And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off.
After stating the fearful punishment in store for those who impede the spiritual progress of others, our Lord proceeds to warn men not to place stumbling blocks in their own way. He selects the chief instruments of sin — the hand, the foot, the eye — and counsels their immediate destruction, if need be, rather than allow them to work the threatened mischief. It is the hand which men lift up to do violence, as Cain did to his brother; or to appropriate what does not belong to them, like Achan. It is the feet which hurry us into forbidden paths, as they hurried Gehazi, or the old man of God whom the lion slew for his transgression. It is the eye which excites the lust to desire, in the spirit of Eve, something which God has seen fit to withhold. To hurt, to trespass, and to covet: what a common triple cord of sin it is!
The gentleness of the gospel is not toward sin, but only to win from it. It is love that lays down life for enemies, which makes these demands on friends. Jesus continually put before those who heard Him the price of salvation. It is a pearl, bought by selling all we have; the call which requires us to leave — hate in comparison — houses, lands, and dearest friends. It brings a sword to divide, a cross for us to bear. To lose a foot will make you walk slow and painful, to lose a hand will halve your power for gain or usefulness, to lose an eye is darkness and disfigurement. Precious are they, part of ourselves; bloody and anguishing the cutting off and plucking out. But it must be, it should be. Reckon it with our worldly arithmetic, and eternal life is cheap at any price. A career, however marred and maimed, which ends in heaven, is better than a painless and brilliant passage to the fire that shall never be quenched. Are things most sweet and necessary occasions of sin? Be rid of them at any cost. Spare not thyself, and God shall spare thee. Cripple thyself for holiness' sake, and everlasting life shall make thee whole. Fling away ecstatic delights to embrace purifying pains, for God has infinite stores of blessings, and eternity in which to give them. It is a wondrous thing to know that the pains and chastisements of this life are fitting us to bear the awful test of God's devouring fire, that the light which flashes from the face of God shall strike our souls, and the flames not kindle upon us. Compared with this, there are no joys, no sorrows; all other experiences get character from their power to affect this consummation.
The hands, the feet, the eyes, are set forth in God's Word as the instruments of the soul in compassing the gratification of certain distinct evil lusts: the hand is the instrument of covetous grasping and of violence; the feet are the means of evil companionship, and running into the ways of temptation and sin; through the eyes the soul covets what is not her own, and lusts after what is forbidden and polluting; through the eyes also the soul envies and hates, and the Lord classes "an evil eye" amongst the things that defile. But it may be asked, seeing that the members are but the instruments of the evil will, why does not the Lord denounce that, and that only? So He does when occasion serves; but in this instance He is setting forth the all-important truth that the evil will is mortified and slain, not by arguing with it, but by starving it; i.e.
, by forbidding the members to yield themselves to its gratification. When the Lord bids a soul, for the sake of eternity, mortify its members, its outward members, He necessarily speaks to one who has two wills, an evil will belonging to the old man, and a better and holier belonging to the new. The evil will would gratify its lusts through its members, but the better will can forbid the members to lend themselves to the evil within, and can call to its aid the Spirit of God by prayer, and can mortify the flesh, and use in faith the means of grace.
There are many persons who are ready to cut off other people's offending hands and feet, forgetting that the command is to cut off their own. At all costs save the life! Hands, feet, eyes may be cast away, but let the soul be held in godly discipline.
THE DUTY HERE ENJOINED. "If thy hand or thy foot offend thee," etc. To offend, in the language of Scripture, frequently means to put anything in the way of a person, which may cause him to fall or stumble (Romans 12:21
; Matthew 11:6
; Matthew 16:23
). Even serviceable things must be removed if an occasion of evil.
II. THE ARGUMENT BY WHICH HE ENFORCES IT. It is shortly this: that it is better for us to do what He enjoins. Why better? Because not to do it will certainly bring on us greater evils hereafter. It is better to suffer a present evil, however great, than by avoiding it to incur a greater evil in the end. Thus men reason in common things. They endure present loss in hope of future gain; they lose a limb to save a life. To feel the force of this argument we must see what these consequences are.
1. We shall be shut out from heaven. "It is better to enter into life maimed," etc. Without mortifying sin now we can never be admitted there (Galatians 5:21; Revelation 21:27; Hebrews 12:14).
2. What it is to be cast into hell.
3. I remind you that if you seriously desire to set about the work, there is a powerful Friend who is ready to assist you with all needful strength and health. It is only "through the Spirit" that you can mortify the deeds of the body.
The mutilation of the body ordered by Jesus Christ. As Lord of the body He has the right to issue such requirements; common sense tells us that they cannot be meant to be without exception. His "if" prefacing each instance is enough to prove that He does not make them binding on everybody who enters His army. The soldier in the battle, having on the whole armour of God, does not need to be told to mutilate himself. He is not obstructed by wrongful occupation with any of the prominent members of his body.
I. A due consideration of the three-fold repetition will show THAT ALL OF US ARE SOMEHOW AFFECTED. Jesus means to single out every person who feels reluctant to give his all up to Him as Lord and Saviour.
II. THAT THESE ORDERS CANNOT REQUIRE MUTILATION OF THE BODILY FRAME. The hand, the foot, and the eye are nothing, except as they are the instruments of a person. What benefit could there be in cutting off, in plucking out, merely a member of the body? He would be utterly unfit to be a judge who sentenced the umbrella, which thrust out a man's eye, to six months' imprisonment, and let the man who pushed the umbrella go free! He would be counted more idiotic than an idiot who found fault with the door of the cellar down whose steps he had fallen, and not with the careless servant who had left the door open. When you had cut off a hand, you might still wish to do the unworthy action which your hand would have carried out. When you had plucked out an eye, your imagination might still revel amid the unholy things which the eye would have gloated on.
III. The Lord backs up His appeal for our energetic action with an exhibition of THE AWFUL LAW UNDER WHICH OUR NATURE IS CONSTITUTED. The word, which is translated "hell fire" is Gehenna. It was the name given to a narrow valley close to Jerusalem. Offal and filth were usually thrown into it, and fires were lighted in it to burn all the sorts of refuse which were consumable. So the sinner is separated from the society of Jerusalem, and cast into corruption; he is exposed to burning now, and if not converted from the error of his ways, will go into corruption and fire hereafter.
Soldiers have dislodged their enemy from a town. They scatter themselves about its streets; some dashing into shops, and some into houses, seizing any valuable thing which the lust of their eyes prompts them to seize. Suddenly their bugles sound an alarm. The enemy is returning in force; and, whatever else the sound may suggest, it suggests this — that they must throw everything out of their hands, no matter how valuable, no matter how eagerly they long to retain it. Otherwise it would be an obstruction; they would not be free to handle their rifles, and be driven out instead of driving their foe back again. With like purpose does the Lord Jesus give forth those orders, which seem to many of us so unnecessarily harsh and stringent.
At any rate multitudes have come to regard hell as a place to be afraid of, not because of its wickedness, but because of its suffering. Theirs is a bitter mistake. It is a grotesque and misleading interpretation of that state of which Jesus tells the nature. His words assuredly point to the conclusion that a man may be in hell here as well as yonder; may be gnawed by its worm and burned by its fire now as well as hereafter. You do not lack proofs of this present truth in human life, perhaps within the range of your observation, if not of your own experience. It may be that no more striking illustration can be supplied than that of Lady Macbeth, as painted by our great dramatist. After the murder of Banquo she cannot rest. She rises from her bed and walks about. She rubs, and rubs, as if washing her hands, and continues it for a quarter of an hour. She fancies she sees a spot of blood on them. She cannot take it out; her hands will not be clean, and she cries, "Here's the smell of the blood still;. all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! oh! oh!" That sigh and cry show how "sorely her heart is charged." Yet there is no repentance in her anguish. She argues in defence of the evil deed still. She is suffering mentally; she is in agony — not for the vileness of the crime she has urged on, but for its interference with her comfort and peace. Thus her case affords an instance of how a soul may be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing the teeth before it goes, with the uncleansed spots of sin, into the shadow of death.
"Do you know," said a young lady to her brother, "there is a reporter to be at the ball to which we are going tomorrow, and a full account will be given in the newspapers of everybody who is there?" Ah! yes, there was a Reporter there whom she little thought of — a Reporter who is in every place to which you can go, whether it be to the house of feasting or the house of mourning, to the resort which defiles you or which purifies you, to the place of cursing or the place of prayer; and the day is coining when that Reporter shall publish, before the myriads amid whom you shall stand at the judgment seat of God, what "everyone has done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad." What will be disclosed as to the paths on which your feet have been made to go? Will you expect to hear that you have never been, in thought or purpose, in any place but where Christ's footprints were known to be before you?
Just glance at what may be operated by the hands. Would you care to hold out your hands, before any number of your acquaintances, and say, "These hands have never been soiled by touching an unholy thing. They have not once written a deceiving figure or an unbecoming word. They have never held any instrument in order to accomplish a selfish and impure object." No neighbour might shrug his shoulders at your assertion; no voice might call out, "I saw you use the shaking glass of drunkenness, the cards of gambling, the jemmy of burglary!" But would their inability to accuse you be a satisfactory acquittal? Would you not, as brave and honest souls, even if no human being could say that your hands were offensive to the holy God, would you not confess they are or were? Your tongue would not utter boastful things. Why? Because you are well aware that, though you have never been a drunkard, a gambler, or a burglar, you have put aside a service of self-denial, or you have grasped in your heart at an evil enjoyment. Knowing, as you do, that wishing and planning to escape from any Christ-like duty must be a grief to the Saviour, you would not like to hear His voice announce His sentence as to all your failures; you would not like to receive the due award of what your hands have done or been thought capable of doing!
THE STUMBLING BLOCKS HERE MENTIONED.
II. WHETHER A CLASSIFICATION OF STUMBLING BLOCKS BE SUGGESTED OR NOT, IMPORTANT LESSONS, AS TO THE CAUSES OF FALLING, ARE HERE TAUGHT.
1. May be part of ourselves — personal appearance, etc.
2. May be in our occupation — sinful, engrossing, etc.
3. May be in that which delights us — conversation, music, etc.
4. May be in persons and society sought after by us.
5. May be in useful and lawful things.
6. Everyone must judge for himself.
III. THE COMMAND OF CHRIST.
1. Most peremptory. The cause must be removed — however valuable, painful, etc.
2. Most pressing and weighty reasons are assigned. Such conduct is indispensable to life. To act otherwise is to perish. At how dear a price sinners purchase their pleasures!
The New Testament revisers have rightly substituted the words "cause to stumble," for "offend;" for the popular conception of offend is misleading. It means that which is annoying or distasteful to another, but not necessarily hurtful. But the word in the New Testament habitually means something dangerous. That which offends in the gospel sense may be neither annoying nor distasteful; but agreeable and seductive. St. Paul speaks of "meat" as an offence to a brother. In these hard words about cutting off, our Lord is not speaking of things that are simply troublesome, for in God's moral economy a good many troublesome things are retained as permanent factors of life. Self-sacrifice, hard duty, are troublesome things, yet they enter into every genuine Christian life; while many agreeable things are of the character of stumbling blocks. The truth here stated by Christ appears a cruel one. It is simply that maiming enters into the development of life, and is a part of the process through which one attains eternal life. We shall find that thin law is not so cruel after all. There is an aspect in which we all recognize this truth; namely, on the side where it is related to our ordinary life. No life is developed into perfection without cutting off something. The natural tendencies of the boy are to play and eat and sleep. Left to themselves, those things will fill up the space allotted to thought and culture, so that they must be controlled and restricted. The law indeed holds, from a point below human life, that every higher thing costs; that it is won by the abridgment or suppression of something lower. The corn of wheat must die in order to bring forth fruit. The seed life and the seed form must go, so that the "full corn in the ear" may come. This fact of limitation goes along with the entire process of human education. The man who aims at eminence in any one department of life must close the gates which open into other departments. In order to be a successful merchant, he must abridge the pleasures of literary culture. He may have equally strong affinities for medicine and for law, but he cannot become a successful lawyer without cutting off the studies and the associations which go to make a successful doctor. And success in any sphere necessitates his cutting off a large section of self-indulgence. He must sacrifice pleasant leisure and pleasant society, and needful rest and recreation. Moreover, it is true that men love life so much that they will have it at the expense of maiming. A man will leap from a third story of a burning house, and will take the chance of going through life with a crippled limb or a distorted face, rather than stay and be burned or suffocated. "All that a man hath will he give for his life." Maecenas, the prime minister of the first Roman emperor, said that he preferred life with the anguish of crucifixion to death. Where is the man who will not lie down on the surgeon's table, and have his right hand cut off or his right eye plucked out rather than die? The most helpless cripple, the blind man, the mutilated and disfigured man, will say, "It is better for us to live maimed than to die." So that, on one side at least, the truth