What does Jesus mean when he says “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” in Matthew 18:8?

One of the more disturbing sayings in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus’s command to his disciples to cut off a hand, foot or eye is better than being sent to hell. Also has already said it is better to pluck out an eye (5:29-30) than to enter hell with two good eyes. In that context I suggested Jesus meant “don’t let your eyes make you sin.” Jesus’s command to “cut off your hand” is an intentionally shocking saying by Jesus, although most modern readers take these commands to maim oneself as warnings intended to catch the reader off-guard and shock them.

Was mutilation used as a punishment in the Second Temple Period? Josephus refers to the amputation of hands for forgery: “Galileans had cut off his brother’s hands on a charge of forging letters prior to the outbreak of hostilities” (Life, 177). Rather than execute a man for treason, Josephus substituted cutting off a hand: “To his urgent request to spare him one hand I grudgingly consented; at which, to save himself the loss of both, he gladly drew his sword and struck off his left hand” ((Life, 34, 173, cf. JW 2.21.10; see Morna Hooker, Mark, 233).

Anyone in the Jewish audience would have been shocked at the suggestion one ought to mutilate themselves in order to avoid sin. Although there is an “eye for an eye” principle in the Law, it was not intended for self-control. Given what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount about the source of sin, would cutting off a hand or foot actually control the thoughts and desires which motive one to steal or physically harm another person?

Why the hand, foot and eye? Nolland suggests these are the three body parts which mediate our contact with the world (Matthew, 739). The ear could be included, since it hears; the tongue is the source of much sin in the Wisdom lit, but it shows what is inside a person.

Jesus says it is better to be maimed that enter into hell, where “the fire never goes out and the worms never die.”Gehenna refers to the valley (ge in Hebrew) of Hinnom.  Manasseh used this valley to sacrifice human to Moloch. Josiah destroyed these altars and turned the valley into a garbage dump (2 Kings 23:10). Because fires burned continually, it became a metaphor for hell. The fire in verse 44 is “unquenchable” (ἄσβεστος), the same word used in Matthew 25:41 for the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. John the Baptist described the messiah has having his winnowing fork ready to gather the wheat into his barn and the chaff to the unquenchable fire.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24, the final line of the book describe a scene of apocalyptic judgment. The metaphor appears in Judith 16:17 (probably quoting Isaiah and applying it to judgment on Assyria) and Sirach 7:17 (the ultimate punishment of the ungodly). Like all metaphors for hell, it is difficult to know how literal the image of constantly burning flesh should be taken.

Isaiah 66:24 (NRSV) And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

Judith 16:17 (NRSV) Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the Day of Judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.

Sirach 7:17 (NRSV) Humble yourself to the utmost, for the punishment of the ungodly is fire and worms.

This gruesome metaphor is a vivid contrast to the goodness of entering into the life of the kingdom of God. But “the work of a physician who may have to amputate parts of a body” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 436).

This is a radical call to holiness; how ought it work out in the life of the believer today? Sometimes we need to separate from a particular behavior because it may cause us to sin. Some of these are very obvious and most Christians have enough sense to know to avoid the “big sins.” It is possible some behavior is socially acceptable and popular, but it puts us in a place where we sin. When I talk with tends or college age people, I talk quite a bit about entertainment choices. Most Christians have the sense to stay away from the obvious sins on the internet, but if your use of social media leads to mean-spirit talk, gossip, materialism, etc. the perhaps your phone needs to be amputated from your hand!

Sometimes it is necessary to voluntarily separate from other people because they may lead you into sin. A classic example: a person who struggles with alcoholism should not hang out with friends at a bar. But if you have a friend who constantly encourages gossip, maybe it is time to amputate that person from your life.