“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out.”

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February 12, 2017

As Thomas Jefferson was to the Declaration of Independence, so was Gregory of Nyssa to the Nicene Creed. Gregory also wroteThe Life of Moses, a guide to Christian life where he explains that passages from scripture sometimes need a literal, and at other times a non-literal interpretation.

For example, where something morally wrong is commanded, such as stealing from the Egyptians, Gregory advised we should take that allegorically. On his interpretation, God’s command to take the Egyptians’ treasures meant that faith should bring the riches of ancient learning into its understanding of the world and God. Gregory believed that any biblical interpretation that leads Christians deeper into virtue is commendable. For him, that is the point of reading scripture. In God’s hands, it is a tool for the cure of souls. [i]

So here we go:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out . . . and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

If we were to apply these instructions literally, then we all would be a mess, now wouldn’t we?

(That was a poem, in case you missed it.)

How then can we interpret this—What might God be telling us this morning that can help us in the cure of souls? Let’s begin with a description of our souls. I will use the one from Thomas Aquinas I laid out for you on the day I was installed as Dean. I hope it bears repeating.

In biblical Greek, the word for soul is psyche, which means life. [ii] For Aquinas, our soul is our life in God in all of its complexity. He spoke of the soul as having natural “faculties” or “powers.” These powers are ordered like a ladder with three steps. [iii] From bottom to top, the levels are vegetative, sensitive, and rational.

The vegetative powers are those that humans share with plants and animals. These are our powers for nutrition, growth, and reproduction. From the bottom up, in this life, our souls are marvels of organic chemistry.

The sensitive powers include touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound, but also more subtle powers of perception. For example, Aquinas spoke of our “estimative power” to “recognize something that is useful or useless, friendly or unfriendly.” This is our “see something/say something” reflex. Additionally, the sensitive powers include “eleven kinds of emotion: love, desire, delight, hate, aversion, sorrow, fear, daring, hope, despair, and anger.” For details, watch the evening news. Dogs and cats have all these powers. As animals, so do we. Like Aristotle, Aquinas classified us as “rational animals.” 

Our rational powers are what set us apart from elephants and flying squirrels. There are just two rational powers: intellect and will. Together, those two drive our moral choices. Here is how that works. Our wills are drawn towards a variety of vegetative and sensitive as well as spiritual attractions. Our intellect decides which of these magnetic targets suits the moment. All, from the vegetative on up, are derived from God, but not all are right for that given moment. With the full picture in view, a clear-sighted intellect will see that all good comes ultimately from God, and will guide the will to God as our final destination. [iv] Throughout our lives our souls are on the move in one direction or another.

The morning of my installation, we heard St. Paul speaking about that process to the Church at Corinth.

This my prayer, he said, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you determine what is best . . .

Back then I said: “Love that overflows with knowledge is the cure of souls; or as I like to put it: open eyes, soft hearts, strong hands. That is what we will be working towards these next several years.” End quote.  Soft hearts, open eyes, strong hands: that’s what Jesus wants and what he’s working towards in this morning’s gospel.

Here is the full dose:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members 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 of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

We can quickly rule out a literal interpretation because it would make no sense. If a lustful thought were truly equal to an afternoon in a motel room, then the millions of times men and woman have resisted temptation and made the faithful choice mean nothing to God or to their marriages. We all know better. Of such choices loving marriages, happy families and strong societies are made.

On the other hand, Jesus’ commands make perfect sense as an allegory for things that happen in our souls. The rational powers—intellect and will—are eye and hand. The hand moves by instinct, habit, or the Holy Spirit toward any of that variety of vegetative, sensitive, or intellectual attractions. This one or that one? Eeny, meeny, miny, mo . . . I read where someone said he would see a woman and just grab her where it felt good. In some animals that is acceptable behavior. In human animals, who have been made for higher purposes, it is not. Augustine said that sins are misguided choices in the search for happiness. If your hand—your will, your power to make choices—reaches out for something that is unworthy of your or someone else’s human dignity and purpose, then cut it off (so to speak).

