Gouge out your right eye?

I know what you are thinking. You have already heard enough sermons on this verse. I, too, have heard countless sermons on this, yet if I am honest, the verse is still really weird. The verse in question is Matthew 5:29, which says, "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into Gehenna."

When we look at of the great teachings of Jesus, this is one which certainly stands out. Why would anyone gouge out their eye? And why would he specifically say the right eye? It seems strangely specific.

When sermons seek to explain this verse they seem to always go like this: "Jesus is not being literal. He is just showing you how serious sin is" or "Jesus is hypothetically saying that if your right eye was the only thing that caused you to sin, then it would be better to cut it out in order to escape hell." In my opinion all explanations like this don't make this verse make more sense. It remains to be a really odd, off-the-wall verse. Allow me to attempt to explain how the truth behind this verse is actually way more dynamic, interesting, and even more literal than what we have been taught.

Last night I was reading Josephus, a Jewish Historian who lived around the time of Paul of Tarsus. In his work, "The Antiquity of the Jews" he retells the events from Creation to after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. What is fascinating is he often gives extra details that are not recorded in the Old Testament, but which was passed down in the oral tradition of the Jewish people.

When Josephus tells of the King of the Ammonites, whose name was Nahash, much more information is given beyond that in the summarized account of 1 Samuel 11:1-11. We read that Nahash gouged out the right eye of the people of Jabesh-Gilead (and anyone who would help them). Josephus says he did this because if they were ever to fight in battle "their left eyes were covered by their shields, they might be wholly useless in war." So by gouging out their right eyes, they would no longer be a threat to him and they would continue to be under his oppression. Josephus records the conditional treaty Nahash offered to the the city of Jabesh, that they must "have their right eyes plucked out, or to undergo a siege, and to have their cities overthrown. He gave them their choice, whether they would cut off a small member of their body, or universally perish."

So what did the people do when faced with this outrageous literal choice? Since the citizens of Jabesh-Gilead refused to submit to those options, they ran to tell Israel's newly inaugurated king, named Saul. After explaining their terrible dilemma to him, "the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul" and he assembling 300,000 men to attack Nahash and his evil Ammonites. After Saul destroyed and conquered over their evil enemy, all of the people of Israel crowned, proclaimed, and rejoiced over their new king.

How does what we have learned about King Nahash influence our reading of Jesus in Matthew 5:29? Both contain the choice between gouging out your right eye out or perishing? Nahash sought to disable or kill, so he would not have any able-bodied enemies willing to fight. Upon these terms, the people were enslaved under his control. Yet when Jesus alludes to this event, He seemingly repeats the same two options but with a slight twist. He explains that if our right eye keeps us enslaved to sin, we would be better off to cut it out, mirroring the words of Nahash. Because if we continue to live in captivity to sin, it will destroy us.

In this light, we can take these choices as literal as the people of Jabesh-Gilead did. Yet like them, they didn't have only two options; instead, we can run for help to the King of Israel. It is only this powerful King that has the ability to fight for us and free us from enslavement and death. Jesus is this King. Jesus is the one offering to fight for us. Jesus is the one who has absolutely conquered over what enslaves us, controls us, and terrorizes us. He is the King, who after inaugurating His Kingdom, conquered over sin, death, and the devil. In His victory we can choose the third option: not disability or death, but freedom - true freedom - in our King Jesus, the Messiah. This is what Jesus declared in the temple when He read from Isaiah 61, proclaiming that freedom has come:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

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