The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Cut It Out

What Do These Difficult Teachings Mean?

by Carol Howard Merritt

Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:21-37

For Sunday, February 13, 2011: Year A - Epiphany 6

When I was in college, there was a woman in our dorm who suffered with bulimia. As a result, the common refrigerator became ground of major tension. I was on edge about it. I would go out on a date on Friday night and have a fabulous meal. I would carefully eat only half of my entree, so that I could enjoy the rest of it the next day for lunch. But when I would open up the door to the fridge anticipating the content of that doggy bag, the leftovers would be gone, along with anything else that might have been edible in the icebox. Then much drama would ensue.

Until one particular morning.

Serrated Exegesis

I woke up, went into the kitchen to fetch some milk for my coffee, and I gasped. Some one had taped a sign to the refrigerator. In bold red letters, it said: “If your hand causes you to sin, CUT IT OFF.” Then, carefully taped to the sign was a fierce serrated-edge knife.

It felt like a scene out of a horror movie, but it was a joke. Sort of. I attended a fundamentalist Bible school, and I must say that at that moment I began to question a literal interpretation of scripture. I mean, my leftovers were clearly not worth someone’s hand.

The hardest questions are not difficult to find in this Gospel lesson. In fact, it’s much more demanding to narrow our focus down to one onerous inquiry here. In a short sixteen verses, Jesus gives us a list of commands that could easily leave us without any appendages by the end of the day.

Is Jesus Joking?

Jesus raises the stakes on everything—both in how we are to behave and the punishments that we are to endure if we don’t live up to the new standards. They say don’t murder, but Jesus says don’t be angry with your brother or sister. They say don’t have an affair, but Jesus says don’t even look at her butt. And if you can’t stop looking at her butt, then you need to pluck out your eye. (Ladies, it looks like we’re off the hook here. At least until we get to this next section…) A divorced woman? You’re committing adultery.

Jesus goes on and on here, and even though I’m not a literalist any longer, I feel exhausted after reading it. How should we take these teachings? Is Jesus joking? Did Jesus get so enraptured as he was teaching that he just couldn’t stop the hyperbole?

The Hardest Question

When I read this, I tend to run to John Wesley’s teachings on law and grace. For Wesley, no human is able to attain the Hebrew Law. The Law is instructive in showing us just how imperfect we are, how much we are in need of God’s abiding grace, and how we ought to live into the law of love. Is this what Jesus is doing when Jesus makes the stakes even higher than the Hebrew Law?

Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at


  1. Jennifer says:

    Hi Carol,

    I think you make a very good point about Jesus raising the stakes even higher than the Law. Yet as far as keeping the Sabbath, he went in the opposite direction. Sure, show mercy to the blind and the lame on the Sabbath. But if a woman is being battered in a marriage, too bad if she wants to divorce and later marry someone who would cherish her?

    Where’s the mercy there?

  2. Jennifer, That’s exactly what stuns me about the passage… the lack of mercy. Especially since women were so completely dependent on men for their livelihood–they were considered like orphans if they didn’t have a father, husband, or son. It feels like Jesus is cutting a divorced woman off from surviving.

  3. Michael says:

    Jesus clearly is raising the bar, but he also is using hyperbole to make his point. I think it is obvious that he is not literally telling us to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes, but he is trying to bring us to an abrupt, skidding halt to realize that Jesus, and the Father, take the contents of our hearts and minds very seriously. He states it very bluntly in Matt. 15:7-9, 17-20, which includes, “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean.’” What we do can be faked, but God knows what is inside us, and what is in our hearts and minds is who we really are.

    As for the women and adultery issue, look at where he places the guilt for the adultery: “Anyone who divorces his wife . . . CAUSES her to become an adulteress … and anyone who marries [her] commits adultery.” (Matt. 5:32) He is blaming the men, who at the time were divorcing their wives for such minor offenses as burning their dinner. Jesus is telling the MEN that if they divorce their wives for reasons less than blatant adultery, THEY are committing an offense, and THEY are the cause of adultery, both the adultery of their ex-wife and any man who marries her. Jesus actually is telling the men to be merciful, forgive minor “offenses,” stand by their wives and the commitment they made to their wives. He recognized the predicament of women and was telling the men they were not to treat women like possessions, and if they did they were guilty of a great sin.

  4. Marilyn says:

    Thank you Michael for bringing some sense to this discussion

  5. Jennifer says:

    Thanks, Michael. Your comments make a lot of sense for the male listeners. Is the man divorcing his wife an adulterer also? I don’t see it in the text, and I’m still trying to find the good news here. As a woman. It seems if a husband divorces his wife because of an overcooked meal, maybe he doesn’t care what happens to her after he sends her out the door. Nor would he care that the person she marries would also be guilty of adultery.

