Several weeks ago I preached on Jesus' call to cut off the hand and throw away the eye that leads to sin in order to avoid the fires of Hell.
In my sermon I mentioned that many commentators suggest that Jesus is speaking hyperbolically, exaggerating to make a point. But this is wrong, I said, there's nothing hyperbolic in Christ's call to fight sin and the fires of Hell. If there's a rhetorical device in Jesus' words, the device is metaphor rather than hyperbole.
Hyperbole inflates, making things larger than they actually are. Metaphor, in contrast, helps us see by speaking analogically. The truth behind hyperbole is always smaller than the rhetorical device. The truth behind metaphor is often larger.
But yesterday, preaching on the rich young ruler, I said that we often assume Jesus is winking when He says challenging things, that His actual meaning is less dramatic than what He actually says, and I illustrated this by ticking off a list of Christ's statements in the chapters surrounding Mark 10: His call to cut off the hand and pluck out the eye that cause sin, His statements about marriage and divorce, His warning about the camel going through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man enters the Kingdom of Heaven. In the course of preaching I urged that we approach Scripture with believing eyes and hearts. This is what it means to receive the Kingdom of Heaven like little children, I said.
On the way home my daughter Tessa commented that it seemed to her I had just reversed my message of several weeks ago by urging actual amputation of hands and feet and casting out of eyes. "Won't children hear the Bible here and simply believe they should cut off their hands and pluck out their eyes to defeat sin--and shouldn't we do the same thing if you meant what you said about coming to the Word with the attitude of believing children?" she asked.
Well, yes and no.
No, in that a child warned by his mother to cut off his hand rather than take one of the cookies she just baked for dessert immediately understands the warning as metaphor, never dreaming that he should actually cut off his hand.
But yes, in that though a mother's call to cut off a hand before taking a cookie is obvious metaphor, the call to cut off a hand to avoid eternal death is not so obviously metaphorical. Visiting the former SIL base in Loma Linda, Colombia, years ago, missionary friends told us that while clearing the jungle for the airstrip, a Colombian native had been bitten on his left hand by a fer de lance, perhaps the most aggressive poisonous snake on earth. Without hesitation the man employed the machete in his right hand to chop off his left hand--and survived.
Should we cut off hands that lead to sin and Hell? If that's the only effective way to avoid Hell, certainly.
But we may find after doing so that we've not gone far enough. The hand may be removed, but sin may live on in the remaining mind and heart. In the end, the only amputation sure of removing the cause of sin is of the heart. We must die. We must be crucified with Christ. We must leave this world behind. We must become aliens and strangers on this earth. Each of these is a more drastic step than the mere amputation of a hand. These steps constitute the end of normal human life--death, not just amputation.
So, let's fight sin to the furthest possible degree under our own power, by our own will. But in the end, we still need to die with Christ, we still need God to remove our hearts and give us new ones. Only by renewing the heart will the cause of sin be removed.
"Cut off the hand," hyperbole? Never. "Cast out the eye," exaggeration? Never. Go further. Kill the heart. Ask God to let it die with Christ.