Lecture 19: Hermeneutics Exaggeration (Part 1)
Course: Biblical Hermeneutics
We are going to use another literary form and the form – you know when you teach, you have to always be careful on how you word things. You don’t want to word things in a way that causes difficulty. For instance, many people might have a problem with saying, “Jesus is exaggerating here,” because for many of us, exaggerating has an air of dishonesty, lack of truthfulness.
So I would say, Jesus uses overstatement or hyperbole. And I’d separate overstatement and hyperbole. Hyperbole is literally impossible. Overstatement is to exaggerate, but it can be taken literally, so hyperbole is literally impossible. Overstatement is to interpret something literally that is not meant to be interpreted literally. It is exaggerated. They are both forms of exaggeration.
But for many people, the use of exaggerated language has negative connotations.
(For some of you who have had me for Gospels, one … this will be something of a repeat. I apologize for that.)
For instance when Mary turns in her books at 53rd Bank, and the bank examiner comes, do they say, “Oh. Mary’s used exaggeration in the books again?” She is using overstatement. No. Here it is dishonest.
How do you know the difference between when this form of exaggerated terminology is acceptable as a genre and when its not? I think it is real simple. If both parties know its exaggerated language, its perfectly legitimate. If only one knows, the one speaking, then its dishonest. Then it is deceitful. But if both know the exaggerated nature of the saying, then it becomes a very powerful form of what we call commissive language.
There really is no way of expressing love to someone without exaggerated language. If you eliminate exaggerated language, you are in trouble in any courting, romantic relationship. “My dear Joan, the last time I kissed you, the stars began to explode in the heavens and my heart skipped a beat. Can’t wait to see you Friday.”
That’s exaggerated terminology. Lets use more scientific terminology. “My dear Joan, the last time I kissed you, it was just like putting my lips on a piece of raw warm leather. “
Well. Which is more accurate? Which is the one that is going to get you into trouble? You have to be able to use language like this to express emotions. And lots of Jesus’ terminology and expressions are exaggerated terminology, but they are known and they are shared and they are powerful.
Now through the history of the Church, most people have been able to detect exaggeration on a kind of common sense intuitive way. Most people know it. There have been tragic examples however this has not been understood and people have plucked out an eye or cut off an arm and mutilated themselves because they misunderstood the nature of the saying.
What I want to do is to talk first of all about how you can detect exaggerated terminology and then after we have done that, talk about the strength and value of such terminology. Now one of the ways we can detect exaggerated terminology is if it is literally impossible. For instance if it is hyperbole , then you know it has to be exaggerated. No one would think of this literally.
Matthew 7 verses 3-5, after saying do not judge so that you be not judged, in verses 3 through 5, Jesus says, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbors eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor …” This is the New RSV’s way of avoiding sexist language. Brother right? How could you say to your brother – but makes it possible to apply to your brother or your sister. How can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
I remember years ago, seeing a Christian artist trying to portray that saying in the Bible. It was just impossible. Just no way. And the reason is you can’t get a log in a person’s eye. You can’t visualize it. There are somethings you can do with Art, you can’t do with rhetoric or writing materials. But there are somethings you can do with writing that you can’t do with Art. And here is an example of it. The fact is that you can’t get a log in a person’s eye.
On the other hand, this hyperbolic expression is very powerful. When Jesus said it, how did people respond to the? “Boy that’s dumb. Doesn’t he know that you can’t get a tree or a log in a person’s eye? That’s dumb.”
Or did they say “You know, isn’t it true how easy it is to see the little flaws in other peoples’ lives and miss the great ones in your own?”
But isn’t it so much more powerful than what my rewording of it in non-literal language – “Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye – the piece of sawdust in your brother’s eye, but don’t see the great 2 by 4, the great tree trunk in your own eye?” There is a power in exaggerated terminology.
And the fact is, we do see the faults of others much more easily and readily than we see our own faults. I gave the example in a New Testament class of having taught one night and driving home as I was coming to this place, there was a woman driving ahead of me and she hit the brakes and started to turn and put her signal lights on. I was mad. “You put the signal on first!” Once you hit the brake, I know you are going to do something. The signal light is to tell me you are about to do something. I was really upset. So upset that I didn’t notice till a little later that I went through the red light at that corner. But that’s understandable. ??? lights – that happens. Not using signals, that’s right next to the unpardonable sin somewhere in 1st John.
