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Preaching What Jesus Says that Is Harsh and Shocking
Imagine that you are a speech writer or editor for Jesus during his earthly ministry. Imagine your response when you discover that Jesus plans to say:
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matt. 5:29–30)
My response might be "Uh, Jesus, this sounds extreme. Do you really think that cutting off body parts is going to help people avoid lust? Do you want to be responsible for people taking you literally and removing eyes and hands and who knows what else?"
Or imagine your horror when you learn what Jesus plans to say to a group of religious leaders: "Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53).
My response would probably be "Jesus, you simply cannot say that! Hyperbole is one thing, but this image crosses the line. If you talk about eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking his blood, you're going to be accused of cannibalism!"
But of course, I am not Jesus' speech writer or editor, and I have no business suggesting that the Son of God tones down his rhetoric or adapts his images to make them more palatable for a contemporary audience.
As a preacher, though, I do have to make Jesus' rhetoric and his images intelligible to a contemporary audience. So how can preachers handle the things we wish Jesus had never said? Throughout this volume, we will explore how to preach various hard sayings of Jesus, but this chapter will zero in on those sayings that are particularly harsh or shocking. How do we handle them in our preaching?
When Jesus Uses Hyperbole
Some of Jesus' harsh, shocking sayings can be accounted for by his use of hyperbole. While I encourage preachers not to use "shop talk" in their sermons, I make an exception here. When preaching on a particularly shocking saying of Jesus, I will use the word hyperbole. To lighten the mood, I will tell my listeners that I am a bit afraid of using a word like this because it might require me to charge them tuition! But the word is a useful one. It means simply "deliberate exaggeration." Then I will say something like, "Hearing the words Jesus and exaggeration together might put you on edge, but this is a legitimate communication technique that Jesus used."
So what exactly is this technique? Leland Ryken offers a helpful explanation. You might use some or all of this when you explain hyperbole to your listeners. Ryken writes:
How should we understand such exaggerations? We must avoid foolish attempts to press them into literal statements. Hyperbole does not express literal, factual truth. Instead it expresses emotional truth. Hyperbole is the voice of conviction. It captures the spirit of an event or inner experience. After all, when do people use hyperbole in ordinary discourse? They use it either when they feel strongly about something ("I wrote till my hand fell off") or when they are trying to be persuasive ("Everybody agrees that the test was unfair").
Ryken's explanation of hyperbole reminds us how our listeners need to understand that Jesus is merely doing what they do to emphasize a point. For example, you might say, "When my son first learned to drive, I told him a thousand times not to text while driving." The exact figure may have been only seventy-three, but the exaggeration dramatizes the point. So does a statement like "I would sell my car and walk to the United Center to hear Taylor Swift in concert." If I make a statement like that, no one expects to see a "for sale" sign on my car, nor do they expect to see me walking along Interstate 94 to make the thirty-nine-mile trip from my home in the Chicago suburbs to the venue in downtown Chicago. They understand that I am simply passionate and intentional about attending the concert.
Taking Extreme Measures to Deal with Lust
One of Jesus' more extreme uses of hyperbole occurs in Matthew 5:29–30 when he warns his listeners about lust. Even though Origen "applied" this text to his life by castrating himself, most modern commentators recognize that "literal self-mutilation is not Christ's objective." This is hyperbole that emphasizes the need for drastic action. Followers of Jesus must deal radically with their sin. Haddon Robinson provides a good example of how we might explain this to our listeners:
To interpret Christ's words about mutilation literally can be almost humorous. Suppose I'm having a struggle with lust. I poke out my right eye, but no evidence shows that one-eyed people are less lustful than two-eyed people. I'll chop off my right hand, but no studies verify that one-handed people are less lustful than two-handed people. I could gouge out my left eye, but sexual fantasies will still play on the cinema of my mind. Even if I'm blind, I could go the whole way—amputate both arms and both legs—but torsos are not exempt from lust.
