The Original Sign of Immanuel – Isaiah 7:1-14

At Christmas we are used to hearing about the “sign of Immanuel” and that the “virgin will conceive a child.” Rarely does a Christmas sermon look back to the original context of the Immanuel passage. But Matthew may very well have intended his readers to remember the context of Isaiah 7:14 when he quoted it as fulfilled in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

Isa 7_14Early in the career of King Ahaz of Judah, he was threatened by two larger kingdoms to the north, Israel and Damascus. Isaiah 7-8 and 2 Chronicles 28 connects Ahaz’ idolatry to the attacks from the King of Aram and the King of Israel. It is this threat and response that will have a chilling effect on the politics of Palestine and the survival of Judah as a nation.

Perhaps the kings of Israel and Damascus sought to encourage Ahaz to join in the resistance to Assyrian invasion. In Isaiah we are told that they intend to put an unidentified “son of Tabeel” on the throne of Judah, someone that would be their “puppet” and would join them in rebellion against Assyria.

The Lord offers to give Ahaz a sign that these things will happen (Isaiah 7:10-16). Ahaz appears to take a high “spiritual” attitude by saying that he would not put the Lord to the test. The Lord, however, gives him the sign anyway – The sign of Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:10–16 (ESV) Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.

The sign is that a woman in Ahaz household will give birth to a child, and before that child is old enough to “know right and wrong” the coalition of the two kings will be broken. The name of the child is significant – Immanuel means “God with us.” The Lord is saying to Ahaz that no matter how evil and corrupt your heart is, God is still with you and has a plan and a purpose in the world. God is still with you even though you are in no way recognizing his presence and protection.

The original context of the sign of Immanuel is God’s protection of his people at a dark and desperate time in their history. Judah was not faithful to the covenant at this time, yet God promises to protect them on account of the promises that he made to David.

The birth of the child is important because it gives Ahaz an indication that it is only a few years until the nation is saved. Perhaps the child is Hezekiah himself, a king who will be faithful to the covenant and be instrumental in Judah’s salvation from the Assyrians (2 Kings 19). But the name of the child is far more important, his name is “God with us.” Even at the darkest moment for Jerusalem, God is still with the nation and has a plan to save them out of a disaster so great it would effectively end the line of David.

This is the story which Matthew wants us to remember when he says “all this was fulfilled” in Matt 1:22-23. He is recalling the time when Judah was unfaithful and not looking to God for protection, yet God was “still with them” and would protect them because of his promise to David.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant – Matthew 18:23-35

Jesus illustrates his view of unending mercy with a parable demonstrating how the real disciple has experience unlimited forgiveness and therefore should extend unlimited forgiveness to others.

In the story, a king forgives a great debt owed him by his servant (v. 23-27). The details of the parable are hyperbolic: a servant owes his master far more than he can possibly repay. The context may be the “court of the Gentiles” rather than the Galilean Jewish context of Jesus (suggested by Keener, Matthew, 457). This does not take away from the authenticity since most Jews would have a general knowledge of the way things usually went in a Gentile court.

The person who owes the great debt is a slave. Most modern readers wonder how a slave could incur such a massive debt. Although the word can refer to court officials and people with power, something that can always be turned into wealth. Perhaps Jesus has in mind a corrupt Herodian bureaucrat who has used his position to make himself wealthy, but has instead lost the Herod’s court a massive amount of money. Slaves could be in important roles in the Empires, so that they could accumulate wealth and power, even if they were in a master-slave relationship with the Emperor.

The debt is unimaginably large: ten thousand talents. A “talent” is a standard weight, so this might be a talent of gold, silver, copper, etc. Most scholars assume a talent of silver here, which was worth approximately 6,000 denarii. Since he owed ten thousand talents, the debt is sixty million denarii. If a denarius was the standard wage for a day laborer, then this debt represents nearly 200,000 years of labor, if interest on the debt, then the average laborer could not possibly work enough to pay off the debt.