Its really easy to see other people’s flaws and not notice your own. But isn’t it more powerful to say, to see the little specks in other people’s eyes and not your own. Very powerful, but its hyperbolic because it is not literally possible.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
This Sunday when you give your offering, as you are about to put it in left to your left hand and say, “Don’t look.”
How can your left hand not know what your right hand is doing?
When you think of it, how can you handle anything? Hands don’t know anything… So you are really saying, “Make a major attempt, not to know what you are about to do” – which doesn’t make any sense. But in the context it is very powerful hyperbolic language to say your giving is between God and you. Its not to be a show. It is not for others to see. When you give, its between you, God and the IRS…
But it’s a powerful way of saying it. Much more powerful than saying, “When you give, do it quietly without people noticing it.” Something like that.
In Matthew 23, verses 23 to 24, you have another example of this,
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
Now the Pharisees not only practiced tithing on whatever they earned, but if someone gave them something or they bought something from someone, they would tithe on what they bought to because they did not know if the other person already had tithed. They wanted to be real clear about these.
And so even the little things like garden herbs they would tithe and yet they would rob widows of their houses, Jesus said. So you have this hypocrisy. Then Jesus goes on and says,
“It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat”
Unclean animal – you don’t want to swallow a gnat, because you become ceremonially unclean and you had to go through all this purification stuff.
“You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!" Also unclean. Have you ever seen a camel recently. Again, it makes no sense literally. But people who said that didn’t say, “Oh. That’s dumb. Cant swallow camels.” But they said, “Yeah. It is so easy to become concerned about the minutiae in religion and not be concerned about the big thing – love and justice and mercy and the like.”
But hyperbole are examples in which the exaggeration is so great that its literally impossible. Another time, you know that a statement uses this kind of exaggerated terminology is when it conflicts with what Jesus says elsewhere. For instance in Luke 14:26,
‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’
You know, there has to be something that immediately comes to your mind, and you say, “He can’t mean this literally.”
Why? Because He says other things that violate that. In Chapter 7, He criticizes the Pharisees because they have a practice in which they say, “Well. You know, what I should do to take care of your mom and dad, I give it to the temple instead.” And they were really impressed. Got a real – good ovation when I gave that. But I am not obligated to take of you anymore. And by your tradition, Jesus says, you break the law which is, “Honor your father and mother.” Now He is criticizing them for not honoring father and mother. How can he say here all of a sudden about hating father and mother? Doesn’t make any sense.
Furthermore He says somewhere, doesn’t He, that you have to love your enemies. Now if you hate your father and mother, that means you are treating them as enemies. They qualify to be loved anyhow. So something. Something doesn’t fit here. Its exaggerated language and what He means here is that like Jacob loving Rachel more than Leah, you must love Me more than the most intimate and noblest forms of human love. The love of Christ is above all other forms of human love.
You have Matthew 6:6, where He says that when you pray, don’t pray to be a – be showy, when you pray, well let me begin to reading at verse 5,
5 ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Ok. Always pray secretly and privately. But then how do you pray secretly and privately? Verse 9, “Our Father who art in Heaven.” That’s a corporate prayer.
Now did Matthew think that this was a contradiction? No. He understood that the form was an exaggerated form of speech. Prayer is not to be used as an attempt to show piety to other people – show how wonderful you are. Prayer is to be done privately.
There is a sense in which my wife and I don’t do that. When we go out to eat, we always pray. Pray thankful for food. Thankful that I never had a time in my life when my children were hungry and I didn’t have something to give them to eat. Just think of how terrible it must be for prayer to have hungry children and have nothing to give them. If you have never experienced that, at every meal you ought to give God thanks for that.
So when we go out to eat, I don’t stand up on the table and say, “You pagans out there. Watch me! I am going to pray.” No, you just do it quietly. As unobtrusively as possible. Recently we were praying silently when the waitress came by and she said, “Lord. Make the food taste good.”
It is a prayer. ??? Fine. I’ll buy that.
But it is meant as an exaggerated message in that regard. Other times a statement conflicts not with what Jesus says but His behavior. For instance, Luke 14:26 about hating father and mother. You have Jesus on the cross. He is concerned about His mother. He says to His mother, “Woman behold your son, Son behold your mother.” And He has a place for her to be taken care of – at home with John – who takes her into his home.
Matthew 10:34. Here is something that – it should be a red flag.
‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’
Good grief. Well, that right away – aren’t there something about, in the previous statement about His having said something like blessed are the peacemakers. One of the Beatitudes. For theirs is the Kingdom of God. For they shall be called Children of God. Excuse me. His behavior. Elsewhere He comes to bring reconciliation and such.
So again one would have to be aware that there is something about this in His behavior, in His sayings that seems to conflict. His statement in chapters 6 of Matthew, Matthew verse 6 about going into your closet to pray. There are times we see that Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. And the disciples know what He prays. How do they know what He is praying? They overheard Him. So if you take that literally, is a problem in this regard as well.
There is a problem in Matthew 5:33, one of the “You have heard it said, but I say.” Verse 33-37. He says,
33 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
In the context in which this is said, there is debate among the Rabbis when do you have to keep an oath. And in the Talmud, the debate goes on. One rabbi says, “Well. If you made an oath to a Gentile, you don’t have to keep it.” And another rabbi says, “Yes. But, if you made an oath to a Gentile in the name of Yahweh, your God, using the sacred name, then you have to keep it.” Another rabbi says, “Even if it is the name of Yahweh, if its to a Gentile, you don’t have to keep it.” So here you have, which oaths to keep, and Jesus says “Don’t make any oaths at all. Let your yes be yes, and you no, no.” In the passage, that I have listed next to it – in Matthew 26:63, we have an interesting incident in which Jesus acknowledges the legitimacy of an oath. Do you ever think of why Jesus at His trial was quiet and then all of a sudden, He started to talk again.
He was quiet. He does not answer until we find in Matthew 26:62,
62 The high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ 63 But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’
That oath is found in Leviticus 5, verse 1 and following, in which when you are placed under an oath, you must answer. If you do not answer, you are acknowledging you are guilty. Why didn’t He just say, “I plead the 5th Amendment?” There was no 5th Amendment in Israel. That was not a possibility. And He acknowledged the validity of the oath and now He responds. And He says, “Yes. You said so. I am the Messiah.” So He acknowledges here in his practice, the legitimacy of an oath. What about us and oaths?
In our country, there are groups, for instance, Mennonites and some Brethren groups that simply will not swear an oath. And in our Law system, that is generally accepted, or it is accepted. And a person, the Judge will say, “Then will you give me your word, that what you are about to say is truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” And they will say, “I do” and that will be accepted. Their word, because their religious convictions do not allow them to give an oath.
I just had supper this evening with Dr. Chancer and his wife Donna. They came from Canada originally. His wife said he was teaching up in Canada and he married her. Then he came to America and his wife was coming to America to become an American citizen. And when he came to the border, the person at the immigration office said that, “Mrs. Chancer, do you swear that you will not take up violent revolution against the United States government. Do you swear that you will not try to overthrow the government by force? And she said, “No.”
“What in the world?” He said “You will not swear that you will not – you promise not try to overthrow the government.” And so he was confused and he went into the main person there and he was an older person, and he came out and he kind of smiled and said, “You’re Mennonite, aren’t you?” She says, “Yes. I am.” And he said, “Well. Maam. Will you give me your word that you will not try to overthrow this government of ours?” And she said, “Oh. Yeah.” “Well. That is good enough for us. That is fine.” But they took it literally.
Now. I don’t think that what Jesus meant here is that you should never take an oath. What He is emphasizing is that you should have the character that it is unnecessary to take an oath.
In other words, your word is your bond. If you give your word, you will keep it, unless you die before you can keep it. I still remember my Dad telling me once, “Bobby. I gave him my word.” To a little kid, that was important. That is something. Yeah. Ok.
So the giving of your word should be of supreme importance. If I were called in a court of law to give testimony and say “Robert Stein, do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?”
It might be a little showy, but I think, we should be able to say something like, “Your honor, I’m a Christian, and Jesus taught me always to tell the truth. So I don’t have to take this oath, but if it makes you happy, sure I do.”
That would be too show-boating. But I think that’s the kind of character you should have, that an oath is not necessary. Your word is good. Don’t you know people who if they say, “Yeah. I give you my word. I’ll do it.” You know it is going to be done.
Someone else will say, “Yeah. I swear on my mother’s grave, Bob. I’ll do it.” Then you go away ??? and say “Well. I guess he is not going to do it after all.”
If your character and your word go hand in hand, you don’t need to say anymore, and that’s what Jesus is getting at here but He uses this hyperbolic terminology here.
