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For example, in Matthew 5.29–30, he says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body 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 part of your body than for you whole body to go into hell.”
F. F. Bruce tells a true story about a controversy these verses occasioned in sixteenth-century England:
"Shortly after the publication of William Tyndale’s English New Testament [in 1526], the attempt [by the government] to restrict its circulation was defended on the ground that the simple reader might mistakenly take such language literally and "pluck out his eyes, and so the whole realm will be full of blind men, to the great decay of the nation and the manifest loss of the King’s grace; and thus by reading of the Holy Scriptures will the whole realm be brought into confusion."
Literal biblical interpretation is a hallmark of Protestant exegesis. But the meaning of “literal” can be confusing. A literal interpretation of Matthew 5.29–30 seems to require that we gouge out an eye and chop off a hand in order to overcome temptation. But Christians do not interpret this passage literally, as seen by the wholesale absence of one-eyed, left-handed people in our churches.
A better word than “literally” is “literarily.” We ought to interpret the Bible literarily, — according to the type of literature it employs. A historical narrative is not a poem is not a commandment is not a parable. Each genre follows different rules.
What kind of statement is Jesus’ statement? Overstatement or hyperbole. In The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, Robert Stein interprets Matthew 5.29–30 in this way:
Tragically there have been instances in the history of the church in which Christians have interpreted these words literally and mutilated themselves. Yet self-mutilation clearly does not solve the problem, for if one removes the right eye, one is still able to lust with the left! Even the removal of the left eye will not solve the problem, because blind people can still think and lust, for it is not the eyes that causes us to lust but the ‘heart.’ What Jesus was seeking to convey to his listeners by this use of overstatement was the need to remove from their lives anything that might cause them to sin. There is no sin in life worth perishing over. Better to repent of that sin, even if it is as painful as tearing out an eye or cutting off a hand, and as a result enter the kingdom of God than to cherish that sin and be thrown into hell. Jesus is saying in effect, "Tear out anything in your life that is causing you to sin and keeping you from God."