The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Temptations to Sin
7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin![a] For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 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 hell[b] of fire.
Matthew 18 opens with Jesus’s teaching the disciples about the dangers of sin and temptation, for ourselves and those around us.
In Matthew 18:1-4 He says that believers must become as humble as children. He was responding to the disciples’ question about the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is more evident in the parallel passages of Luke 9:46-48 and Mark 9:33-37. The latter, incidentally, is in the three-year Lectionary.
Matthew 18:5-6 deals with the gravity of people causing believers to sin. Jesus said it would be preferable for them to have a millstone around their neck and drown in the middle of the sea. As my post explains (see link), drowning was a horrifying punishment that was unknown to the Jews until the Romans came to rule over them.
Jesus went on to say — today’s passage — that it would be better to remove an eye or a limb that causes us to sin rather than be condemned to hell.
Matthew records similar words from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:29-30 relates to lust. Those verses are part of the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany in Lectionary Year A: 5:21-24, 27-30, 33-37. Note the gaps. I covered the missing verses in 2015:
Matthew 5:25-26 – Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, anger, sin, holding grudges, improper worship because of interpersonal conflict
Matthew 5:31-32 – Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, adultery, divorce, marriage
Jesus’s words in today’s reading concern all sin. Of the repetition Matthew Henry says:
Note, Those hard sayings of Christ, which are displeasing to flesh and blood, need to be repeated to us again and again …
Jesus begins by using the word ‘woe’, a warning of judgement and condemnation (verse 7). Although temptation is a constant in our fallen world, God does not overlook sin.
In saying that if our hands, feet or eye cause us to sin we should remove them (verses 8, 9), He is not asking us to literally cut them off but to do whatever we have to in order to avoid temptation. Henry explains (emphases mine):
The outward occasions of sin must be avoided, though we thereby put as great a violence upon ourselves as it would be to cut off a hand, or pluck out an eye. When Abraham quitted his native country, for fear of being ensnared in the idolatry of it, and when Moses quitted Pharaoh’s court, for fear of being entangled in the sinful pleasures of it, there was a right hand cut off. We must think nothing too dear to part with, for the keeping of a good conscience.
St Paul wrote often of mortification of the flesh; following on from Matthew 18:9, it would be better to enter heaven with mortified flesh and less sin rather than to enter hell with an intact body full of sin.
Again, the point is to make a total break with what we can see that tempts us, avoid going to places that cause us to sin and avoid using our hands in sinful ways. And woe to us if we cause others to also sin.
These warnings also pertain to unbelievers, whether they like it or not. All will be judged on that fateful final day.
John MacArthur explains:
if you’re in sin, the pattern is there being demonstrated to others…It’s a simple principle. Take drastic action when getting rid of whatever causes you to sin. Take drastic action. Don’t flirt with it. Get rid of it. That’s why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I beat my body to bring it into subjection, you know. I’d do anything. I beat my body rather than allow it to move into sin.”
Jesus isn’t dealing with some kind of wooden, literal, literalism where all the disciples would be stumps at this point, and so would all of us; but He is simply, in a metaphorical way, saying, “Deal dramatically and drastically with your sin.” Nothing is so precious that it should be maintained if it leads us to sin…
This is why St Paul wrote so insistently about avoiding sin. His words echo Jesus’s, but we do not hear or heed these warnings often enough.
MacArthur summarises the first nine verses of Matthew 18 for Christians this way:
Every Christian is one with Christ; and, when you receive a Christian, you receive Christ. The peril is that, if you offend a Christian by causing them to sin through your seduction, through your indirect provocation, through your example of evil, through your misused liberty, or through your failure to give righteous direction to that life, if you cause them to sin, it would be better for you to be drowned immediately that to do that; because the price for doing that is so high. Instead of doing that, take drastic measures to deal with your own sin. The bottom line is this. Why would a Christian want to assist Satan in his work of tempting God’s children to do evil? You wouldn’t, would you? I wouldn’t.
Pleasure is always nicer than avoidance. There was a song from the 1970s, if I remember rightly, that had the line ‘How can something so wrong feel so right?’ That is exactly what Jesus is talking about here. Avoid sin, avoid the near occasion of sin.
Next time: Matthew 18:10-14