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Regulating Temptation

There’s a popular story in the Book of Matthew where Jesus’ disciples ask him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responds by calling over a child and saying, “[W]hoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” It’s at this point where most readers begin to feel a bit warm and tingly inside.

For anyone who has grown up in church, we instantly picture one of those cheesy Bible paintings with all the kiddies huddled around a grinning Jesus. “Awwwww,” we all sigh. “Isn’t that sweet? Jesus sure did love those children!”

But Jesus didn’t stop there. Instead, he launched into an extensive fire-and-brimstone sermon on the consequences of disobeying His simple, two-sentence command. As Jesus says:

If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Yikes. That’s a bit heavy, Jesus. But what is his solution? How do we avoid the temptation to sin, and how do we avoid bringing others down with us? Can’t we just get on our knees, pray the sinner’s prayer, and be done with it?

Again, Jesus’ answer is a bit harsher than we’d prefer:

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into thehellof fire.

For many of us, these verses will instantly summon thoughts about Islamic justice. Perhaps you’ll even picture Disney’s Aladdin as he narrowly escapes a hand-chopping over some petty thievery. (“All of this for a loaf of bread?!”)

Or perhaps you’ll think of those “intrusive” social conservatives. You know, the ones constantly trying to prevent societal sin by stealing people’s condoms, banning strip clubs and seizing drugs?

As for myself, I imagine the typical liberal zealot, yearning to take away some rich dude’s money so he’ll stop being so greedy. It’s compassionate, right? All we have to do is take away some “excess” and those hopeless misers will be saved from eternal hellfire.

But if we stop for a moment and look at what Jesus is really saying, we can easily see that any of these political interpretations twists Jesus’ words into something applicable by humans to humans. Sure, when it comes to getting vocal about societal sin, people love to react by nobly tossing out verses like, “Judge not, lest ye be judged!” But when it comes to actually preventing the sin, everyone loves to run to government. We are tempted to act on Jesus’ words by rashly rolling out some kind of policy to deal with people’s junk. We don’t try to channel human nature through incentives or think about public sins vs. Biblical sins. Instead, we rush to seize the objects of our temptations, and in our attempts to do so we instantly rob Jesus’ message of everything that makes it unique.

This is not the Quranic message of “cut off his or her hands.” We are not called to put our sisters in burqas just so the men won’t have to deal with their lust. Jesus’ message is the entirely different, non-political, non-coercive message of “cut off your own hands.”

This is consistent throughout the gospels. When the Rich Young Ruler approaches Jesus and asks how he can enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus doesn’t respond by telling his disciples, “Quick! Grab his moneybags before he gets away!” No. He tells the Rich Young Ruler to cut off his own two hands by giving all of his money to the poor. He doesn’t advise him to lobby government for higher taxation on the wealthy. He asks for his obedience.

We don’t like the thought of this, particularly because it’s uncomfortable and it requires work. It’s much easier to be forced into submission than to face our fears and stifle our own desires. At our very core, we don’t trust our own ability to say no to our flesh. We like to think that if we make morality automatic, righteousness will be easier. We think that if we can outsource our moral decisionmaking and outlaw our temptations we might have a better shot at reaching the kingdom.

Don’t get me wrong. Regulating certain behaviors can be fine and acceptable from an earthly standpoint. That’s what government is for. But even then, we cannot hope to actually be successful if our outlook is simplistic and our motivation is reactionary. If we are talking about cultivating a moral, Christian society that is rooted in independent and mature decisionmaking, we ought not to hide behind policies that pretend to do the heavy lifting for us. If we are really serious about being “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” we need to get used to tossing our limbs in the garbage for ourselves.