A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5: 29-30. A Christians Righteousness: Avoiding lust – What to do about it.

This brings us to verses 29 and 30: *If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away …* This was evidently a favourite saying of Jesus, for he quoted it more than once. It occurs later in the same gospel, (Matt.18:8-9) where the foot is added to the eye and the hand, and the reference is a general one to ‘temptations to sin’, and not explicitly to sexual temptation. So the principle has a wider application. Nevertheless, it is to this particular realm that Jesus applied it in the Sermon on the Mount. What did he mean by it?

On the surface it is a startling command to pluck out an offending eye, to cut off an offending hand or foot. A few Christians, whose zeal greatly exceeded their wisdom, have taken Jesus ‘au pied de la lettre’ and mutilated themselves. Perhaps the best-known example is the third century scholar, Origen of Alexandria. He went to extremes of asceticism, renouncing possessions, food and even sleep, and in an over literal interpretation of this passage and of Matthew 19:12 actually made himself a eunuch. Not long after, in AD 325, the Council of Nicea was right to forbid this barbarous practice.

The command to get rid of troublesome eyes, hands and feet is an example of our Lord’s use of dramatic figures of speech. What he was advocating was not a literal physical self-maiming, but a ruthless moral self-denial. Not mutilation but mortification is the path of holiness he taught, and ‘mortification’ or ‘taking up the cross’ to follow Christ means to reject sinful practices so resolutely that we die to them or put them to death. (cf. Mk.8:34; Rom.8:13; Gal.5:24; Col.3:5.)

What does this involve in practice? Let me elaborate and so interpret Jesus’ teaching: ‘If your eye causes you to sin because temptation comes to you through your eyes (objects you see), then pluck out your eyes. That is, don’t look! Behave as if you had actually plucked out your eyes and flung them away, and were now blind and so *could* not see the objects which previously caused you to sin. Again, if your hand or foot causes you to sin, because temptation comes to you through your hands (things you do) or your feet (places you visit), then cut them off. That is: don’t do it! Don’t go! Behave as if you had actually cut off your hands and feet, and had flung them away, and were now crippled and so *could* not do the things or visit the places which previously caused you   sin.’ That is the meaning of ‘mortification’.

One wonders if there has ever been a generation in which this teaching of Jesus were more needed or more obviously applicable than our own, in which the river of filth (of pornographic literature and sex films) is in spate. Pornography is offensive to Christians (and indeed to all healthy minded people) first and foremost because it degrades women from human beings to sex objects, but also because it presents the eye of the beholder with unnatural sexual stimulation. If we have a problem with sexual self-mastery, and if nonetheless our feet take us to these films, our hands handle this literature, and our eyes feast on the pictures they offer to us, we are not only sinning but actually inviting disaster.

Tomorrow: Matthew 5: 29-30. A Christians Righteousness: Avoiding lust – What to do about it (continued).



The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.