Matthew 18:8-9, Jesus said, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it’s better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It’s better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell.’
There are some things that Jesus said during His ministry years that are really difficult to understand, they sound like literal commands but does He really want us to cut off our hands or feet if we use them in committing a sin? If we look at something we shouldn’t and it leads us to sin, does the Lord really want us to pluck out our eyes? We’ve talked many time about Judaism being a very literal, physical religion for the most part. If God says to put His Law on the doorposts of the house…then they put the Law on the doorposts of the house. If God says to put His Law between their eyes…then they put it between their eyes in the phylacteries they wear. If God says to put tassels on the corners of their clothes, then tassels are put on their clothes. So if God says, cut of your hands or feet or pluck out your eye if those offending body parts cause you to sin…is that really what He wants His people to do?
What about this verse?
Matthew 18:6, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Wow…that’s really graphic! Some of the things Jesus said are really harsh and over the centuries there have been no small number of individuals who actually did believe these ‘commands’ were to be interpreted and enacted literally. How should we read, interpret and apply them?
I’ve mentioned this many times before but it needs to be repeated constantly and it’s the fact that we in the western church are living with the consequences of having expelled every element or hint of ‘Jewishness’ from the Word of God, seriously limiting our ability to understand and interpret Scripture.
However, difficult passages such as the these can be understood more clearly and without concern or confusion if we understand ancient rabbinic culture and teaching methods.
The Mishnah is a book containing the oral law or tradition believed to be handed down from Moses which provides insight and understanding on how to live out and apply the written Law – the Torah, which was given to Moses on Mt Sinai. The Mishna is NOT inspired Scripture so we don’t treat it as being flawless and infallible, but it is incredibly helpful and insightful to understand ancient Jewish culture and religious practices and how they understood and interpreted God’s Word.
Like the Mishna, the Jews also use the Talmud to assist them in understanding the Torah. The Talmud is a collection of writings from rabbis and Jewish sages providing interpretation and practical understanding of the Torah and sometimes of the Mishna. There are 2 primary Talmudic writings; the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. None are inspired by God, they are human writings, like the Mishna and are therefore instructive only so far as they provide information about the cultural setting and context of Jewish life and understanding. They’re all of human origin and therefore flawed, and not everything in them is good. On the Bible itself is inspired or God breathed and therefore absolutely perfect and trustworthy.
Extreme examples were very much a part of ancient rabbinic methodology that were used to emphasise the importance of what they were teaching their disciples. An example of this can be found in the Mishnah itself where it says, “When three eat at one table and words of Torah are not spoken there, it is as if they ate at the altars of the dead… But when three eat at one table and bring up words of Torah, it is as if they ate from the table of God!” (Mishnah, Avot 3.2-3)
The lesson expressed in this passage of the Mishnah is that eating food is a daily occurrence and it’s necessary for life, but the Torah, the Word of God is even more essential for life and if we go about our daily grind and neglect to make the Word of God central in all we do, we’re really no different from pagans who worship at the altars of dead, false idols, because we’ve neglected the very essence of our life and existence.
This example is used to emphasise as strongly as possible, how essential the Word of God is to our life and that God’s Word should not be relegated to certain times of the day or week, but should permeate even the ordinary, mundane elements that make up our days.
Jesus said during His time of temptation in the wilderness in Matthew 4:4, …”It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”‘
Here’s another example of rabbinic teaching using extreme language and description to emphasise an important point.
“The pain of humiliation is more bitter than death. Therefore, one should rather fling himself into a fiery furnace than humiliate someone in public.” (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a)
This particular example is akin to the words of Jesus about plucking out our eyes or cutting off our hands or feet if they’ve caused us to sin. However, the point of this teaching is that humiliating a person in a public manner is unbelievably damaging and destructive to them; the consequences and repercussions on them can impact their entire lives and cause them untold grief.
The Talmud is absolutely NOT instructing people to self-immolate if they’re ever tempted to castigate someone publically, rather, it’s an instruction to reject the notion of doing something so destructive to another person and if need be, to remove themselves from the environment that would allow them to do it.
In June 2013, a young man in Idaho in the US committed suicide after a local sheriff’s office humiliated him when they wrote a sarcastic post on his Facebook page about him being wanted for arrest.
A police officer committed suicide after being falsely and publicly accused of rape.
A civil servant was accused of racism online and then committed suicide. He left a note saying he had never been racist, and had actually established a multi-faith group to promote equality for minority groups. However, he knew that once someone was branded as racist, they’d be stuck with it for the rest of their life and he couldn’t live with the humiliation of being thought of that way.
In the next program we’ll look at a few more examples of just how damaging this kind of public humiliation can be and what the Bible has to say about it while trying to reconcile that with the seemingly confusing things Jesus said.