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'Exaggerations' of Jesus


The argument is often given to us that Jesus purposely over-stated some things in order to grab people's attention, and that he never intended for us to take him literally when he was doing that.  In this article, I will consider three classic illustrations of this argument, and then I will add a fourth, which, I believe, exposes the lie in the first three.  Finally, I will return to the first three arguments with a vastly different approach.

The most common passage referred to when arguing that Jesus never meant for us to take him literally is where he says that if our eye offends us we should pluck it out, or if our hand offends us, we should cut it off.  Obviously, there are very few (if any) Christians walking around with a missing eye or hand because they took this instruction seriously.  If that is true, and if we have never done such a thing ourselves, then it must be that Jesus never meant for people to take this literally.  Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?

Then there is the passage where Jesus says that, if we have even the smallest measure of faith, we will be able to tell a tree (or even a mountain) to be plucked up and tossed into the ocean, and it will obey us.  Once again, where is there anyone who has ever done such things?  And what would be the point of it if they had?  Jesus wasn't exactly talking nonsense, but he certainly was not expecting anyone to take that literally, was he?  Once again, the conclusion is that it was just hyperbole... an exaggeration to make a point.

And finally, there is the passage that we Jesus Christians have taken so literally over the years, which is that we must forsake everything that we own if we want to be followers of Jesus.  (Luke 14:33)  With this one, there are a few people, ourselves included, who have tried to take it literally.  But the end result is that we are seen by virtually everyone else as being fanatics for doing so... people who just went too far.  All Jesus was really talking about was just a need for all of us to keep an eye on our attachment to things and not let them get out of hand.

Okay, so those are the three examples that I said I would give.  But what of the fourth example?  The one I promised to give, in an attempt to refute the claims relating to the first three?  The fourth one is where Jesus (repeatedly) talks about giving us eternal life.

Those churches and believers who ridicule so much of what Jesus said still seem to take him seriously when he talks about eternal life.  Why?  Isn't it because they can never be proven wrong on this one?  Isn't it because they have devised their own systems of beliefs and rules which dangle the carrot of eternal life in front of congregations all over the world without the various preachers ever having to prove that this incredible promise is true?  Surely if talk about flying mountains and missing limbs is exaggeration, then talk about living forever must be the most incredible fantasy ever devised.

In fact, if you return to the first illustration above, you will observe that the very point Jesus was trying to make with what he said about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes was that, if eternal life is a reality, then even losing a limb in order to obtain it is a small price to pay.  If you read our article "Cut Off Your Hand!" you will see that we observe there that it isn't really hands and eyes that cause us to sin, but rather it is certain attitudes, the most insidious of them being that God doesn't expect us to do or believe anything extreme, which keep us from the kingdom of heaven and all that goes with it.  If cutting off my hand really was the one thing keeping me from having eternal life, then obviously it would be stupid of me not to do it.  And so the point Jesus was making was not an exaggeration at all.  He meant it exactly the way he said it.  Until we stop laughing at it as being ridiculous and get deadly serious about what it is saying, we will never truly appreciate what he was saying.

Then there is the second illustration, which is that, if we had even the smallest measure of faith, we would be able to tell trees and mountains to move and they would move.  Just as people HAVE cut off hands in order to save lives, people have moved trees and even moved mountains when they have put their minds (and backs and explosives and earth-moving equipment) to it.  So we are not talking about impossibilities here.  Of course, neither are we talking about a command.  We are talking about a promise, and that promise is illustrated by something which sounds quite impossible.  We are talking about whether or not faith can cause us to do things that, at least on the surface, appear to be impossible.  Every story you have ever read of amazing achievements made by human beings has one common theme:  They believed in something strongly enough to do it.  Faith is the source of every great achievement... even if it is just faith in one's self.  But faith in God is, by far, the greatest source of strength, because it even looks death in the eye and comes out victorious.  (Eternal life, remember?)  There is no exaggeration in what Jesus has said about faith.  He is quite right in saying that if you have faith, you will be able to do anything.  Exactly WHAT you do will depend on where your faith lies, and what God is telling you to do, but the possibilities are, in fact (and without exaggeration) totally limitless.

Finally we come to that simple little command which Jesus sets up as the basic requirement for all of his followers, i.e. that we must give up everything that we own.  In other places he has expressed it in even more detailed terms, i.e. that we sell whatever we own, and that we give the proceeds to the poor.  Extreme?  Yes.  But nowhere near as extreme as telling you that after you die, after your dead body has decayed and turned to dust, God is going to bring you back to life and give you a new body, one that will live forever.  If you can believe in a God who can do that, can't you believe in a God who can feed you without you having to spend your life working for money?  Can't you believe in a God who can clothe you without you having to build bigger and bigger wardrobes to hold all the clothes that you own?  In following this command, we have experienced a relationship with God that is not just pie in the sky when we die.  We have seen his hand working in our lives day after day, proving that he was not exaggerating when he told us to forsake everything that we own.

In this article, we started out with some teachings that people have dismissed as hyperbole, because they found them too difficult to take seriously.  We showed that talk about eternal life is equally fantastic, and yet it is the hope of Christian believers around the world.  And then we returned to those extreme teachings of Jesus and showed them to be not exaggerations at all, but serious expressions of the extreme nature of all that Jesus stood for.  Surely, if we would spend less time ridiculing the teachings of Jesus as "exaggerations", and more time taking him seriously, then even those fantastic promises about eternal life may turn out to be more than fairy tales too.

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