Even if we assuming the slave was in a position to invest, take bribes, sell favors, etc., he could raise more money, but the debt is intentionally so large even the wealthiest person could not possible pay it back. If Bill Gates owed ten trillion dollars he could not pay off the debt!

In verse 27 Matthew uses a word which usually means a loan. It is possible the man took money from his mater, invested it badly, lost the capital and then accrued massive interest on the loan. John Nolland points out the annual income of Herod’s kingdom when he died in 4 B.C. was about 900 talents, to be divided between his sons (Nolland, Matthew, 756). This servant’s debt is more than ten times the value of Herod’s kingdom. In fact, the word translated as ten-thousand is often translated, “myriad,” an uncountable number. Maybe a modern gloss would be to say he owed “a bazillion dollars.” Bazillion is a made up word that simply means an uncountable, hyperbolic number.

The master responds as any wealthy Roman would, he intends to sell everything the slave owns, including his family into slavery. This is an entirely believable, appropriate, and fair response in the Roman world!  The man’s wife and family were probably already slaves owned by the master, if he were to sell them on the open market, he might generate 500-2000 denarii each (Jeremias, Parables, 211). The slave may not own very much property himself, so the threat to sell everything will not come close to covering the debt.

The servant “fell on his knees,” or better, “did obeisance.” Imploring (προσκυνέω) does not express the depth of this man’s actions before the master. Although it often means worship, it can used “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). In Matthew, this is the word used in the temptation of Jesus, Satan demands Jesus worship him (Matt 4:10, Luke 4:8), but also the wise men who want to worship Jesus (2:2), but also the disciples who witness Jesus’s control of the storm (14:22, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” In Matthew 28:9, after the resurrection, the disciples once again fall to the ground in worship of Jesus.

The servant cries out, “Have patience on me” (μακροθυμέω). This is a plea for more time to pay off the debt. Since there is no earthly way to pay off this debt, the man is asking for a “stay of execution” (Nolland, Matthew, 757).

His plea is successful, the master releases the servant from his debt.  In Matthew 18:27 the debt is called a loan (τὸ δάνειον). Since the word is only used in this passage, it might be a variation of vocabulary, or it might be a hint of how the man got into such deep debt in the first place. In either case, this is an audacious act of mercy, one which would have surprised the audience of poor Galileans! People who own debts do not usually forgive them. (Imagine calling up your bank and explaining you have no way to pay your mortgage. He banker may try to help you find a way to pay, but they will probably not forgive what you owe. They will seize your house and resell it to recoup the debt!)

The servant has therefore experienced an audacious act of mercy and has been released from the bondage of his debt.  Does this make any differences in his attitude toward those who owe him a debt?

The servant who received audacious grace went out and found the servant who owned him money. This is not a random encounter, he went out of his way to find the servant and force him to pay the debt. The verb “found” is common, but Jesus used it in 18:13 or the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep and finds him. When he found someone who owed him money, he seized the servant and began to choke him (imperfect used for the beginning of an ongoing action). The image is also hyperbolic, imagine the unmerciful servant grabbing him around the neck to strangle him in order to make him pay. (I imagine Homer Simpson choking Bart!)

The fellow servant asks for forgiveness, using the exact same words as the unmerciful servant. He also asks for more time to raise the cash to pay the debt, the unmerciful servant is not willing to extend him additional time to pay. The debt is large, but not unmanageable. One hundred denarii would represent about three month’s wages for an average day laborer. But debt is relative, for someone making virtually nothing, one hundred denarii is impossible to repay. Since the servant cannot pay his debt, the unmerciful servant has his put in the same prison in which he was going to go if he had not been shown mercy by his master.

When the king hears what this unmerciful servant has done, he demands the servant pay his entire debt (v. 31-34). This is the point of the parable, the other servants see what this man has done and were “greatly distressed.” This word (λυπέω) can refer to emotional or physical pain, but may have the sense of “offended” in this context. It is modified by σφόδρα, an adverb which is much stronger than “very.” Matthew just used this phrase (ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα) in 17:23. After Jesus predicts his impending death, the disciples were “greatly distressed.” In 19:25, the disciples are “greatly distressed” when Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything and follow him. When Jesus declares one of his disciples will betray him, they are all “greatly distressed” (26:22). At the crucifixion, those who witnessed the earthquake were “greatly afraid” (ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα, 27:54).

The master hand demonstrated extreme compassion and mercy, but now he is angry (v. 33) and condemns this wicked servant. There are a number of parables with this same language, a servant is judged for failing to do the masters will and is punished (often by being sent out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, Matthew 25:26). Here the wicked servant is given to the punishment he always deserved, a debtor’s prison. The master became angry, as did the king in Matthew 22:7 (and destroyed the city of those who had refused the invitation to the wedding feast, both passive forms of ὀργίζω).

So it is with God! Matthew 18:35 says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (ESV). If we have been forgiven such a great debt of sin, why would we dare to withhold mercy and grace to those who offend us! There is a threat here, if we are not forgiving to those who offend us, then the Father will not forgive us!

The context of this parable is dealing with “someone who sins against you” (18:15-20). The point of the parable is not to calculate just how much abuse you will able to take with each and every person, but to forgive everyone even if that forgiveness is socially unacceptable.

What effect will this kind of forgiveness have on a Christian community? It is possible some person will abuse mercy and offend over and over again. But coupled with the previous teaching on confronting those who sin within a congregation, Jesus’s point is not to coddle the unrepentant sinner who refuses to listen to the community (kick that person out!) Jesus wants his followers to be genuinely forgiving, merciful and gracious.

A Question about Forgiveness – Matthew 18:21-22

Matthew 18:21–22 (ESV) Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

After hearing Jesus’s teaching on how to handle someone who has committed an offense against us, Peter raises a question which reflects Jewish thinking about forgiveness in the first century. The “process” Jesus outlined in 18:15-20 sounds like a person might receive two warnings before being excommunicated from the assembly of believers. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus describes “turning the other cheek.” Did he want to imply “two chances” in that teaching?

Peter had discussed the temple tax with Jesus in 17:24-27, a pericope which follows “the disciples were filled with grief,” the same phrase appears in 18:31 (fellow servants are “filled with outrage”). Perhaps this is a frame? Perhaps Peter is being generous, not simply turning the other cheek, or forgive twice then bring it to the assembly and excommunicate the sinner. Seven times forgiveness would be remarkable!

Judaism did emphasize forgiveness for those who have offended. In the Testament of Gad, for example, the writer says “Love one another from the heart, therefore, and if anyone sins against you, speak to him in peace. Expel the venom of hatred, and do not harbor deceit in your heart. If anyone confesses and repents, forgive him” (T.Gad 6:3). This example is sufficient to demonstrate Jews in the first century were not proto-Puritans condemning everyone’s sin, nor were they standing on the street corners with signs damning everyone else to Hell. For the most part, the Judaism of Jesus’s day understood they had received great mercy and grace from God and that the “venom of hatred” does no one any good.

Jesus extends forgiveness to “seven times seventy.” By this he means the kind of unending forgiveness God has already given to the disciples, and by extension to all those who are in Christ in the present age.

The translation of the number of times to forgive is difficult, it could be seventy-seven times (as in the ESV, NIV and most modern translations) or “seventy times seven” (as in the KJV), which would be 490 times in all.  Although both are possible, most scholars today think the phrase is modeled on the LXX of Genesis 4:24, Lamech will be avenged “seventy-fold seven” (Nolland, Matthew, 754). In Genesis 4:24 Lamech wanted to be avenged seventy fold, Jesus is reversing that sort of outrageous, unlimited vengeance with equally outrageous, unlimited mercy.

In either case, Jesus is using hyperbole to express the idea that his disciples will not keep an accounting of wrong, but rather will reflect the unending mercy of the heavenly Father who has already forgiven them of all of their sins.

The problem is too many Christians are thin-skinned when it comes to taking offense. Five minutes on Facebook is enough to prove Christians are easily offended and do not offer forgiveness to those who need it. In fact, Christians are quick to use the “venom of hatred” when they are comfortably anonymous!

But As Craig Keener observes, “No one can offend our human moral sensibilities as much as everyone offends the moral sensibilities of a perfect God” (Matthew, 458). Rather than be offended at the sins of others, Christians ought to be amazed at the grace they have received and offer that some grace and mercy to other who desperately need it.

What does Binding and Loosing in Heaven and Earth Mean? – Matthew18:18-20

“Binding and Loosing” in Matthew 18:18-20 is another very difficult sayings in Matthew. It is also one of the most misused sayings in of Jesus. It is applied to personal and corporate prayer to encourage Christians to agree together in prayer, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not really what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 18. Worse, some Christians take this verse to claim the power to “bind Satan,” as if they have some supernatural power over satanic forces if there are two or three of them praying together. Although the binding of Satan does appear in Revelation 20, that has nothing to do with the modern practice of attempting to bind Satan by the prayers of two or three gathered believers.

The phrase appears here and in Matthew 16:19. The difference is in Matthew 16, Peter is addressed, here the pronouns are all plural, it is the church which binds and loosens. These two passages are the also only two places where Matthew uses the word church, so it was natural for the Roman Catholic Church to apply them directly to the authority of the Pope as one who, like Peter, is permitted to bond and loose sin. However, Even Luther thought binding and loosing referred to forgiving sin.

As always, the most important thing to consider for good interpretation of Scripture is the context. Up to this point, Matthew 18 has discussed dealing with followers of Jesus who are causing others to sin or are caught in some kind of sin themselves. I have suggested this may be a problem in Christian communities originally served by Matthew’s Gospel. If that is the case, then “binding and loosing” refers to the Christian community deciding for or against theological or ethical challenges as they arise in the later first century.

Rather than forgiving sin or binding Satan, a better interpretation of the phrase is to read it in the context of Second Temple Judaism and the rabbinic practice of applying scripture to specific situations. If the command was applicable, then it was “bound,” if they determined it was a commandment not applicable in a specific circumstance, then it was “loosed.”

In an important article on this issue, Mark Allan Powell observed the rabbis (and Matthew) did not consider “loosing the Law” as “dismissing scripture or countering its authority.” God’s Law is perfect, but the problem was the Law’s intention and how that intention can be brought forward into a new situation. This is something akin to dispensationalism’s horizontal and vertical truth or drawing principals from the Old Testament Law.

m.Aboth 3:2 R. Hananiah b. Teradion says, “[If] two sit together and between them do not pass teachings of Torah, lo, this is a seat of the scornful, “as it is said, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful (Ps. 1:1). “But two who are sitting, and words of Torah do pass between them—the Presence is with them, “as it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord and gave thought to His name (Mal. 3:16).” I know that this applies to two. How do I know that even if a single person sits and works on Torah, the Holy One, blessed be he, sets aside a reward for him? As it is said, Let him sit alone and keep silent, because he has laid it upon him (Lam. 3:28).

m.Aboth 3:2 R. Halafta of Kefar Hananiah says, “Among ten who sit and work hard on Torah the Presence comes to rest, as it is said, God stands in the congregation of God (Ps. 82:1). And how do we know that the same is so even of five?  For it is said, And he has founded his group upon the earth (Am. 9:6). “And how do we know that this is so even of three?  Since it is said, And he judges among the judges (Ps. 82:1). And how do we know that this is so even of two?  Because it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard (Mal. 3:16). “And how do we know that this is so even of one?  Since it is said, In every place where I record my name I will come to you and I will bless you (Ex. 20:24).

In his ETS plenary address in San Diego a few years ago, Joe Hellerman described an example of this method of applying Scripture from later church history. As the church grew, people who were actors began to accept Jesus as savior. This raised the question: is acting an appropriate occupation for a Christian? Because of the pagan nature of a Greco-Roman play, the church concluded a Christian should not earn their living as an actor. Jesus never said “though shalt not become an actor,” but separation from the world would certainly make it difficult for a Christian to be an actor. This would be an example of the church “binding” something one earth, it is a sin to be an actor.

Most Christians today would not see the job of acting as inappropriate for a Christian, although there might be some limits on roles accepted, etc. This might be a case of the church “loosening” on earth, it is no longer a sin to be an actor (within these parameters). Each generation will have new issues which arise and faith communities will have to decide whether the Christian can or cannot participate in some new behavior or belief. Can a Christian be a politician? Run a store which sells alcohol? Be a bartender? Be a model? Believe in gay marriage? Believe in evolution?

The role of the church, then, is to know the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 28:18) and to draw principles from his teaching to apply to new situations. This is essentially what Paul does, and what he instructs Timothy to do and for Timothy to instruct new elders to continue the process of applying Scripture to new situations.

 

Bibliography: Mark Allan Powell, “Binding and Loosing: A Paradigm for Ethical Discernment from the Gospel of Matthew,” Currents in Theology and Mission 30 (2003): 438-445; 438.

Pointing Out a Someone’s Sin – Matthew 18:15-17

So far in Matthew 18 Jesus dealt with those who cause a little child to stumble (18:6-9) and the person who has wandered away from their faith (the one who has stumbled, 18:10-14). In this paragraph, Jesus addresses another related issue, a brother or sister in Christ who has some fault but has not yet stumbled and wandered away from the faith. As suggested by Craig Keener, this person may very well be a stumbling block to others, therefore they need to be addressed before they cause others to stumble (Matthew, 452).

Jesus is concerned his followers should discreetly confront those who are beginning to wander and bring them back into the flock as gently as possible. The earliest communities were very small house churches in the Jewish diaspora. As more gentiles were attracted to the Gospel, it is likely these house churches had to deal with serious conflicts between disciples of Jesus.

Total MoronThere are several difficult issues in 18:15-20. Jesus appears to lay down a process for church discipline, and Matthew’s use of church seems anachronistic. There was no church prior to the resurrection, although it is possible the word can refer to the community of Jesus followers, something like the yahad at Qumran. If this is the case, is there a direct application of the process to modern Christians as they confront one another over their faults?

The disciple of Jesus should attempt to deal with personal offenses privately. The verb is the typical one expected for sin (ἁμαρτάνω, aorist subjunctive). There is nothing here which implies this is offending someone’s preferences. For example, this is not about confronting someone for wearing a bolo tie and cowboy boots to church, nor is this about coming to church with a face full of piercings and tattoos. These things are matters of (good or bad) taste and not personal sin which is damaging to one’s spiritual life.

The phrase “point out their fault” (ESV) is a single word, ἐλέγχω. This verb can have the connotation of “to scrutinize or examine carefully, bring to light, expose” (BDAG) as in Ephesians 5:13. But is sometimes used for “express strong disapproval of someone’s action” (BDAG), to reprove or to correct someone (as in 2 Tim 4:2, “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching”).

The problem is how this works out in real life. Some people really do enjoy pointing out another person’s fault. The Internet is full of people who have nothing better to do than argue about theological issues and condemn someone’s practice of their Christian faith. Some of those issues may be legitimate, but most of the time there is condemnation without any real engagement.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about how one confronts a fellow disciple because of a sin. The disciple ought to deal with their own sin, the “log in your own eye,” before confronting someone over a minor sin, the “speck in their eye.” If the disciple of Jesus is busy dealing with their own spiritual life, then they will “see clearly” (Τότε διαβλέψεις). In Matthew 7:3-5 Jesus says the one who has dealt with a particular problem is able to gently correct a fellow disciple. To “gently correct” is the guiding principle in Matthew 18:15 as well.

