The Gospel text today is pretty gruesome with its talk of chopping your hand or foot off or tearing out your eye. I do not think that Jesus intends us to take these words literally. According to the scholars they are an example of what is called Biblical hyperbole. In other words, an exaggeration to make a point.
This is something we all do from time to time. We try to impress something important on our children and we often exaggerate the bad effects of doing a particular thing, especially if it is dangerous, with the intention of keeping them safe. We do not intend our words to be taken at face value as long as the child understands that we are talking about something serious and that he does not go running into the road or start talking to strangers.
Jesus is exaggerating in order to make sure we know just how bad sin is. He is warning us that sin corrupts our interior life and that by falling into the habit of serious sin we are very likely to jeopardise our eternal salvation.
A phrase from the liturgy of Baptism comes to mind. The priest instructs the parents and god-parents when he says, ‘See that the divine life which God gives this child is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in his heart.’ Sin is not literally a poison but it can have the same effect as a poison because sin kills the spiritual life and cuts us off from God.
It is right that Jesus warns his disciples about the harmful effects of sin. And if he left it at that it would be an important lesson that the disciples could observe in their lives. But of course, Jesus does not leave it at that. No, Jesus does far more because he gives his life in sacrifice to take all our sins away. He doesn’t just warn us about sin. No, when we turn to him in a spirit of repentance he heals us of our sins.
However, when we look at the text carefully we see the words, ‘If your hand or foot or eye should cause you to sin then you had better cut it off.’ But, of course, our hand or foot or eye cannot actually cause us to sin. Our hand or foot or eye has no consciousness; they don’t have the ability to do things by themselves.
The seat of sin is in our volition, in an act of our own will. A hand or an eye cannot cause sin but the brain can. Sin is the result of the choices we make. We think about what we want to do in a specific set of circumstances, we go over the options open to us, and then we choose to sin. Sin arises from within, from the inappropriate desires that we have.
We sin when we give way to laziness instead of fulfilling our responsibilities. We sin when we slip something into our bag when in a shop so that we avoid paying for it. We sin when we tell a lie instead of admitting the truth. We sin when we neglect our prayers or decide to stay in bed rather than go to mass. We sin when we give into the temptation to gossip about our neighbour. In all these circumstances we are making a choice, we are deciding to sin.
We know that the way to avoid sin is to instil some self-discipline in our lives. We avoid sin by consistently choosing to do good. We make a life-decision, and decide that we will live good lives, that we will be honest, that we will not pass judgement on our neighbours, that we will perform our religious duties. We make that one big decision and then from it flow a hundred little decisions. Those little decisions are made every day, each time we are presented with a temptation.
And it is important that those little decisions reinforce that one big decision that we have made to live our lives in accordance with the will of God. They strengthen our resolve and lead us in the right direction in life.
Earlier I said that the hand or the eye cannot sin. But, of course, they can be used to commit sin. Maybe the hand is used to do something we shouldn’t such as to pick up money someone has left lying around. The foot can be used for sin when we walk to somewhere we have no right to be. And also, the eye can be used for sinful purposes such as looking at things we shouldn’t be looking at. So, the hand and the foot and the eye have their role but the sin is in our consciousness, the sin is in our decision making.
When we are talking about sinning and not sinning it is important never to underestimate the importance of habit. If we yield to temptation and do something wrong we might at first struggle with ourselves because we know that we will be doing a bad thing, especially if it is for the first time. The second time we are tempted we don’t have the same struggle. By the tenth time we have become habituated and begin to think that whatever we are doing is not even a sin.
This is how the Evil One reels us in. He is the one who suggests to us that we are not sinning; even if we realise we are doing something wrong he will suggest to us that it is not very serious. He will encourage us to overlook it and once he has established the habit of committing one particular sin then he will move on to others and tempt us with bigger and bigger sins.
The Evil One is an expert psychologist and he knows very well how to draw us in to his clutches. What we have to do to resit his advances is to get into good habits. What we have to do is to practice the virtues. We need to have taught ourselves to spontaneously perform good acts and to get into the habit of them. If we develop our instincts into doing what is good in a spontaneous way then we will be living the kind of life that God wants.
So no axe is necessary to cut off our limbs, but rather the acquisition of good habits is the way for us to go in life. We want to be close to God, so let us do the things that delight God.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket