And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the Gehenna of fire. Matthew 18:9 (ESV)
This is one of those passages that simply makes us uncomfortable. We assume that Jesus is reasonable and isn’t being literal, but why does he use this level of hyperbole? What point is he trying to make? Does this level of hyperbole exist in other Jewish literature, and is Jesus drawing on a tradition that also employs this type of language? The answer to both is yes!
Lois Tverberg points this out:
“One thing that we should keep in mind is that the practice of exaggeration and giving commands that go far beyond expectations was very much a part of Jesus’ rabbinic culture. In order to underline the importance of what they taught, the rabbis often spoke this way.”
We also see in Jesus’ use of language a conceptual and theological overlap with an early Jewish piety movement called Hasidut, which involves such an aversion to sin as to be called a Sin-Fearer. Lois Tverberg here points out what this meant in the time of Jesus:
“A central aspect of being a hasid in Jewish thinking was that one tried to walk intimately with God. To be close to God meant that you needed to do everything to keep sin out of your life. From this came the concept of yireh chet, (yeer-EH het) “fear of sin.” Here, “fear” doesn’t mean being terrified of punishment or of God’s anger. Rather, it is to be horrified by the idea of having sin disrupt your intimate walk with God. As a result, a person who is a “sin-fearer” would do everything possible to keep it out of his or her life. Jesus’ strong words about cutting off your hand or plucking out your eye fit with this idea of “fearing sin.” Jesus had a great revulsion to sin because he realized what it did to break the relationship between God and man. He used hyperboles to motivate his listeners to avoid it at all costs.”