Do I Have to Cut Off My Hand to Get to Heaven?”
All of us have made mistakes in our lives that we wish we could take back. Some are benign and forgotten over time, but some are so serious they leave a trail of pain and broken relationships. At times, we wish life had a “redo” button to relive those moments so we could fix what we had done wrong. However, there are no “do-overs” in life, but we only can hope to learn from them so we do not repeat the same mistake over and over again.
We believe that Jesus is an understanding God who will forgive us of our mistakes, but if we read the Bible literally, we find a very different God. In this Sunday’s text, Jesus teaches that if you lust after things you saw with your eyes, you should poke your eyes out, and if your hands took things that were not your own, then you should cut your hand off. On the superficial literal reading of the Bible, God is anything but loving; rather, God sounds like a mean, unforgiving tyrant that demands impossible things from people.
The focus on “sin” makes a religious list of “dos and don’ts” and leaves no room for faith. In a world of merely “obeying” the scriptures, faith is replaced by religious leaders who interpret the text for the people. In biblical times Pharisees and Sadducees came up with rules for people to follow to be obedient to God, including how many steps you can take on Sabbath and still obey the commandment that tells you to keep the Sabbath holy. They even came up with a list that included how many steps you can take to give water to your camel.
In today’s world, we have Christians who try to take the command to rest on Sabbath so seriously that they do not cook at home, but they go eat out. The problem then is that it forces someone else to violate God’s commands. What about NFL players who have to play on Sunday so Christians could be entertained on their day of rest? We also forget to measure how many steps it takes from the couch to the refrigerator, not to take too many steps to get food on Sabbath to obey God.
In the same way, when we talk about how we return to God after we make mistakes, we cannot read the Bible literally. By belittling the Bible by making it into a nonsensical list of dos and don’ts, we make the Christian faith obsolete and a fairy tale of the times gone by. We must look at the heart of the God who gives us the wisdom to live today in the post-modern, post-Christian church world.
The sacred texts of the Old and New Testaments remind us that what God is concerned about is justice for the poor and oppressed. God detests the powerful who misuses their power to lust after and covet the little their powerless and vulnerable neighbors have. The message of the Sermon on the Mount is to encourage the hearts of those who are oppressed, not to create a set of general rules for everyone. To take the words of wisdom and turn it into a list to follow is debasing the holiness of the sacred text; we must laud the words of Jesus by seeing the wisdom of his teachings for not only his generation but also for postmodernity.
We are not called to poke out our eyes or cut off our hands to recognize that we want to change, but we are to examine our hearts to see the importance of working for and living in peace with one another.