Hi, Perbole! Exaggeration, Anyone? Reflections on Mark 9:38-49
September 30, 2012
To touch the hot stove or not? Who stands in front of the stove trying to decide which option to choose? Sometimes the better choice is obvious.
There is a form of proverbial wisdom called the "better than" proverb that presents two sharply opposed choices, one of which is clearly good and the other clearly not.
One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city (Prov. 16:32).
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold (Prov. 22:1).
Better is open rebuke than hidden love (Prov. 27:5).
Some "better than" proverbs convey that wisdom is a better choice than any alternative.
Her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold (Prov. 3:14).
My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver (Prov. 8:19).
Jesus was the heir of the methods of the Hebrew sages or wisdom teachers. He borrowed their forms and used them in edgy ways to subvert conventional wisdom's do's and don'ts. He was taking a page out of Qohelet's book. Qohelet is the name given to the author of Ecclesiastes.
Here are a couple of "better than" proverbs in Ecclesiastes. In response to seeing people being oppressed, the author utters this "better than" proverb:
I thought the dead who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive, but better than both is the one who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun (Eccl. 4:1, 2).
Other examples of "better than" proverbs from Ecclesiastes include "Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good" (Eccl. 9:18) and the whole of chapter 7.
Jesus used the traditional "better than" form, but, much like Qohelet, he invested them with edgy, subversive content. You can't read Mark 9:38-50 without stumbling over four "better than" sayings.
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea (Mk. 9:42).
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire (Mk. 9:44).
If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell (Mk. 9:45).
If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched (Mk. 9:47-48).
What Jesus does is take a traditional proverbial form used to offer clear-cut options and adds a dash of paradox and a big dollop of hyperbole. The paradox comes in as he presents something painful and distasteful as the better choice: drowning with a millstone around our neck and cutting off our hand, our foot, or our eye. The hyperbole comes in as he exaggerates the choice to the nth degree. All three self-amputations are better than having two eyes, two hands, and two feet, but still going to hell "where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched" (Mk. 9:48).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.