Hi, Perbole! Exaggeration, Anyone? Reflections on Mark 9:38-49
New Testament scholar Robert Tannehill, in his classic book The Sword of His Mouth, calls these sayings "focal instances." They picture a specific scene and make a statement or command relative to that scene. They imply an exaggerated judgment and make an extreme demand. They are not legal rules meant to be enforced literally as general regulations. They are meant to make us look at human behavior in a whole new way.
Obviously, no one is a biblical literalist. Otherwise there would be a lot more people with one eye, one hand, or one foot. While we don't take these sayings literally, we are to take them seriously. But who wants to do that?
In everyday life when people exaggerate, they are stretching the truth. The fish, no kidding, it was two feet long. (All right, maybe it was 18 inches.) We had 500 people in worship this week. (Okay, maybe it was 350.) I have never said one single negative thing about you behind your back. (Okay, maybe one.)
What is different about Jesus' use of hyperbole is that he is not exaggerating about the destructive potential consequences of our actions. Not really.
Remember the fable about Henny Penny or, as it's sometimes known, Chicken Little? In the fable an acorn falls on Chicken Little's head, and he thinks the sky is falling. He runs around the forest exaggerating and convincing other animals to follow him.
In our case the risk of misleading others, of stumbling into actions that hurt ourselves and others, is very real and very serious. We can be all about trivializing and discounting it. But that object that just hit my head is a chunk of the sky that is starting to fall. I want to be able to shrug it off and call it an acorn.
People were so offended by Jesus' exaggeration, not because it wasn't true, but because it was.
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.