BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 23
Copyright 1991, Biblical Horizons
These verses from the Sermon on the Mount are generally taken in connection with Jesus’ earlier statement concerning adultery in the heart (vv. 27-28); the eye and the hand have obvious relevance to the sin of adultery. At the same time, most commentators admit that the principle of avoiding occasions for sin is applicable outside the arena defined by the seventh commandment. John Murray’s treatment of verses 29-30 in Principles of Conduct may be taken as representative:
Obviously the lesson of verses 29, 30 has relevance to every sin. The thought is that, however precious an asset may be in itself, if this asset becomes the occasion of our falling into sin, we must be prepared to renounce it rather than be the victim of the sin of which it is the occasion. . . . If the alternatives are the retention of something that is itself good and sin, then we must on all accounts sacrifice that good thing rather than fall into sin. Nothing of earthly possession is too precious to dispense with if sin is for us the inevitable cost of retention (p. 167).
Reading these verses as specific and hyperbolic applications of the principle of self-denial is unobjectionable. Yet, for several reasons, it is likely that Jesus had something else in mind as well. In brief, it seems that Jesus is teaching not only the principle of self-denial, but more precisely He is making an application of the Biblical principle of the lex talonis, the "law of retaliation."
First, it is fitting to the context and structure of this portion of the Sermon that Jesus should bring up the question of the lex talonis. Matthew 5:21-47 is structured in a loosely chiastic manner: vv. 21-26 match vv. 43-47; vv. 27-30 match vv. 38-42; and vv. 31-32 match vv. 33-37. Jesus clearly brings up the lex talonis in verses 38-42, and, since verses 27-30 form the matching section, they must have some connection with the same theme. The link between these two sections is strengthened by the repetition of the illustration of the plucked-out eye (vv. 29, 38).
Second, the two organs that Jesus singles out here — eyes and hands — are both mentioned in the most extended Old Testament statements of the lex talonis (Ex. 21:24-25; Dt. 19:21). More specifically, the only Biblical law that requires a punishment of mutilation is Deuteronomy 25:12, in which a woman who mutilates her husband’s combatant has her hand split. This appears to be a specification of the lex talonis to an unusual circumstance. Jesus’ hearers, immersed in Deuteronomic law, would undoubtedly have picked up the reference to the mutilated hand.
Assuming I am correct that Jesus is alluding to the lex talonis in Matthew 5:29-30, what does it imply? Perhaps several things. First, it is important to recognize that the main intent of the lex talonis was to impose limitations on vengeance. That is somewhat analogous to what Jesus says here: Applying the lex talonis to one’s own body is preferable to losing one’s whole body in hell. If we punish ourselves in a limited way, we will be avoiding greater punishment in the eschaton. If we judge ourselves, we will not be judged (1 Cor. 11:31).
Without contradicting Murray’s treatment, this perspective deepens our understanding of self-denial. Contrary to many Reformed exegetes of the Sermon on the Mount, I do not believe that Jesus was primarily addressing Pharisaical misinterpretations of the law; misinterpretations of the law there certainly were, and Jesus’ teaching bears on them, especially in verse 43ff. But, in the main, the specific ethical questions treated in Matthew 5:21-47 are illustrations of how Jesus’ coming brings the fulfillment of the law (v. 17). Fulfillment involves not only confirmation, but perfection, completion, the bringing of something to its intended climax. Jesus’ teaching reveals the full reality of what the Old Testament law pointed to in a shadowy manner. Jesus’ teaching is not a replacement of the Mosaic law, nor does it contradict the intentions of the law; but neither is Jesus’ teaching simply a repetition of the law. Thus, in context, it would seem that the meaning of verses 29-30 is that self-denial is a New Testament fulfillment or form of the Old Testament principle of the lex talonis. (This fits, by the way, with the parallel passage, vv. 38-42, where, as Vern Poythress has pointed out, the retaliation required by the lex talonis is carried out against the victim!)
I should add that I believe that the lex talonis remains applicable in its original form within the sphere of civil justice. What I am saying is that the fullest implications of the law cannot be realized within the civil sphere. Though the principle may be applied in the civil sphere, it is only in the Church that the lex talonis finds its fulfillment.
It is also interesting that the lex talonis is applied here against stumbling blocks, "scandals," causes of sin, traps. In Matthew 18:1-10, Jesus repeats the same exhortation (adding the "foot"), again in the context of discussing "scandals." In Matthew 16:23, Jesus calls Peter a satanic stumbling block for trying to keep Him from bearing the cross; here, rebuking a scandal is closely tied to self-denial. In view of these passages, perhaps the logic of Matthew 5:29-30 goes something like this: Because scandals are obstacles to our dying with Christ, so the scandal itself must be removed. In union with Christ, we receive a circumcision of suffering, or, if something prevents us, that scandalous thing must be cut off.
There is perhaps another dimension of this as well. Being scandalized is the opposite of believing in Jesus. Scandals rob us of eternal salvation, and it is just that they be robbed of eternal salvation themselves. The punishment fits the crime; we must cast the offending member into outer darkness so that we may inherit life. Applying the lex talonis to our offending members not only delivers us from hell, but fulfills the justice of the law.
Jesus Christ is the stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:23). I do not, of course, mean that Jesus was guilty of sin, only that He was the occasion for the Jews’ sin. Appropriately, the lex talonis was carried out against Him: The One who was the occasion of the unbelief of many Himself was cut off. But in applying the lex talonis to His own Son, the Father was also bearing away sin, so that the same Christ who is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, is to those who are called the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24).