is not so unfamiliar or so cruel, after all. It represents, not an arbitrary decree, but a free choice. Now, our Lord leads us up into the region of spiritual and eternal life, and confronts us with the same alternative. Cut off anything, sacrifice anything, be maimed and crippled so far as this life is concerned, rather than forfeit eternal life. Life in God's kingdom, like life in the kingdom of nature and sense, involves a process of education and discipline. A part of this discipline is wrought through the agency of the man himself; that is, by the force of his own renewed will. A part of it is brought to bear on him from without, through no agency of his own. And here, as elsewhere, development implies limitation, suppression, cutting off. Have you never known a woman on whom the door of her father's house was closed from the moment that she went out of it with the husband of her choice, and who gave herself to him, knowing that, in taking his part, she was cutting off and casting from her parental sympathy and all the dear associations of childhood? In our great civil war, was it not true that many a man, by taking a side, became an outcast to those whom he had loved best? Has it not been so in all the great issues of history? In Christ's own day, and much more in the early dais of the Church, that happened again and again which Christ's words had foreshadowed. He who went after the despised Galilean or His apostles, must forfeit home and friends and social standing, and be called an ingrate and a traitor. He could not keep father and mother and old associates who hated his Master. They would be only stumbling blocks to him; and he must therefore cut them off, and go after Christ maimed on that side of his life. This text tells us that this cutting off and casting away must be our own act. "If thy hand cause thee to stumble, cut it off," — thou thyself. We are not to presume on God's taking away from us whatever is hurtful. Our spiritual discipline does not consist in merely lying still and being pruned. That must do for a vine or a tree, but not for a living will. The surrender of that must be a self-surrender. The forced surrender of a will is no surrender. The necessary abridgement or limitation must enlist the active cooperation of the man who is limited. "Ye are God's husbandry," says Paul; but, almost in the same breath, he says, "Ye are God's fellow workers." There are, however, two aspects in which this self-cutting is to be viewed. On the one band, there is, as just noted, something which the man is to do by his own will and act. On the other hand, there is a certain amount of limitation applied directly by God, without the man's agency. In this latter case, the man makes the cutting off his own act by cheerful acceptance of his limitations. Let us look at each of these two aspects in turn. In Christian experience, one soon discovers certain sides on which it is necessary to limit himself; certain things which he must renounce. The things are not the same for all men. They are not necessarily evil things in themselves, but a sensitive and well-disciplined conscience soon detects certain matters which it is best to lay violent hands upon. Another conscience may not fix upon the same points; but to this conscience they are stumbling blocks, hindrances to spiritual growth, inconsistent with entire devotion to Christ. It is enough that they are so in this particular case. It is right to have hands and feet and eyes, and to use them. But in certain cases there is an antagonism between these and eternal life. The whole question centres there. Whatever interferes with the attainment of eternal life must go. Thus much for the self-applied limitations, for conscious hindrances in the march to eternal life. But there is another class of limitations, the need of which we do not perceive. They belong in the higher and deeper regions of character, and are linked with facts and tendencies which our self-knowledge does not cover. Such limitations we cannot apply to ourselves: they are applied to us by God: and all that our will has to do is to concur with the limitations and meekly to accept them. In this region the discipline is more painful. God cuts off and takes away where we can see no reason for it; but on the contrary, where we think we see every reason against it. There are multitudes of Christian people who are going through life maimed on one side or another. There is a man with the making of a statesman, ruler, painter, or poet. He is maimed by no opportunity of culture. But every true disciple of Christ enters His school with absolute self-surrender, and will trust that God will cut off nothing that makes for eternal life. We could not win eternal life as well with these gifts as without them. And so it will be better if we can but enter into life. Better, far better, to go maimed all the way than to lose eternal life. It matters little that those stately masts had to be cut down in the raging gale. No one thinks what splendid timbers were thrown overboard, on that day when the ship, battered and mastless, and with torn sails and tangled cordage, forges into the land-locked port with every soul on board safe. Better maimed than lost.
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