Jesus sometimes sets the bar so high that it seems out of our reach. He tells us to turn the other cheek when we are struck, to constantly assume the humbler position (wash each other’s feet), and here in Matthew 5:21-37, to take the ten commandments so seriously that we might maim ourselves to find holiness. It seems prudent and scholarly to downplay Jesus’ words. To say that just like the bit about camels going through the eye of a needle, Jesus is using hyperbole. But, not so quick. Jesus is speaking to the simple country folk coming with their families out to a gentle hill for the afternoon picnic and lecture. He doesn’t want to confuse them or us. What he wants is to set them on a pathway towards personal holiness.
The threshold to the kingdom of God is extremely low. The kingdom of God is already among us, we only need to believe in order to enter. But the daily life of a Christian is extremely hard. It begins with our family. When we flirt with a coworker, we put at risk multiple families and potentially harm the children in our care. Adultery is such a serious problem that Jesus says pluck out your eyes if you need to. Don’t go down that wrong path.
The most dangerous sin is hatred. If we call our brother a fool, we are liable to bring hell’s fires into our relationship. Jesus tells us elsewhere that the world will know that we are his disciples by how we love each other. Each day on this upward path to glory is a challenge to love our neighbor as Christ would love them. What we seek, and hope to obtain in this lifetime, is a perfection in love. That means every day, every moment, loving the person we are with.
What Jesus is talking about here is sanctification. Jesus gives to us, as a gift, salvation and the forgiveness of our sins. This extends into the future. If I fail today and my marriage becomes irreparably broken, I know that I will still be saved. I won’t have to pluck out my eye to atone for my sin. But today, I must walk into the morning with a fresh slate and try in this moment to be perfectly compassionate as Christ was on this earth. I must give my body, mind, and soul to my work of being a disciple. Nothing less is acceptable.