The problem isn't body parts. Jesus used absurdity to show that adultery, like all sin, is serious enough for men and women to end up in hell. We ought to deal drastically with anything that leads us to that.
But listeners need help seeing what drastic action looks like in the twenty-first century. So Robinson continues: "If our magazine reading or our cable TV watching causes us to lust, then we need to cancel our subscriptions." Robinson offered these suggestions in 1988, before the popularity of the Internet exploded. Drastic action today will certainly take it into account as Grant Osborne suggests in his application of this text:
Jesus' call for extreme measures must be heeded before it is too late. Adults as well as children should purchase the software to lock themselves out of X-rated sites, and accountability groups need to be set up in every church. All too many males (as well as many females) should be admitting, "I am a sexoholic," and should be getting help. This issue has become a pandemic, and every church and Christian group should be seeking solutions even more vigorously than in the past.
The Language of Cannibalism
John 6 contains another radical and even revolting use of hyperbole. Beginning in John 6:32, Jesus launches into a rabbinic argument in which he claims to be the food that leads to eternal life. This took place after Jesus fed the five thousand (vv. 1–15) and when the crowd following Jesus essentially asked him if he was duplicating what Moses did (vv. 30–32). In Second Temple Judaism, there was an expectation that the Messiah would provide bread in the same way that Moses had provided manna. Second Baruch, a text dating to about A.D. 100, describes the condition on the whole earth when the Messiah, the Anointed One, is revealed. Food will be so plentiful that "those who are hungry will enjoy themselves and they will, moreover, see marvels every day" (2 Bar. 29:6). Even more striking is this description: "And it will happen at that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time" (2 Bar. 29:8).
Jesus, then, declares: "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.... For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day" (John 6:35, 40). This statement elicited grumbling. The grumbling in John 6:41 and later in the account, in verse 61, recalls the grumbling of Exodus 16:2. There, the people grumbled before receiving the manna. Here in John 6 the people grumbled after they received it. It seems to be this grumbling that prompts Jesus to radicalize his metaphor. According to John 6:51, Jesus said: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."
Now Jesus had his listeners really upset! John 6:52 reports: "Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'" In response to this question, Jesus pushes their sensibilities to the limit with a response that can only be described as "hyperbole gone wild."
Jesus said to them, "Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever." (vv. 53–58)
So how do we explain this to our contemporary listeners? To be sure, we use the eating and drinking metaphor in contemporary culture, talking about how we devour a book or swallow a story or drink in beauty or chew on an idea. But Jesus pushes this kind of imagery to its limits when he calls his listeners to eat his flesh and drink his blood. This simply sounds cannibalistic and grotesque! Yes, and that is exactly the way Jesus intended it to sound. Craig Keener argues that "When Jesus speaks of eating his flesh (6:51–53), he invites disgust from his contemporaries."
There was a method to this madness, though. His radical language intended to convey the radical identity and intimacy with Jesus needed to experience his provision for our deepest longings. What made the imagery appropriate, though borderline, is the connection to Passover—the setting for John 6 (see v. 4). Keener explains: "In the context of Passover (6:4), however, the image most naturally evoked is that of the paschal lamb. Thus, for example, rabbinic texts concerning the Passover speak of eating flesh (the lamb) and drinking the blood of grapes (cups at Passover), here perhaps applicable to Jesus as the true vine (15:1)." This is a stunning way, then, to speak of embracing or believing in Jesus' death. The symbolism must be understood in terms of Jesus' repeated calls for belief in him (see John 6:35, 40, 47, 69). Such stunning teaching demands a response. Some followers grumble, turn back, and no longer follow Jesus (vv. 60–66). But Jesus' true disciples recognize that he is the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life (vv. 66–71).
In both Matthew 5:29–30 and John 6:54–57 we have seen that Jesus uses hyperbolic language to make sure he makes his point. This is not shocking language for the sake of simply shocking or unnerving people. Rather, Jesus' use of hyperbole reflects the passion and conviction behind the message he proclaimed. The message was important enough to use whatever heightened language he could to get across his point.
