This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 1 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
When watching a television show about a dystopian future, you expect to see some strange and disturbing things. What you may not expect are misquoted lines from Scripture used as justification and prescription for things like eye removal, hand amputation, and female genital mutilation. But this is exactly how the authoritarian regime of Gilead in the TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, punishes wrongdoings. In the first episode, one of the characters talks back to an authority, and her eye is gouged out as punishment. This consequence is explained with a misquote from Matthew 5:29: “If my right eye offends thee, cut it out.”1 Later on in the series, a character found guilty of same-sex sexual activity wakes up after surgery to find she has undergone genital mutilation. She is told, “Things will be so much easier for you now. You won’t want what you can’t have.” And even one of the commanders of the regime, when he confesses to “lust and covetousness,” is punished by having his hand cut off.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, these punishments specifically either are linked to or allude to Matthew 5:29–30 for their basis,2 in which Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear 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 hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”3
Does Jesus Mean What He Says? Although the show is laced with biblical allusions, references, and biblically stylized language, the misapplication of which is easily discerned, this particular application of Scripture requires a nuanced response. When the Gilead government uses a biblical story as license for certain actions — such as “handmaids” who are forced to act as concubines and then surrogates for the leaders and their wives based on of the Bible story of Bilhah and Rachel — we can dismiss it easily.4 Not everything in Scripture is supposed to be emulated (we shouldn’t run away like Jonah, or deceive like Jacob) (Jonah 1, Gen. 27). Narrative is not normative; description of events is not equivalent to their prescription. But the words of Matthew 5:28–29 are the actual teaching of Jesus. Is the Gilead government’s application as far off base as we would like to believe?
If our response is, “Well, Jesus didn’t really mean it,” then we must also ask what else did He not really mean? And if He did mean it, then why don’t we see more one-eyed or one-handed church members?
The Literal Reading Misses the Meaning. We must remember that the Bible is literature, and that communicators in the Bible use figures of speech. When Jesus says, “I am the door” in John 10:9, we understand that He is communicating that He is like a door. We don’t conclude that Jesus is claiming to be a collection of wooden beams that closes a hole in a wall. He is using a metaphor, “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”5 We do this ourselves, such as when I say to my son as he swims, “You little dolphin!” No one would suggest that I believe my son to be of a different species, but would understand that I am describing how naturally he takes to the water. Taking the statement literally actually misses my meaning.6
It is the same with Jesus’ statement here, although, instead of using a metaphor, He uses a figure of speech called hyperbole. Hyperbole is an “extravagant exaggeration used to emphasize a point.”7 Taking the statement literally necessarily misses the meaning. No one sues a restaurant that advertises “scrambled eggs as fluffy as clouds” for not having eggs that are exactly like real clouds. For Jesus to have “meant” what He said, we do not have to take His words literally. Instead, we recognize that He certainly meant what He said, but as a good communicator, He used a figure of speech in order to communicate His meaning.
Cut out the Heart? This is further confirmed when we look at the immediate context of the passage. Placing a statement in its context always helps illuminate its meaning. Knowing that it was during Halloween trick-or-treating that my husband said to me, “You look like a cow!” significantly alters how I feel about what he might have meant rather than had he said it in the morning as I got ready for work. In the verses immediately preceding Matthew 5:29–30, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27–28). Just before He tells His audience that the body part responsible for sin must be cut off, He makes the point that sin actually originates in the heart. If He wants His followers literally to cut off the source of sin, then, He is here directly commanding them to commit suicide (cut out the heart!). Such a command for His followers would hardly make sense, as there soon would be no followers to follow Him.
Inconsistencies with a Literal Interpretation. But this is not the only clue that Jesus is using hyperbole; Leviticus 19:28 specifically prohibits self-mutilation. If Jesus’ statement is to be taken literally, then this places Him in direct opposition to the Old Testament Law, something that earlier in this very passage He has made a point of not only supporting but also claiming to fulfill.8 Additionally, when examples of turning from sin are given in Scripture, they never involve any sort of self-mutilation. When Jesus reinstates Peter after Peter’s denial of Him, He never asks that Peter cut out his tongue or heart because they led him into sin. Instead, Jesus seems more concerned with Peter’s relationship with Him, repeatedly asking him, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15–19).
True Meaning of “Eye Removal.” It is this concern of Jesus for Peter — not that Peter would remove the body part that led him into sin but that Peter’s heart would belong fully to Jesus — that reveals the meaning of Jesus’ use of hyperbole in Matthew 5:29–30. Throughout Scripture, God makes it clear that He takes sin extremely seriously; so seriously, in fact, that it must be paid for with the blood of His very own son.9 He also makes it clear that what He desires from His followers is a commitment of their whole lives and hearts to Him alone. This is reflected in statements such as the summation of the Law in Deuteronomy 6:5 to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” in David’s confession of his sin and his acknowledgement that God desires the heart above sacrifice in Psalm 51, and in Jesus’ call to His followers to give full allegiance to Him instead of themselves.10
Therefore, far from advocating bodily mutilation as a way to eradicate or respond to sin, Jesus is using a startling and violent exaggeration to reveal that sin really is this serious, and that His followers really must be ready to separate themselves from anything that would draw their hearts away from Him. No matter how costly distancing themselves from sin seems — even as costly as a valuable body part — the toll of continuing in sin and rejecting God is even greater.11 This is why He ends His hyperbole by saying, “It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matt. 5:30). His point is that there is nothing as costly or significant as eternal separation from God. Nothing that leads us into sin should be tolerated, regardless of the difficulty and pain of its removal. His desire is that a person should respond as C. H. Spurgeon did in reference to this passage: “Lord, I love thee better than my eyes and hands: let me never demur for a moment to the giving up of all for thee!”12
So does Jesus mean what He says? Absolutely. But does He mean that the appropriate response to sin is literally to cut off the guilty body part as payment for or response to that sin? No. The Gilead regime’s interpretation in The Handmaid’s Tale of this passage reveals what happens when a statement is taken out of context and a figure of speech is taken literally: true meaning is lost, and significant abuse ensues. Jesus’ actual meaning — that rejecting God, tolerating sin, and refusing to give God your whole heart has a cost far greater than anything else — is missed, as well as the opportunity to be reminded of a Savior whose assessment of the costliness of sin led Him straight to a cross to bear the ultimate punishment for it.
Christy Gambrell (MA in Exegetical Theology, MA in Counseling, Covenant Theological Seminary) is director of women’s ministry at Orangewood Church in Orlando, Florida.
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith