“If your hand causes you to sin,” Jesus said, “cut it off and throw it away.” That’s a pretty tough surgical intervention if you ask me, and he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to name other body parts as well. “Cut off your foot. Gouge out your eye.” He just can’t be happy with a single loss of limb. Yes, we could debate for the next few decades how literal or metaphorical Jesus was being. Such a debate would serve to only distract us from putting into practice the spirit of what he said. No, I don’t think Jesus was endorsing personal dismemberment. Rather, he was emphasizing, in rather dramatic fashion, the need for life-saving, future-salvaging initiative.
Better to lose an arm than lose your whole life. Better to throw away something you consider incredibly valuable, than to throw away your future. So it seems best to accept Jesus’ words as a simile for “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” Simply, at times, drastic steps have to be taken to save the one and only life you have been given.
An example, also in rather dramatic fashion: My younger brother was born with a cardiac condition that resulted in a cascading catalogue of life-threatening illnesses. Finally, with little chance of recovery and his major organ systems in peril, cardiologists completed an open heart surgery. Miraculously, he survived. But shortly after his surgery, either from unclean needle sticks, a dirty instrument, or the constant rubbing of an oxygen tube – who knows – he acquired a staph infection in his right arm. The infection was unrelenting. It threatened his compromised heart and fragile condition. So my parents had to make an impossible decision: Amputate the arm to save his life.
With that family crisis looming over my past, I can never read these words of Jesus without my parents’ decision playing out in my head. Was it a horrible thing for them to have to do? Yes. Was it unfair and unjust to have been put in that position? Yes. But it was the only real choice they had. It was better to lose the limb than to lose the life. My parents have made peace with their decision. So has my brother, and he definitely agrees with the decision making process. He is alive and well today, now in his thirties with a wife and son of his own, because of it. I loathe the circumstances he and my parents were put in, but I’m glad for their courage.
I pray that you never have to face such a decision, but if you do, I pray you will do what has to be done. No, it probably won’t be a hospital amputation, but it might be an addiction, a dependence, a relationship, or a business arrangement. It could be a place you go or an activity in which you engage. I’m not moralizing. There are just some people, places, and things that are no good for us. They are destructive, and we have to pull away. You will have to make the hard, brave decision to “cut off your arm,” if it means saving your life and your future. Yes, it will be painful. It will hurt. It will bleed, but you have so much life in you, so much future joy to experience, so much living to do, you must do what you must do.
Aron Ralston, whose grisly but triumphant tale of being trapped in a Utah canyon is told in his autobiography and the recent movie “127 Hours,” knows a few things about finding the courage to do what it takes to live. Speaking in the aftermath of his ordeal he said, “I left my hand behind in that canyon, but I gained my life back. I regained the beauty, the joy, the vibrancy and the euphoria of being alive.” Yes, these are strong words; difficult words; hard words to hear and practice. But just like the words of Jesus, these are words that lead to life, and your life is worth it.