But how can we tell whether a particular statement is hyperbolic or not? For example, at the end of one of his parables, Jesus says that worthless servants who do not steward their talents will be thrown "outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 25:30). How can we tell if this is simply harsh reality or if it is hyperbole?
Leland Ryken provides a helpful way of distinguishing between hyperbole and a harsh statement that should be taken at face value. He observes that hyperbole "advertises its lack of literal truth." It is obviously a figure of speech since it would make no sense taken literally. This is certainly the case with Jesus' statement about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. These images went against the theology and sensibility of the Jewish people to whom Jesus spoke.
But Jesus' words about judgment, as harsh as they are, fit with the theology of the Scriptures he and his listeners held dear. To be sure, the image of "outer darkness" and "weeping and gnashing of teeth" is heightened language and, thus, poetic. But these are stock ways of describing both the removal of sinners from God's presence and the anguish that accompanies it. There is nothing about these statements that advertises a lack of literal truth the way that Jesus' call for cutting off limbs does when he speaks about curbing lust.
Here is another instance where commentaries can help. The point is not to let commentators do all of our thinking for us. But I want to know what Bible scholars throughout the history of the church have concluded about particular sayings of Jesus that strike me as hyperbole. Both asking whether a statement advertises its lack of literal truth and listening to a long tradition of godly interpreters will help me assess whether a given statement of Jesus' is simply "harsh but real" or, in fact, hyperbolic.
Did Jesus Use Racist Language?
Now we turn to a different type of harsh, shocking speech. In Matthew 15:21–28, we read the account of a Canaanite woman coming to Jesus and crying out for mercy for her demonized daughter who was suffering terribly (v. 22). But "Jesus did not answer a word" (v. 23). When he finally speaks, he says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel" (v. 24). But the woman was persistent. She came and knelt before him and said, "Lord, help me!" (v. 25). It is at this point that Jesus says something that seems utterly offensive. He replies: "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs" (v. 26). This statement is shocking not because it is hyperbolic but because it seems rude, insensitive, chauvinistic, and even racist given the fact that the woman was a Canaanite and that Jesus had indicated how he had been sent to the lost sheep of Israel.
Some try to soften Jesus' words by observing that the diminutive form of the word indicates that Jesus has in view a "little dog" and that the word thus implies the affection one might have for a pet dog as opposed to a wild dog. But that misses the point; dogs were unclean animals. R. T. France correctly responds: "It is true that the Greek term is a diminutive, but only a pet-loving Western culture would suggest that this reduces the offense; a "little dog" is no less unclean than a big one! The woman's reply takes these to be house dogs rather than street dogs, but that does little to alleviate the problem." The fact is, Jesus has used a pejorative image in reference to someone of another race. "References to dogs in biblical literature are overwhelmingly negative, and when the term is used metaphorically for human beings, it is abusive and derogatory."
So Jesus seems to share the same derogatory attitude that the majority in his race (Jewish) held toward Gentiles. But that conclusion will not stand up for at least two reasons. First, Jesus' prophetic words in Matthew 8:11–12 have established his vision of a multiethnic people of God. Second, the exorcism in the region of the Gadarenes (Matt 8:28–34) demonstrates that Jesus is not reluctant to deal with demon possession in a Gentile context.
Context, then, is everything when it comes to meaning. France's argument is confirmed by one more glance at the context. The woman replies to Jesus' shocking statement with this observation: "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table" (15:27). Jesus then replies: "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." Matthew 15:28 reports that the woman's "daughter was healed at that moment." Here, France suggests that Jesus intended this outcome from the start: A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil's best insight by a deliberate challenge that does not necessarily represent the teacher's own view—even if the phrase "devil's advocate" may not be quite appropriate to this context.
Excerpted from Preaching the Hard Words of Jesus by Steven D. Mathewson, Craig Brian Larson. Copyright © 2013 Christianity Today International. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
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