Q. In the Gospel (Matthew 5:29), Jesus says, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off...” How am I supposed to interpret this? Is this to be taken literally?
A. When we look at the meaning of Scripture, we first remember that interpretation is the work of the Holy Spirit. As the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council stated, “Sacred Scripture is to be read and interpreted in the same Spirit through whom it was written.”
The Spirit works in and through the Church, and so the Church helps us to get at the proper interpretation of Scripture, and keeps us from misinterpreting it.
The Lord speaks to us through Sacred Scripture in many ways, and so we have to be careful not to limit the meaning of one passage, narrative, or book. Even when we look at the Old and New Testaments, we can consider them both in and of themselves, but they are understood in a richer way together.
Therefore, the Church teaches that there are different “senses” of Scripture. When looking at a particular text, the first goal is to determine the literal sense of the text. This doesn’t automatically mean that the passage is taken to be “literally” in the contemporary sense of that word. Rather, the literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis. In other words, the literal sense is what the author of the passage was trying to mean. Moreover, there are two authors of Scripture, a Divine (God) author and human author. God signifies his meaning by the words of the human author.
The literal sense conveys literal truths that are the foundation of the Christian faith. These literal truths include Christ’s death and bodily resurrection; the miracles of Jesus; creation of the world by God; the reality of angels.
St. Thomas Aquinas said that “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.” The spiritual sense consists of the allegorical, moral. and the anagogical. The allegorical sense emphasizes that the Old Testament signifies what is to be fulfilled in the new. The moral sense of Scripture moves us to take the moral teachings in Scripture and live them out in our own lives, as we act with justice toward God and our neighbor.
The anagogical sense is where we view the events and words in Scripture as leading us to our true homeland, the Kingdom of Heaven.
A key component in getting to the literal sense of a Scripture passage is determining its genre or literary form. There are many different literary forms in Scripture: poetry, historical narrative, hyperbole, parables, proverbs and apocalyptic form.
Usually without even thinking about it, we take literary form into consideration when we read something. We read a history book differently than we read poetry. We read a science fiction book differently than a science textbook.
In the passage that you mention, Jesus is most definitely using the literary form of hyperbole or exaggeration to make a point. We do this all the time in everyday life. We might be carrying a bag of groceries and say, “this bag weighs a ton.” In reality, it probably weighs 15 pounds, but we say “a ton” for emphasis.
Jesus doesn’t want us to literally pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin. The good or evil that we do is really in the will, the faculty of the soul through which we make choices.
Seeing this Scripture passage within the whole context of what we believe keeps us from a rather painful misinterpretation of this passage. The Lord made the body and all of its parts as good. Thus, deliberate mutilation of the body for non-therapeutic reasons is evil. In some circumstances, it may be necessary to amputate a leg, for example, that was infected due to the possibility of the infection spreading and causing imminent death. This would be morally permissible in order to preserve one’s life and bodily integrity. But, even in this case it would only be permissible if the moral principle of double effect applies.
Jesus is telling us important truths in this passage. He is telling us that sin destroys. It is destructive of its victims, and it’s destructive of its perpetrators.
“Better a part of you dies,” Jesus says, “then your whole body is thrown in Gehenna.” Gehenna, here, is an allusion to hell. Gehenna was a garbage dump laden with rotting trash, and even a place where the corpses of criminals were thrown. You wouldn’t want to go near Gehenna, and we shouldn’t want to go near sin, which leads us to hell—eternal separation from God.
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