    Was there some cultural code that would make a man feel responsible for causing others (such as an ex-wife or the husband to the ex-wife) to sin? If Jesus wants to change the hearts of the men by commanding them not to divorce for any reason other than unfaithfulness, then wouldn’t Jesus say to the hearers “Not only do you cause your ex-wife and any man who marries her to commit adultery, but you yourself are also condemned because you divorced her in the first place”?

  6. Jennifer wrote: “It seems if a husband divorces his wife because of an overcooked meal, maybe he doesn’t care what happens to her after he sends her out the door. Nor would he care that the person she marries would also be guilty of adultery.”

    Good point…

  7. Rob says:

    I find that the Deuteronomy lesson from the RCL is actually helpfulin some ways for the interpretation of the Gospel lesson. The context for Deut. 30 is the re-iteration of the Covenant very shortly before the Hebrew ppl are set to enter the Promised Land. This is the law that God put on the peoples’ heart (lev or levav, in Hebrew, which *can* be translated as “heart,” though “mind” and even “inner person” or perhaps “character” are valid translations, as well). The text is about choosing life, or choosing to live into this identity as God’s covenant community. This kind of life involves proper orientation toward God – not just in terms of behavior, but in terms of inner character – and others as laid out in the Law/Instruction.

    With that in mind, Jesus’ ramping up of the commandments (not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it) is a right-setting of the inner character aspect of the law. It’s not about divorce, per se, it’s about treating women (for example) with respect, not contempt. It’s not about murder, per se, but about treating people as worthwhile humans created in God’s image, not treating them with (again) contempt. And so on.

    Sometimes the lectionary writers astound me with their insight.

  8. Michael says:

    In the broader passage, Jesus says “this is the law or common practice, but this is what I say,” and he speaks with the authority of God. So the current law says that all a man has to is write out a certificate of divorce, and he is divorced. But what GOD says is that anyone who divorces his wife for minor reasons causes her to commit adultery, and causes her future husband to commit adultery. *The man who wrote out the certificate of divorce incurs the guilt of his wife’s adultery and the guilt of any future husband.* I think the important word here is “causes.” When Jesus tells them the man causes the wife and future husband to commit adultery, the guilt of that adultery rests on him, not them.

    Jesus makes this clear in Matt. 18:6-9, which also restates the cut-off-the-hand statement: “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!…” Someone who causes someone else to sin seems to incur a greater guilt than the person who sins. The “woe to” phrase is a prophetic phrase indicating a curse. A man who causes another to sin brings upon himself the curse of God.

    Later in Matt. 19:8-9, Jesus clearly and bluntly puts the sin of adultery on the man who divorces his wife for minor reasons: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

    Jesus was talking about guilt before God and the condition of our hearts and minds before God. He was not at all saying a woman divorced by her husband who remarries should be stoned. He was saying, throughout the Matthew 5 passages and elsewhere, that it is the heart that God is concerned with and the heart we need to change. The men who would divorce their wives in such a manner may be correct before their law, but they are guilty before God.

    To address some of your concerns, Jennifer, Jesus was addressing the way we think about things, and specifically the way the men of that time did things. As Jesus tells them in the Matt. 18 passage, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” The permission for divorce was to formalize a dissolution of marriage so the woman *could* remarry, to codify the fact that she is no longer married and can therefore remarry without committing adultery. But the hardness of their hearts was such that they kept redefining what was permissible for divorce, just as they kept redefining what was work on Sunday. (An aside, isn’t it sad that they made divorce more and more permissive, but the restriction on work more and more restrictive? Tells you what directions our hearts will go.)

    Jesus was telling them that they missed the boat in God’s eyes. They may be following the laws they had created, but they were violating God’s real law.

    Would a man who is willing to demand his rights under the current law really care about God’s law? You are correct, he probably would not. But that is his problem before God, and his guilt is trebled. As I understand what Jesus is telling his followers in Matthew 5 and 18, the woman divorced in this way is guiltless, and the man receives the guilt of three.

    The woman of the time would have no choice but to remarry to provide a home for herself, and by law she is not guilty of any sin. By what Jesus says, because the man forced her into what would be an adulterous position before God, she is innocent but he IS guilty of sin.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Hey Michael,

    Thank you. Very helpful. This is a great discussion.

    As I’ve been wrestling with this text, I backed up and included verse 20 because I think part of the issue was following the letter of the Law for one’s own gain as opposed to seeking a closer relationship with God and allowing the Law to guide that.

    God bless all of you who’ve fueled the fire along with the Spirit in my text-wrestling. May God be glorified in our efforts.

    I wonder if there may be a separate place for us to post our sermons to God’s glory and as a gift to each other.

  10. Another Michael says:


    I’m sure you could post to That’s how I found my way to this site. Deacon Sil is a real person and you can call him up and talk to him on the phone and everything. I’d love to see the product of your labors there.


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