Light and heavy

What should you do if your right eye causes you to sin?

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift”. (Matthew 5:23-24)

This is all about the way believers dealt with each other, rather than their relationship to God. The Mishnah says, "The transgression a man commits against God on the Day of Atonement are atoned, but the one against his neighbor is only atoned when his neighbor is satisfied." If you don’t get it right with your fellow man, then God is just not interested.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)

This saying uses a rabbinic technique known as kal vachomer, meaning “light and heavy”. What this really means is that if a minor thing is true, then so would a major one, but more so. Or, if something light is true (e.g. owing someone £100 is a problem), then something heavy is also true (e.g. owing £200 is a bigger problem). So, if lusting (“light”) after someone is a sin, then how much more a sin would be the actual act of adultery (“heavy”).

Jesus uses kal vachomer a lot and nowhere does it need to be understood more than in the following verses.

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 your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30)

The essence is that if a sin can be nipped in the bud while it is still in its “light” stage (just your right hand) then you can be prevented from the implications of the “heavy” stage (going to hell). It is important to see these verses as a figurative example, rather than being taken literally, otherwise there would be a lot of Captain Hooks in heaven!

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)

The behaviour of the religious Jews at the time of Jesus is by no means typical. In the Talmud it states that Rabbi Eleazor taught, “he who gives his charity in secret is even greater than Moses our teacher.” It also tells us that Rabbi Chana used to secretly leave grain outside his door at night so that the poor could hide their shame in the darkness.

There’s an interesting background to the use of trumpets in this passage. In the Women's Court of the Temple during the first century were thirteen trumpet shaped collection boxes for alms that made a specific sound as the coins entered. These containers were wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, resembling a trumpet. Often the Pharisees that wished to boast would drop a large number of coins in at one time, which was called "sounding the trumpet." It was this practice of letting everyone know how much they were giving that Jesus was speaking against.


Jot and tittle

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