Is it right for a person to gouge his eye out, or cut off his hand, if it causes him to sin, as the Bible (Matt. 5:29-30) prescribes?
The Lord meant to stress the need to keep well away from anything that might cause one to stumble, as he said: ” for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” (Matt. 5:30).
This commandment, however, ought not to be taken literally, but for its spiritual meaning. It would be very difficult if it were literal!
Some of the saints, though, carried out this commandment literally, such as Simon AI-Kharaz (the Tanner), and some women saints who are mentioned in the book ‘Bustan AI-Ruhban’ (Paradise of The Monks).
But it would be impossible, and impracticable for this commandment to be carried out literally, as a general rule, otherwise the majority of people in the world would be one- eyed or one-handed, because our eyes and hands cause us to sin or stumble so often, especially at a certain age, and in particular circumstances and situations.
Many of the saints, however, interpreted one’s ‘eye’ in this context to mean the person who is most dear to oneself, and one’s ‘hand’ they interpreted to mean the person who is most helpful to one. So that if either one of them should cause you to sin, you must cut yourself off from their close association.
We also observe that in some of its canon laws the Church has forbidden the cutting off of parts of the human body, if one is afraid that they might cause one to sin; for example, there is the law which bans castration of oneself.
In any case, literally cutting off the hand or gouging out the eye, does not automatically prevent one from stumbling or sinning, because sin often arises from within the heart.
If the heart is pure, a person can see and will not stumble. So it is better to take this command in its spiritual sense, rather than literally.
Another case where this needs to be stressed concerns what our Lord said in Mark’s gospel: “It is better for you to enter life maimed, … lame, … with one eye , … than to be cast into hell”. (Mark. 9:43-47).
Naturally we shouldn’t take these words literally, because a person cannot be ‘maimed, lame, or ‘one-eyed’ in heaven?!
We can’t imagine a righteous man in heaven with any kind of deficiency, just as this could not be the reward given to the righteous for their goodness, and for not stumbling, at whatever price… !
The Bible teaches us that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. ” (2 Cor. 3:6)
Therefore we cannot take all the commandments in the Bible literally. The Lord wanted to show us by this commandment the danger of stumbling into sin, and the need to avoid it, even if it should lead to losing something very precious to oneself.