It didn’t happen a lot when I used to play basketball, but it did happen sometimes—I would make a lot of shots. One Thursday night at the adult recreation pickup basketball games, I was doing particularly well, and one of the other players said “You are on fire!”
I think we all understand that didn’t mean the fire department needed to be called, and I needed to go to the emergency room to get treated for skin damage. I did not actually burst into flames. It was a way of saying I was “hot”—shooting the basketball well, making more shots than I was missing. But this image, this way of speaking about what my success, was not describing an actual physical event— it was a “metaphor,” which is defined as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”. We use such figures of speech frequently, and I am certain we can all think of some that we use regularly.
Jesus did this too—and it certainly seems clear to most of us that he did that in this part of the Sermon on the Mount here in Matthew. But the danger with such language usage is that sometimes someone might not “get” that it is a figure of speech, and take it literally. We may be surprised at that, but it happens. For example, these words of Jesus in the passage for this Sunday: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
You’d think it would be obvious that Jesus was using figures of speech, and he in no way meant to actually pluck out your eye or cut off your hand. You’d be wrong. People have done it. People have decided that Jesus meant to do exactly that, and so they gouged out an eye, or cut off a hand. And they did it because they wanted to do the right thing—they wanted to do what Jesus said they should do. Their commitment and integrity cannot be called into question. Their mental health certainly can be.
Jesus wasn’t trying to impose restrictive behaviors with this—Jesus was trying to impress on the listeners—and on us, the readers—that we need to take seriously the realities of our thoughts and they way they can cloud our behavior. Even if we don’t act out on it, the fact of thinking about it can mess with loving God and loving others, and that is something to take seriously. But not literally, particularly when it comes to self-harm!
Jesus wants us to love God and love others, and we need to take seriously what might keep us from doing that fully.
GOSPEL Matthew 5:21-37
21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 ‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.”34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.