In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t mince words about the seriousness of sin and the need to uproot it entirely from our lives:
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 to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. 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 to have your whole body go into Gehenna. – Matthew 5:29-30
This passage is often characterized as hyperbole: The Lord doesn’t actually want us to maim ourselves; He is exaggerating to drive home His point.
But when I read it early last Sunday morning, it struck me differently. Jesus says if my eye or hand causes me to sin, remove it. But of course, our bodies cannot cause us to do anything. Only one thing causes me to sin: my will.
Do the Lord’s instructions apply in this case? If your will causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.
This does not seem like hyperbole anymore.
Consider the old wisdom about prayer: We do not pray to change God’s mind, but our own. God’s mind, heart and will are like God Himself, unified and unchangeable. Additionally, He already knows our needs and desires better than we do. But then what’s the point of our petitions? Why pray if He already knows and His mind is made up?
First of all, since God exists outside of time, all of our past, present and future prayers are present to Him. They have already been taken into account in whatever He wills; we need only to deliver.
But secondly, our prayers draw us into deeper relationship with the One who is all good and desires only the good for us. Over time, as we see how He answers our prayers, we begin to understand: God sees both the Big Picture and our exact role in it. If He doesn’t give us what we ask when we ask, it’s because He has something better in store for us.
Jesus’ own prayers reflect this. Consider His cry to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane before His passion: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, emphasis mine). In His humanity, He is afraid and does not want to suffer in this way—but He knows that God the Father wills only the good for Him and for humanity. Jesus abandons Himself to the Father’s will—and tells His disciples, including all of us, to do the same:
“This is how you are to pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one.” – Matthew 6:9-13 (emphasis mine)
This pattern of prayer reflects the teaching throughout scripture that we should persevere and pray without ceasing, but also underscores the need to abandon ourselves to the will of the Father Who Knows Best—who can do nothing but love us perfectly because He is, in His very nature, perfect love.
If your will causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to have no will of your own than to have your whole self thrown into Gehenna.
Prayer that abandons us to God’s will is the slow amputation of our own. It is major surgery, but not deadly. On the contrary, the more completely we root out our desires and will in favor of His, the more alive we are—in the words of St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me (Galatians 2:19-20).”
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Blogger’s Note: This post first appeared as part of the Wednesday Witness blog series on the St. Michael Catholic Church website.