LESSONS IN HYPERBOLE
Mark 9, 38-50
If you remember your English classes from whenever you took them, you perhaps will recall that a metaphor is a figure of speech used to make a point but is not a literal description. For example, “the long arm of the law.” The law doesn’t actually have a long arm, but people in our day understand what that means. Jesus used metaphor. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” he said, knowing full well that he was not a spindly rope-like plant and that we are not wooden shoots attached to the plant. He used metaphor to make a point; likely everyone in the area knew what a vineyard looked like since they were plentiful. Another figure of speech is called a simile, that is, a comparison using “like or as.” “Our team is as solid as a rock” is a simile. “Her smile was as radiant as the sun,” is a simile. Jesus used similes. “The Kingdom of heaven is like a man who goes forth to sow.” That’s a simile. Jesus does that all the time, using something known to describe what is otherwise indescribable. “The Kingdom is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour;” “The Kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field;” or “The Kingdom is like the grain of a mustard seed;” all of those are similes. They are useful in speech. We use them too: “The oil in my car was as thick as mud;” or finding my car keys was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Figures of speech make our language more descriptive.
Today we are talking about one final figure of speech: it is hyperbole, which is an exaggerated metaphor. At our son’s wedding, there was a dance song by a group called the B-52s. In it is this line: “I got me a car it’s as big as a whale and it’s about to set sail! I got me a Chrysler it seats about 20, so come on, and get your juke box money!” Of course there is no car that is truly the size of a whale; no production car that could begin to seat 20 or one that could actually set sail. But as we listened to or danced to the catchy tune, we all got the message: This was probably one of those 1970s Chryslers’ with wide bench seats, perhaps with worn springs, and a very long wheelbase! We get that when we say it. We use hyperbole all the time: I have heard linebackers described as being “big as a house.” I have heard excited or drug-influenced persons say they were “high as a kite.” And I have heard people describe others as being “quiet as a mouse.” Not any of those statements were exactly true. But I knew there was exaggeration to make a point. We all get it.
Jesus also used hyperbole; he did it to make points. The Biblical writers used metaphors all the time. But here’s what we need to know. In Biblical times, days when information was passed on orally because there were few inexpensive or mass-produced way of sharing written documents, people had common expressions, as we have, that they all understood. When one goes to a Flea Market today, they are not shopping for fleas: we understand that! Getting caught up with exact wording, as literalists want to do with the Bible, can make people question or even lose their faith. Four gospels, for example, describe things Jesus did in four different ways. We cannot simplistically say: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” We have to know how the Biblical writers and characters made their points.
Now we come to today’s passage: A lot has been happening to the disciples: Peter announced Jesus was the Christ; and Jesus said to “tell no one.” He said he must go to Jerusalem, be rejected, killed, and rise from the dead. When Peter said he would keep that from happening, Jesus called him “Satan.” (Remember, we are dealing with figures of speech!) He then said those who try to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their life for him will have their life saved. He then said if we are ashamed to tell others about him, he’ll be ashamed of us on the last day. My head spins with all that information, doesn’t yours? And we’ve had time to understand it! What about the poor disciples? (Again calling them “poor” is also a figure of speech!) I think Jesus is sensing his time with them is growing short, so his descriptions are short and terse. We begin with verse 42: “If any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,” he says. The first thing we must know by looking at this earlier words, is that these little ones may be children; but they are also those young in their faith; people who are trying to follow him. “Don’t discourage them!” Jesus says. Then he goes into a memorable hyperbole to make a point: “Better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck and thrown into the sea then if you caused one of my young disciples to stumble!” I would never frighten children with that description because they are literal thinkers. But some adults are also threatened by it when it’s intent to change people’s actions. We saw a millstone in Capernaum this last March; they are huge and round usually with a circle cut in the middle; they are put in a circular stone trench and a rope is ties around it so, like a giant stone tire, a donkey can walk in a circle all day with a rope around its neck, and the stone will crush the wheat that has been laid in the trough. It is a horrifying thought to have that tied around one’s neck and thrown into the sea. Likewise, is Jesus advocating amputation of one’s own hands? Only to make a point: his reference to what is here called “Hell” is actually the Greek word, Gehenna, which was known as the place of eternal burning and decaying. Jesus likely is referring back to the quote from Isaiah 66: verse 24. God said this to Isaiah about the people who rebelled against him: “They shall go forth and look on the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Those words are strong warnings against sin, aren’t they? Is Jesus advocating mutilation and murder, or is he making dramatic comparisons to say how important making right choices are?
In our world now, and in the world then, figures of speech make points. Sometimes we just want Jesus to be the welcoming fellow who took children on his knee and blessed them. But Jesus came to save your soul and mine; to extend eternal life to all. Some have the ears to hear; some have the eyes to see; some don’t. And some give his words the weight they deserve. Is that you? Will you, or have you already, surrendered your life to the one who says he’s light, shepherd, and savior? Look at all the figures of speech that help us understand Jesus, and the Kingdom, and our eternal home! Light or darkness; flight or fire; up or down; a child might hear the message in literal ways and be terrified. But if we hear the message and know it’s the language of eternity, then the way to eternal truth and life i
s made clear. In a world with millstones, ropes, hunting knives and fear all around us, we can walk through the fire, and choose life. Jesus wants our faith and trust.
Let us affirm what we believe about God as we stand and sing this statement of faith based on Psalm 23: My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 27, 2009