hurt vulnerable people then a lobotomy would be a good step. You don’t have to do those things, but if you can’t control your urges any other way, it would be better to do that than to commit crimes that harm the vulnerable members of society because if I catch you harming kids with your power, your penis or your imagination I will set you on fire forever.
Sorry this isn’t more concise. I’m just rambling through the book at this stage. I might put something together later that is a bit more solid after I’ve had more time to think on it. Do you agree with my conclusions? Do you think the verse means something different? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!