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!
What 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.
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?")