Do Not Despise the Little Ones – Matthew 18:10-14

Jesus commands his followers not to despise, or “look down on” the little ones. Although this seems fairly straight forward, there are several issues with this saying.

First, what happened to Matthew 18:11? In the King James Version the verse reads “For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” At some point a copiest added Luke 19:10 in order to enhance the connection between verse 10 and verses 12-14 (Morris, Matthew, 464). Most modern translations do not include the verse.

Second, the verb καταφρονέω has a wide range of meanings, such as “not to be concerned with.” But Luz points out it is not synonymous with σκανδαλίζω, the verb used in the previous passage (cause to sin). He considers this verb “much weaker” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 440, note 27). There is therefore a shift away from causing a child to sin to simply ignoring children as unimportant.

Third, are the “little ones” in this paragraph the children from verse 5?  Jesus used a word which means child in v. 5 (παιδία) but on verses 5-6 he uses a more generic term (μικροί). It appears Jesus has actual children in mind in this saying rather than his disciples.

Eh….No.

The reason no one should despise a little one is that they have an angel before the father. Does Jesus imply children have guardian angels? One problem with Christian thinking about angels is we are more influence by popular culture than the Bible. In the Bible, angels are in fact concerned for the believer, but they never are portrayed as “Harold the Angel” who is trying to earn his wings.

There is some hint of “angels as guardians” in the Old Testament and the literature of the Second Temple period. In Psalm 91:11-13, for example, angels guard every way of the psalmist. This is the verse Satan himself quotes during Jesus’s temptation. There are several stories in the Old Testament in which people see angels (Jacob in Gen 24:7, 24:40, 48:16). There are a number of Second Temple allusions to something like a guarding angel. In Tobit 5:4-22, Tobit sees the angel Raphael, Raphael then travels with him and protects his on several occasions.

Most modern discussions of angels range from sober recognition of the protection of God to new age psychobabble. For example, Ulrich Luz concludes guardian angels are part of an outdated worldview. “I am of the opinion that a modern interpretation of Matt 18:10 can simply try to take seriously the substance of the concern expressed in the language of an earlier age.”  He therefore abandons “the concrete idea of guardian angels, since it is no longer self-evident to the modern mind.”  But he also observes that even Martin Luther believed “it is proper and necessary to preach about the good guardian angel of children who wears a white robe and sits at the child’s crib” (Matthew 8-20, 440, note 28). This verse is sometime used to defend infant baptism, although that is a particularly theological reading of this difficult verse.

Most modern discussions of angels sounds more like new age psychobabble. In modern new age, mystical Christianity the guardian angel idea has grown into a wild eco-system of demi-gods who allegedly can be contacted, evoked and manipulated into giving you good fortune and wealth. “Guardian angels watch over you throughout your lifetime. Guardian angels provide protection, guidance and encouragement. Your guardian angel is praying for you and delivering the answers to your prayers. Your guardian angel also keeps a record of the choices you have made in your lifetime.

This is not at all what Jesus is saying! He says that the little ones have an advocate before God’s throne. By using a small child as an illustration in Matthew 18, Jesus is making a lesser-to-greater argument. If even a child receives justice before God, how much more the follower of Jesus. If there are “angels in heaven” pleading the case of little children, how much more should the true disciple of Jesus care for the lowest in their society?

This is a particularly important principle for global Christianity. In the west, there is a general sense that children are vulnerable and need to be protected, including proper health care and education. Even where this is woefully inadequate, most western countries understand the need to care for children. But in countries where care for children is not an important cultural value Christianity must take the lead and care for the child, especially those who are orphaned or have special needs.

Crippling Yourself for the Kingdom of God – Matthew 18:8-9

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.