A word to rouse them


Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern Catholic short story writer, was once asked why she uses violence at critical moments in her stories. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” she said, “and to the almost blind you use large and startling figures.”

Jesus knew this as well. “If your hand causes you to sin, CUT IT OFF. If your foot causes you to sin, CUT IT OFF. And if your eye causes you to sin, PLUCK IT OUT.” Cutting off body parts surely qualifies as a “startling figure.” But what are we to make of this? The biblical exegetes will tell you that this is a form of Semitic hyperbole, a figure of speech favored by Semitic peoples such as the Jews. While there’s comfort in knowing these words aren’t to be taken literally, the intent behind Jesus’ words, we can guess, is not to make us comfortable.

He tells us more. It is better to go through life maimed or crippled or with one eye than to incur the wrath of God at the time of Judgment, albeit with all body parts intact. Simply put, spiritual integrity needs to take precedence over everything else, including the integrity of the body. Our actions matter because we will be held accountable for them when standing before God.

This truth, once part of the common stock of our religious upbringing, no longer carries the same weight. Or so it seems. Our preoccupations gravitate around the needs of the body, and vigilance regarding physical well-being is not matched by a corresponding attention to the needs of the soul. This has resulted in a diminishment of what the Bible calls “the fear of God,” the starting point for any real wisdom.

Flannery O’Connor felt this loss acutely, and her stories were a form of shock treatment to her drowsy readers. The hard sayings of Jesus were her literary stock in trade.

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