According to Aquinas, the intellect—our eyes—are here to guide our hands, our choices. From birth, we have power to choose from among a variety of values, principles, and purposes. When we notice that the one we’ve chosen is getting us in trouble, holding us back, or doing someone harm, it is time to tear out that value, principle, or purpose—or cut it down to size. Switching metaphors, Thoreau called that marching to a different drummer. I will call it dancing to a different tune, because it isn’t just one good thing—the drum—that moves us. The clarinet of romance; the saxophone of fun, the piano of parenthood, faith’s electric organ, the xylophone of politics, move us. If your sax causes you to sin, tone it down or try guitar. On such choices, hang the meaning of our lives.

What is true of individuals can be said of nations. Let’s expand the allegory.

Metaphorically, nations have souls. We have vegetative powers for nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Here I am thinking of the bones of law and infrastructure, the blood of commerce, and hormones of sports and entertainment. The super bowl is a vegetative blow-out. Moving up the ladder, our sensitive powers are exercised through arts, higher education, and our better moments of political expression. So what would count as a nation’s intellect and will—our eye and hand? For the eye, perhaps our governing philosophy. For the hand, how about the three branches of our government.

For people, life is challenging at times. The same is true of nations. In some ways, democracy intensifies the challenges. Since power resides ultimately with us as voters, we bear the burden of responsibility. We are the arm that moves the hand. We may be tempted to grab whatever feels good. The word for that political temptation is demagoguery. It is an old problem across the left-right spectrum in democracy. Demagoguery is government with vegetative and sensitive powers at full throttle, and the eye closed.

Right now we are in a conflict about refugees and immigrants.

Where should our eye be in a national debate about refugees and immigrants? I speak as a Christian. To our eye security cannot be the ultimate concern. From one end of the Bible to the other, in words to be taken both literally and not, we are commanded—not advised, commanded—to show hospitality to strangers and tend the wounds of the man who was beaten by robbers and left bleeding in a ditch on the road to Jericho. Atheists may feel free to close their eyes and disregard him, but we do not.

If security is not of utmost concern to us, should it be of no concern at all? Of course not. If that were so, we would open our gates to people fleeing countries with terrible viral epidemics, heedless of the impact on the people here. I don’t know anyone who thinks that would be responsible, though it surely creates hardship for the refugees.

Just as in people the intellect and will give due regard to nutrition, growth, and reproduction, good governments are rightly mindful of policy effects on their peoples’ jobs and safety. We lived in New York on 9-11. We stayed and raised our children there in trust that the hand of government would be exercised with due regard for national security. Even compassion presents hard choices sometimes.

Watching the news and reading the opinion pages, the question no seems to be asking today is: What eye can help us sort good policy from bad? John Stuart Mill advised that we should be guided by concern for the greatest good for the greatest number. That political philosophy has been strong in our country from its founding. But another great Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, offered a different rule that hews much closer to the Bible. According to Kant, we should do just what we would have others do were they in our position. That is the golden rule, and I think it is the eye we need right now.

Applying it to refugees and immigrants, I would have any great nation be both generous and strong, so I would have us be that country now. Generous: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; and strong: bold and resolute in fighting Isis, of whose terrors so many refugees are made. Too much military arm or too little: great nations can sin in both ways; and our great nation in my lifetime in both ways has. Again St. Augustine: sins are misguided choices in the search for happiness. Let the great nation without sin cast the first stone.

Marilynne Robinson has said of our country recently: “We do not deal with one another as soul to soul, and the churches are as answerable for this as anyone.” [v] Churches have to fix that.

It falls to us to open eyes to the complexities of life for individuals and nations, and even more to majesty of both, and the awesome responsibility. A little tearing and cutting can do an old world good, making room for what it needs right now:

Clear eyes, soft hearts, strong hands.


[i] I am following the introduction to: Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, trans., The Classics of Western Spirituality, Richard J. Payne, ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), page 8.

[ii] In that vein, Thomas Aquinas called the soul “form” of the body. By that he meant that the soul is what makes us distinctively human, in the same way that the form of a chair is what makes a wooden chair distinctively a chair, rather than a log or piece of lumber.

[iii] Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies, 15. This book is the source for this presentation of Aquinas on the soul.

[iv] Ibid., 15.

[v] Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Kindle edition, page 3.