Meditating on the Commands of Christ (37): Going to Hell in a Handbasket

Excuse this offensive expression, but today’s passage is actually all about offenses: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:30). The expression “going to hell in a handbasket” is American slang for someone deteriorating morally without resisting sin, the way a handbasket is carried along without any protest (by the handbasket). Looking deeper into the expression’s murky past, it conjures up images from the days of the French Revolution, when there were mass executions using guillotines and the heads were hauled off in baskets. We also use the word picture “sliding down the slippery slope” to give a graphic description of a similar state, where someone is falling quickly into ruin and self-destruction. Hard question, but does this describe you or someone you love?

Cutting to the heart, Jesus’ command is about purity. Jesus says it is better to cut off our hand if it causes us to offend rather than to be cast into hell. What does he mean? To “offend” (according to Merriam-Webster) means “To transgress the moral or divine law: Sin.” It can also mean “to violate a law or rule: do wrong;” “to cause difficulty, discomfort, or injury;” or “to cause dislike, anger, or vexation.” I think all of these definitions will come into play as we study this passage.

Interestingly enough, Christians don’t chop off anyone’s hand if they break the law, and we feel horrified (and offended in the sense of causing “dislike, anger, or vexation”) when we read reports of other religious groups using this form of punishment for failing to keep their moral codes. As we discussed last Sunday, Jesus was speaking spiritually, not physically. Like our eyes, our hands are physical, morally neutral, instruments that we (as moral souls) use to perform our wills. The problem is not with our hands, but our hearts: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22).

So, our hand . . . or our heart? If we’re going to do any chopping, it needs to be chopping out our hearts, not our hands! Thankfully, God has made a provision for us if we will sanctify him in our lives (understand that He is holy and live accordingly): “I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the heathen, which ye have profaned in the midst of them; and the heathen shall know that I am the Lord, saith the Lord God, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:23-28).

So, we have the potential solution to our quandary, if (and this is a BIG “IF”) we are willing to accept it. Jesus warns us to stop sinning, to “cut off our hand” if we are using it to perpetrate sinful behavior. If we will allow God to search our hearts, he will reveal our sins to us: “If we have forgotten the name of our God, or stretched out our hands to a strange god; Shall not God search this out? for he knoweth the secrets of the heart” (Psalm 44:20-21).

The trick is, once we’re enslaved to a particular sin, we don’t really want to acknowledge it as sinful, because we don’t want to have to stop. So, rather than “sanctifying” the Lord in our eyes—acknowledging His holiness, His person, and His Word as the only true purity—we go about trying to justify our actions as “okay too.” I’m okay, and you’re okay. Everybody has the right to do whatever seems right to them. Don’t judge me, and I won’t judge you. Quit being such a legalistic pharisee! The Old Testament law is no longer in effect, and the New Testament commands and observances were for a 2,000-year-old culture that are no longer applicable today. Just love everybody and don’t try to tell me what’s right.

Sound familiar? I think Jesus was addressing those who feel this way. To those who think they can go about establishing their own righteousness, Jesus gives this oh, so unpopular warning! But many people are unwilling to acknowledge that their actions are sinful and offensive. Instead, they find this command from Jesus offensive! Many hide behind the currently popular deception that since Jesus died to make salvation available to “whosoever will,” then everybody “will” be saved regardless of what they believe or do!

Be careful, my friends! Jesus gave us some very severe warnings! Jesus taught, “The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42). How did the people respond? “And they were offended in him” (Matthew 13:57).

Do you find yourself offended by what I’ve written? You can take issue with anything I say, and I invite you to respond, but please don’t be offended by the words of Jesus. “Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (spoken by Jesus in Matthew 11:6). When Jesus taught the parable about the sower (speaking of those who share the word of God), he warned about those who “Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended” (Matthew 13:21). There is offense in the Gospel, and that comes from God being righteous and our being sinful, and in need of a Savior who will change us and conform us to true holiness and righteousness. Please don’t be offended by the gospel. Rather: “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). If you need a transplant, let God give you a new heart. Don’t take the risk of being cast into hell because you refuse to sanctify God in your heart or cut off your sinful actions! Ultimately, it’s a choice between being offended with Jesus or offended with our own offenses.

Text for today: Matthew 5:27-30 “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.