When I was growing up my dad had numerous phrases that used to annoy me – “this house is lit up like a Christmas tree”, “you know money doesn’t grow on trees”, and “if your friend put their hand in the fire would you put yours in?” The one that used to infuriate me more than any other, though, was: “how many thousands of times have I told you not to exaggerate?!” Now I’m older, and my life involves preaching and writing, I realise the dramatic importance of exaggeration and hyperbole. Exaggeration is, of course, not always a good thing, but, as long as we recognise that this technique is being used, it can certainly be helpful. Even as a child, I knew that money didn’t literally grow on trees, but the phrase taught me something about the value of not squandering what we have. And I never literally saw a friend put his hand into a fire, but the phrase help teach me to resist peer pressure. And leaving my bedroom light on doesn’t literally look like dozens of sparkling lights on a Christmas tree, but the phrase helped me to recognise the impact that wasting electricity has on the environment.
In the Bible, Jesus uses exaggeration and hyperbole on numerous occasions, as he connected with his listeners by expressing deep truths in a nonliteral manner. He came from a Jewish tradition that was steeped in this technique of writing and speaking. “You are all together beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you”, asserts the Song of Songs in the Old Testament (Song 4:7). I’m sure Solomon’s beloved was stunningly beautiful, but even the very best of us have a couple of flaws! By Jesus’ time, hyperbole was a technique used by some rabbis, the teachers of the day. Jesus, though, particularly employed this technique, often as a way of grabbing his audience’s attention or to shock them into recognising the deep truth he was asserting. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Christ had even a literary style of his own; the diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque – it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea”.
The Sermon on the Mount has many such examples. When Jesus refers to lust, for example, he says “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. This passage clearly shouldn’t be taken literally, not least because its literal fulfilment won’t achieve the desired goal anyway. One of my closest and oldest friends has been blind since childhood, and I remember once discussing this passage with him. “Believe me, Trystan”, he said over his pint of beer, “tearing someone’s eyes out won’t stop them lusting!”
While such a statement should not be taken literally, it should still be taken seriously. This passage teaches us something far deeper, far more radical about God’s kingdom. Everything we do, Jesus is telling us, has profound effects on both others and ourselves. Objectifying those of the opposite sex is not something that has no consequences. It can hurt and damage people directly, and can also damage society. We are left with daily news reports about sexual abuse, human trafficking, and rape and assault, while young people of both sexes are pressurised into a stereotype of how they should be acting in relationships and are given impossible ideals of how they should be looking.
Jesus’ exaggerated statements in the Sermon on the Mount, then, are not to be taken literally. But neither are those statements trying to make us feel guilt or hatred towards ourselves. Instead, they are trying to encourage us to recognise the radical nature of God’s kingdom and the impact that should have on how we think and act. In my last blog post, I emphasised the importance of us looking outside of ourselves to stand alongside those oppressed by gender, race, and ethnicity. But we need also to look inside of ourselves at our own personal issues, be they lust, anger, envy, hatred, selfishness, or material greed. How we think and how we act in our daily lives has an impact, not only on our own wellbeing and on other individuals, but also on our society and on our environment. If we really want to challenge the world, we must start with challenging ourselves. And if we really want to change the world, we must start with changing ourselves.