If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 18:8-9 – June 20, 2012)
This has to be one of the most troubling bits of the Gospels. Jesus is not suggesting that one engage in self-mutilation. Any suggestion that a person should actually engage in this behavior is to be rejected. ~ Self-mutilation is a serious issue in modern society. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger suggested that self-mutilation might be an effort to heal oneself. He wrote that local self-destruction is a form of partial suicide to avert total suicide. It is now recognized as symptomatic of borderline personality disorder. So this is clearly an example of a bit of Scripture which is not to be taken literally! ~ So what is it? It is an example of semitic hyperbole. Jesus was a native speaker of Aramaic, although his words have been transmitted to us in the koine Greek of the New Testament. Speakers of semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic) use hyperbole so often and in such grossly exaggerated forms that to an English speaker it almost seems to border on lying. We can assume that Jesus said this originally in Aramaic in which hyperbole was an accepted way of making a point. By exaggerating something beyond the bounds of rationality, Jesus catches our attention, stating truths in a “bigger than life” way and waking us up to the reality of our own misbehavior. ~ As G. K. Chesterton noted, Jesus was a master of the hyperbole: “Christ had even a literary style of his own . . . The diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque; it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea.” ~ So, don’t tear out your eye or cut off your hand, but do be aware of your own sinfulness and misbehavior . . . and do something less drastic but effective about it!