I consider the most difficult of Jesus’ sayings the one in which he tells people to do the most difficult of things -- to cut off a hand, a foot, or pluck out an eye, rather than go to Hell.
Taken literally, this saying is so far beyond nonsense it becomes grotesque. It is preposterous, a paradox; it cannot possibly be true in any literal way, no matter how you interpret it. So, let’s instead consider it a playful saying. I believe Jesus was being ironic.
More than a few of Jesus’ sayings are witty, hyperbolic, ironic. Elton Trueblood told us this in his “Humor of Christ.” Jesus also made bad puns, a continuation of an Old Testament full of bad puns, most of them untranslatable. The biggest groaner of Jesus’ puns was when he referred to the unsteady Peter as “Rocky” and said he was the “rock” on which he would build his church.
I find it sensible that Jesus, that most sensible of men, was also witty. It’s clear in the Bible he did not abstain from life’s pleasures – he ate, and drank wine, liked children, went to weddings. And what are a part of weddings? Singing and dancing. He also told people to not look dismal and instead be joyful.
What was given to the world was a witty man who enjoyed life, and who wanted us to do so, too. That’s a very long distance from the drudge portrayed in the King James version, the one who supposedly was always serious and never smiled or joked or laughed.
Since Jesus used a lot of metaphors, similes and parables, it’s clear he wasn’t a literal man. He referred to his opponents as tombs, vipers, phonies, play-actors, wolves, thornbushes, thistles. In order to understand metaphors, you have to be imaginative and make connections between two different things -- and the literal man has no imagination and cannot make these connections (and is this not why Jesus was so frustrated over the literal-mindedness of some of his disciples?).
The fact that so many of his sayings were not literal is why I believe some of them have become famous cartoons. Who has not seen a cartoon of the blind leading the blind? Or a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Or something built on sand?
Since during Jesus’ time it would be too dangerous to come out and say something directly (although he did call Herod a vixen – a female fox) he was often indirect. Or he said one thing and meant the exact opposite, which is what irony is.
One example of his irony is when he mentioned looking at a woman with lust in your heart being the same thing as committing adultery. Again, taken literally, it is nonsense. It’s also impossible. But it does make sense as irony.
The self-righteous religious leaders of his time thought they were so pure they abstained from women (just as the religious frauds of today are obsessed with “purity” and sex). Jesus pointed out it was impossible for them to be so “pure” they could not look at a woman without sexual desire. If they denied this, they would be laughed at as liars and hypocrites, and as Voltaire wrote, “Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.”
That’s what Jesus did: he made his enemies ridiculous. I doubt it was that hard, since they were very large targets.
What does this have to do with his cutting remarks about chopping off body parts?
The religious leaders of his time were hypocrites, and, like all hypocrites, were blind to their own flaws. They ignored those different from them, they wouldn’t talk to them, they wouldn’t touch them. They wouldn’t even touch them with their feet. This is illustrated in the story of the Good Samaritan, in which the targets of Jesus’ mockery pass by a wounded man lying in a ditch. Who saves him? An “unclean” Samaritan. The others would have let him die rather than touch him with even a toe. They didn’t even want to look at him.
So Jesus, using hyperbole and irony, told the people, “Okay, if these people really don’t want to sin, they should cut off a hand so they can’t touch those different from them, or pluck out an eye so they can’t look at them, or a foot so they can’t make the mistake of accidentally touching them with the tip of a little toe.”
Humor involves taking two different ideas and finding a connection between them. And in that connection, there is an “Aha!” moment, the person “gets it” and laughs. Then they understand – a little illumination, the proverbial light-bulb going on over the head. Robert Frost called this “the coupling that moves you, that stirs you…an association of two things you don’t expect to see associated.”
On top of that, jokes – and other pithy sayings -- are easy to remember. Unlike, say, dense college textbooks written by even denser professors.
Jesus strove to get these people to grasp the truth, and humor is an eminently practical way to do this. I consider good jokes – i.e., true jokes – to be truly rational. And the definition of “reason” to which I subscribe is “the grasping of necessary connections to become aware of organizing principles (the ‘law’).” In a sentence, to become aware of the Truth. And wit is a great way to achieve this goal.
Understanding Jesus’ saying as hyperbole and irony is the only way it makes sense. I’m surprised he didn’t tell the self-anointed to cut out their tongues so they couldn’t talk to “unclean” people, or lop off their ears in case one tried to talk to them (I am reminded of the “Hear no Evil, See no Evil, Speak no Evil” three monkeys).
Imagine some holier-than-thou religious hypocrite with a peg-leg, a hook for a hand, and a eye-patch…the only way they can be sinless! (I guess Jesus was trying to take his opponents down a peg, or hook them into…I’ll quit). How can anyone not see this as a ridiculous image? Or not see the humor in it? Can anyone truly believe in a literal interpretation with an image like that?
The image would make a funny cartoon, one that we have all seen in another form – that of a pirate.
Jesus didn’t attack the common man, the peasants of his time.. He instead attacked the truly unpleasant -- the corrupt, hypocritical religious leaders. So if his saying is directed at anyone, it’s directed towards those leaders. He’s telling them, “You don’t want to sin anymore? You think you’re better than everyone else and can judge them and gave advice? Well, I’ll tell you what. The only you can be perfect in the way you think, is to start cutting off body parts.”
I can imagine the grins and laughter of his listeners.
Human nature doesn’t change. This means if you want to understand something in the Bible, written so far in the past, find an example to which it applies in the present.
Let’s use Jimmy Swaggart, a good example of a bad man. He passed a lot of judgment on people’s sex lives while never passing judgment on his own. Hypocrites never do, until they’re caught, and then they can’t shut up excusing what they did. Like all people with wooden heads and wooden hearts, he worried about the speck in other people’s eyes while being unable to see the beam in his own.
Swaggart has been caught twice with hookers. Now, if he had plucked out his eyes and cut off his hands, he couldn’t have looked at those two whores because of the lust in his heart, or pawed them. Perhaps he should have cut off his feet, so he couldn’t chase after them.
Best of all, he should have cut off his dick. His problem would have been most definitely solved. I would have smiled about it for the rest of my life.
I suspect Jesus would have smiled about it, too.