Cut it off! A difficult message from Jesus

by Ben Cheng
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Numbers 11:25 - 29

James 5:1 - 6

Mark 9:38 - 43 , 45 , 47 - 48

Friends, in this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus speaks with incredible bluntness, about cutting off one’s own hand, one’s own foot, and plucking out one’s own eye. If these things have become a block to salvation, get rid of them. “It is better to enter into life maimed than with all your limbs to go into Gehenna” (Mk 9.43). These are hard, stark, blunt, and surprising words of Jesus! We should not be blasé about this language as we can be in a similar spiritual situation. We can be in a circumstance where our spiritual life is in mortal danger. The great tradition of the Church and all the saints talk about spiritual danger and death, and sometimes we have to do something drastic in order to save our spiritual life! I am not urging people to cut off their hands and feet, and pluck out their eyes, but what we are urged to do is look at it with spiritual seriousness. We must introspect our life with the three things that Jesus identifies: If your hand is in trouble, cut it off; If your foot is your problem, cut it off; Your eyes, pluck it out. Let us walk through each one of them.

Our hand is the organ with which we reach out and grasp objects. In the course of our life, we grasp all sorts of things: money, pleasure, power, and material things. In the Book of Genesis, we find that the original sin is “a form of grasping”. Adam and Eve grasped at the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, representing Godliness. Therefore, the hand was the problem since the beginning, and it is our tendency to grasp things out of our ego, which keeps us from grasping at the only “One” thing necessary, and that is God's own life. Can we construe our “spiritual grasping” as a mortal danger to our spiritual life? Are we willing, therefore, perhaps even to cut it off completely, and out of our life in order to save us from danger?

Jesus also talks about cutting off our feet if it is the problem. The foot is the organ with which we walk. We need to set ourselves on a definite path, that is, a spiritual walk towards our Lord. God is the goal of our life. If we want to find joy, then walk the “via”, the path that leads to God alone. However, we oftentimes walk down different errant paths; We choose paths which divert us from the Lord. Again, they are paths which lead us to money, sex, pleasure, and worldly power. How many stories in the spiritual tradition are talking about these paths, roads, and ways of walking. For example, in the beginning of the Divine Comedy, Dante said, “In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood, where the direct path was lost” (Inferno Canto I:1). If our foot is the problem, cut it off! It means that in our spiritual life, if we are walking on the wrong road, we must be willing to cut it out, to change directions, and to set off on the right path. It is a difficult message, but do not literalize it, rather take it with a spiritual urgency!
Finally, Jesus speaks of the eye. If our eye is a problem, pluck it out. The eye is the organ of vision. “We are destined,” Thomas Aquinas says, “for a beatific vision, to see God face to face” (ST Supp. Q92. A1). The goal of our spiritual life is to know God, to love Him, and to see deep into the very essence of God. It means that our whole life is a constant process of seeking and looking for the Kingdom of God. However, most of us spend our lives looking in all the wrong places, seeking after, beguiled by, and entrenched by the illusions of this world. If our eye is the problem, pluck it out, and take this out with spiritual urgency. We must be willing to see this as an immortal problem, which can lead us to spiritual death. So, we must be willing to do something drastic and to deal with it seriously.

In today’s world, we have gradually lost a sense of urgency in spiritual life. Somehow, it is too easy, and we often hear that “God is love, God is my friend, and therefore whatever I do, I will be forgiven, doesn't really matter.” Yes, we will be forgiven if we seek forgiveness in Jesus. Nevertheless, our spiritual life is a high adventure as well, and it is demanding. As St Paul says, “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way, for they do it to win a perishable crown” (1 Cor 9.25). What are we willing to sacrifice, even to eliminate certain things dramatically out of our lives, in order to gain our eternal life? This is the hard question, raised by the very challenging language of our Lord Jesus! May we reflect upon the message in the defining moment of our life, with the lens of this spiritual urgency.

This is an excerpt from Bishop Robert Barron’s homilies, including “Cut it Off or Cut it Out”. For more information, please visit