In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt. 5:30).
When I’m teaching confirmation class, I often use this passage to make the point that taking the Bible seriously sometimes means not taking the Bible literally.
Last week, however, I watched a movie, 127 Hours, which is about cutting off one’s arm. Literally.
James Franco stars as Aron Ralston, a mountain climber who becomes trapped in a remote canyon in Utah, his arm pinned underneath a boulder. After 127 hours in the canyon, facing dehydration and death, Ralston cuts off his own arm with a rather dull substitute for a Swiss Army knife. First he has to break the bone, since the knife isn’t sharp enough to saw through it. Yes: ouch. Or, as a delirious Ralston puts it while videotaping what may turn out to be his last moments, “Oops.”
The movie is not religious, but nonetheless contains a few good metaphors for the spiritual life. The point of Jesus’ hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is that when it comes to doing good and avoiding evil, the stakes are higher even than life or death. Ralston finally resorts to cutting off his arm after 127 hours—though we’re led to believe that the thought occurs to him soon after he’s been trapped—because his only other alternative is death. More than a few conversion stories have begun in similar fashion, as when the alcoholic only sobers up after finally hitting rock bottom.
The second point about Jesus’ words, which watching 127 Hours makes excruciatingly clear, is that cutting off one’s arm is a very, very, very, very painful thing to do. The movie is not any gorier than it needs to be, which is still pretty gory. What is even more painful than the sight of Ralston’s dull little knife slicing into his flesh, however, is imagining just what that moment would be like. We don’t need to see much on screen for the mere idea to turn our stomachs. Part of the drama of 127 Hours is waiting for Ralston to work up not just the desperation, but also the courage, to start cutting.
Jesus’ use of such a metaphor tells us that part of what he expects of us is going to hurt. Breaking off attachments that keep us from God is hard, since some of those attachments run deep. We may even start to see them as part of who we are; they can become part of our identity. In such cases severing our attachments can feel like part of us is dying.
Some of our attachments can be not only deep but also confusing, camouflaged by layers of self-illusion. The deadliest snares into which our fallen nature leads us can make cutting off a limb seem a relatively straightforward escape. Addictions, for example, are often impossible to overcome on our own. Perhaps the deepest lesson of 127 Hours is Ralston’s realization of the folly of his individualism, the overweening sense of independence that led him to set off into the Utah wilderness without telling anyone where he was going. One of the great meta-lies of our American ethos is the myth of the “self-made man.” Our culture teaches us to think we’re all rugged individuals—which is rather ironic when you think about it. It’s a mark of true spiritual maturity to realize how dependent we are, from birth to death, on God.
Perhaps the most important line of the movie is Ralston’s first words to another human being after he has escaped from the canyon and is stumbling across the desert. Seeing hikers up ahead—a family of hikers, in fact, parents and their son—he calls out, “I need help.”
That’s a phrase we all have to use sometimes, and we probably would be better off if we used more often. How many times in the Gospels does salvation mean little more than the ability to speak those words? Peter often gets a bad rap in homilies, since he’s always putting his foot in his mouth, but one of his wisest lines comes at one of his dumbest moments; after following Jesus out onto the water he starts to sink, but he cries out, “Lord, save me” (Matt. 14:22-33). In a sense, all our religious life is working up the courage to speak those words.
At times we all have probably been just as dumb as Peter, just as reckless as Ralston. Most of us, thank goodness, won’t ever be faced with the necessity of amputating a limb, but we will never enjoy true freedom without making painful choices and recognizing our own need for help.