When Jesus Exaggerates, part 2

Many Wednesdays, I'll be taking an "underneath-the-hood" look at Scripture, pushing us to go deeper and to read the Bible for what it is, not for what we want it to be. Last week, in part 1, we looked at how we sometimes misinterpret the words of Jesus when he exaggerates. Specifically, we saw that when Jesus makes a statement of physical or logical impossibility in the gospels, all is not literal—neither should it be taken as such. We also discovered that Jesus exaggerates often to make a point to his hearers, hearers in a very different culture and time than ours.

This week, we shine a spotlight on what's happening when something Jesus says contradicts something else he has said. We'll continue to draw examples from the fabulous book pictured here, Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament. (No, I am not exaggerating re: its fabulousness. It's probably even worth the $23.47 they make you pay for this paperback on amazon.) 

Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament

Here's a question that stumps many: "Why does Jesus ask us to pray in secret  (Matthew 6:6) while also giving us the very-corporate Lord's Prayer? (v. 9-13)"

Have you ever heard someone say they don't do public prayer because of what Jesus says in Matthew 6:6? I have; but at the time it struck me more as an excuse for not wanting to volunteer to pray than solid biblical exegesis.

Try this on for size: the evangelist who wrote the book of Matthew clearly did not mean for the two concepts to contradict, though they are in the same passage. Most likely, he took the intended meaning behind verse 6 to indicate that "personal prayer is not for show or for the applause of people but rather is a private matter between the believer and God."

Still not convinced? Then what about considering the fact that Jesus and other good Jews met regularly in synagogues with prayers incorporated into public services?

When you take the whole of the biblical witness and life of Jesus into account, you see that: A statement which conflicts with what Jesus says elsewhere may contain exaggeration. It is also true that a statement which conflicts with the behavior of Jesus elsewhere may contain exaggeration:

  • In Luke 14:26, Jesus supposedly endorses hatred of one's parents and family. 
  • Then we witness him entrusting care of his mother to the beloved disciple upon his death (John 19:26-27) and we remember that as a young man "he went down with [his parents] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them" (Luke 2:51).

We read his words, watch his actions, and seek to let Jesus say what he intends to say, not what we want to hear. In this case, Jesus appears to be encouraging his disciples to count the cost of following him; sometimes this will mean that they lose their family ties. But this doesn't cancel out their responsibility to care for their families and to love and to submit to them.

My two cents: Jesus was a profound communicator who used a plethora of rhetorical techniques to make his point to his original audience in their everyday context.

2,000 years later, in our earnest efforts to discover his truth, we've often squeezed the beauty, metaphor and exaggeration out of his sayings so that we can "follow him to the point."

In so doing, we've often missed the point entirely! Combine fundamentalism with a lack of knowledge of the culture of Jesus day and you get some pretty wacky interpretations of Scripture. Let Jesus say whatever he meant to say with whatever kind of exaggeration he meant to use in the original hearers' context, and you are treading on life-giving truth.

It's like mining for gold. This is the kind of stuff that still surprises and delights me, day after day, though I've been in the church all my life. And that makes serious study worth the effort.

(Next week: Jesus on divorce. Oh, yes, we're going there. Was Jesus using overstatement when he spoke about divorce in Mark 10:2-12? And if we're missing something he was referring to when we read Scripture, what does it mean for us today? Deep waters next Wednesday.)

Comments: Can you name a saying or teaching of Jesus in which you have wondered if he is exaggerating? 

When Jesus Exaggerates, part 1

Many Wednesdays, I'll be taking an "underneath-the-hood" look at Scripture, pushing us to go deeper and to read the Bible for what it is, not for what we want it to be. "Your heavenly Father will evaluate you based on how you wrestled with His Word and whether you were obedient to what you discovered," wrote our hermeneutics professor. I could almost hear the small online class breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Our debate forums were filled with discussions on what the Bible says about divorce, women in ministry, the essential meaning of the Old Testament word hokmah or wisdom, and how literary devices or forms change the meaning of what we are reading in God's Word. Sometimes we felt like we were making educated guesses and best choices, all while realizing we viewed Scripture through a Western, modern lens.  It's enough to make a Bible student run for cover and pray for mercy!

Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New TestamentWhat a relief to realize that those things we can understand and evaluate provide enough light for us to travel the path, if we are faithful to study, discover, and to humbly admit when we aren't entirely sure. One of the areas in which we have often—quite frankly—missed the boat, may be when we go to interpret the words attributed to our Savior himself. In our giddiness to meet this flesh-and-blood Jesus in the gospels, we have often imposed a structure on his words that would have been foreign to the original Jewish and Greek hearers. Indeed, it would have been foreign to Jesus himself.

So while we want to be careful not to water-down the firm words of Jesus in the gospels, we also want to make sure we understand what he means when he exaggerates. And exaggerate he does, as a way of making a point. Let's talk about the first  two ways he does this from the book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament:

" A statement which is literally impossible may contain an exaggeration." Since a statement can be physically impossible or logically impossible, let's examine two examples:

1. physically impossible "But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Matthew 6:4

Paradox alert: Jesus wants us to make a conscious effort not to know what we are consciously doing! Right. You knew this instinctively, but someone new to the Bible might not. As for the next one...

2. logically impossible "All things are possible to him who believes." Mark 9:23

Not quite so easy, eh? Many a new Bible student has been deceived into thinking they should be able to make something happen through faith when in fact "all things are simply not possible for the believer." For instance—you and I cannot become God. How about "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:48 // Classic hyperbole, a goal to reach for, a thing God is doing in us as he grows us into his own likeness. Take these at face value and you will be disappointed, maybe even despairing. Take them as statements of exaggeration, and you will be challenged to live in the tension of a grace-filled life.

(This post based on observations from the book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament. Check amazon.com or half.com. One of the most helpful and accessible books I've seen on this topic.)

Comments: Can you name a saying or teaching of Jesus in which you have wondered if he is exaggerating? 

Next week: When statements of Jesus appear to conflict with each other, he may be exaggerating. (Why does Jesus tell us to "pray in secret" while also giving us the very-corporate "Lord's prayer?")