A fourth way in which you can detect exaggerated terminology is if a statement conflicts with the teachings of the Old Testament. For instance, hating father and mother. Why? One of the commandments of the Old Testament is – one of the 10 Commandments is honor your father and mother. The fact that there is no uproar about this, that no one is confused about it indicates they recognized because of the other things Jesus said, that this violated the Old Testament and He didn’t come to violate the Old Testament, but to fulfill it. That had to be understood and exaggerated terminology.
Sometimes we have statements that conflicted with the New Testament teaching. Leaving apart even for a moment, the issue of divine inspiration - certainly the writers of the rest of the New Testament think an awful lot like Jesus and the Gospel writers. So I would think their understanding of the teachings of Jesus would be far better than most people. They are much closer to the situation. Now when you add to this, that it is part of the Word of God, well of course you have an absolute in addition. But you have the fact that you are not to swear an oath. And yet, the book of Hebrews tells us that several times in the Old Testament, God swore an oath. God Himself swore an oath.
Had Jesus forgotten about this when He framed the saying? No. Come on. You know the Old Testament well. Interestingly enough, it becomes somewhat complicated when God is going to swear an oath. Because we swear an oath on the Bible, which is bigger than us and greater than us, but who is greater than God. So what He has to swear is on His name. His own honor, personally that way.
Paul swears an oath, “I swear to you, I am telling the truth…” and so forth. “God is my witness,” Paul can talk about. There is another saying in Matthew 5:42, which also is exaggerated terminology.
“42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Notice the universal language. Probably goes with some of the other. In verse 39, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
How do you hit someone on the right cheek?
With the back hand. It is not so much a physical kind of thing. It is an insult more. Slap, back of your hand kind of thing, that is being envisioned here.
“40 if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well …” In other words, if someone is going to sue you for your undergarments, give him your outer garment also. You couldn’t sue a person for their outer garments, because that was their warmth. They had to return that. Now Luke, when he gives the version of this, talks a thief coming and stealing your outer garment and you let him have your undergarment as well, because that would be more understandable to Theophilus – of a thief coming that way and stealing, rather than a legal situation of being sued for your undergarments and so forth and so on.
If somebody sues you for – in the Lucan saying – if someone steals your outer garment, let Him have your undergarment. If they steal your pants, let them have your shorts as well. Now, I don’t think what we are talking about is some sort of new lifestyle of dress or something here. I think He is just saying, “Look. Be willing to be abused. Be willing to turn your other cheek. Don’t …oops.” I said that once before. In this illustration, it doesn’t go real well.
Anyhow, to be non-resistant is what you have here. But He goes on, “Give to everyone who begs from me, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Now if you look at what Paul says in 2 Thessalonians, this looks like it would be something of a contradiction. In 3:10 he says, of 2 Thessalonians, “10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” In other words, don’t give the people who are unwilling to work – not people who can’t work, who are physically unable or there is no work provided. But if they are unwilling to work and they can then ??? let them not eat.
But how does that fit with “give to everyone who asks you?” You have to realize that what we have here is an exaggerated form. You don’t have something like “Give to everyone who begs from me and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you except in the following circumstances.” If you qualify, then you lose the power of the statement. But its understandable that there could be situations where you would not do this.
As pastors you are going to face that. You are going to have people wanting handouts and you are not always sure whether if you gave them money, they would use it for the food or other things they are talking about or whether they would use it for alcohol or drugs. What do you do? I remember somebody saying, “I need money to get back home. I don’t have money for busfare.” And I said “Alright. Well. Let us go get something to eat then we will go to the bus” and I put him on the bus and sent him off. I wasn’t sure if just giving him money, he would use it for that.
What happens when your child comes to you and says “Mom. Dad. I just learned my verse for life - my favorite verse in the Bible. ‘Give to everyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,’ and I’d like you to show how that works out. I have a bicycle that I saw in the store and I want you to buy it for me.”
If you love children you don’t give them everything they want. It would be the worst thing that you could do for them. But do you want Jesus to list exceptions or does He expect common sense in regard to the understanding of how this general overstated verse is. The fact is, we are going to be abused. People will ask for things that we will give them, that they probably don’t need or deserving of. That’s part of being Christian. If you want never to be taken as a Christian, the only way you can do that is by sometimes not giving to people who need it. Because you are not that smart. Neither am I, to perceive some of these things so we accept that. That’s part of being a Christian. Our generosity would be abused.
But there are times when it would be foolish and we would know better than to give in that instance.