Hyperbole. I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse. What does that mean? I’m very hungry. Then why wouldn’t you just say, “I’m very hungry?”
Hyperbole. That was the easiest test in the world. What does that mean? I aced the test. Then why wouldn’t you just say that.
Hyperbole. When I was a kid, I had to walk 5 miles to school, and it was uphill in both directions! What does that mean? It was a difficult walk every day. Then what might motivate someone to say it that way?
Hyperbole. It’s exaggeration, yes, and usually ridiculous exaggeration at that! But it’s exaggeration for a purpose. It’s exaggeration to get the reader or hearer’s attention. It’s exaggeration to make a point.
I think we must read Jesus’ words in Mark chapter 9 as hyperbole. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.” “If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” I hope we can all agree that Jesus was not speaking literally of self-mutilation in this passage. But he is trying to get our attention – successfully, I might add. And he is trying to make a point.
I’m just not sure it’s the point that most people take away from this passage. I have read sermons and articles and blog posts that interpret this passage as a warning against the temptation to some sort of immorality. It’s easy to understand why. It’s our hands that reach for things that we shouldn’t have. It’s our feet that take us places that we ought not to go. It’s our eyes that make us see things that we want, causing us to go after them, whether they belong to us or not. But I don’t think this passage is about immorality in general. I don’t think it’s about reaching into the cookie jar or wandering off the path or looking with lust or envy or greed at someone or something we shouldn’t – at least to me it’s not just about those kinds of choices and the harm they bring on us. It seems to me that he is trying to get us to pay attention to our behavior because of how it might impact another’s faith. Here’s why I say this.
You may not realize it, since you’re not reading this lesson directly from a Bible, but this passage follows directly after last week’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus takes a child into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” We really pick up just where the story broke off last week. There is no indication that Jesus has put the child down or that there is any break in the conversation. John right away starts complaining about someone from outside their group who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. And then Jesus, let’s assume still holding the child, says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones” (one of these little ones – can’t you see him gesturing to the child in his lap?) if anyone puts a stumbling block before “these little ones who believe in me,” it would be better for you to jump into the sea with a stone around your neck, or cut off your hand, or your foot, or pluck out your eye. Forget about the damage we do to ourselves with bad behavior – Jesus already knows that you and I are sinners in need of a Savior – the real problem that Jesus seems to be addressing here is the damage we do to others who are “little,” who are still growing in their faith, or perhaps those who don’t even have a relationship with God. Because our bad behavior can make them stumble in their trust in God – or can make them turn their backs on God altogether! The problem is not so much how we are tripped up by our hands and feet and eyes, but rather how what do can cause others to get tripped up. They see us, saying we’re believers and then acting as if our relationship with God makes no difference in the way we live our lives, and they falter.
I read an article this week about things that Christians do that non-Christians despise. According to the author, the top thing that believers do that turns off non-believers is judge others. But the number two thing on the author’s list was the one that fits with today’s lesson: being hypocritical. Hypocrisy, saying one thing with our lips and doing something different with our actions, living one way on Sunday morning and another way the rest of the week, hypocrisy is perhaps the biggest stumbling block that we could put in the path of one who is outside the faith or just coming into it. I have to wonder if that’s what Jesus was getting at in this passage. Don’t “cut off your hand” because it causes you to sin; cut it off because when “little ones” see you reaching inappropriately, they may doubt that God will supply our needs. Don’t “cut off your foot” because you’ll wander off the path; cut it off because you might lead someone weaker in the faith astray. Don’t “pluck out your eye” because you’re worried for your own salvation; pluck it out because others may see your wandering eye and think that it’s okay for them to do whatever they want without regard for one another. We, by our actions, can become a hindrance to others in their faith . . . that, I suspect, is the problem that Jesus was so keen to address that he slipped into hyperbole to get our attention. Our bad behavior doesn’t just hurt us – it hurts our community.
But this, my friends, is no hyperbole. This is no exaggeration. We behave badly all the time. We don’t mean to. We even try not to. And without the love of Jesus, without his mercy and forgiveness, by rights we all ought to be walking around here missing body parts because, no matter how hard we try, we are always missing the mark. No matter how mature in years, we are still “little ones” in faith, in need of leading and guiding, correction and redirection. But this also is no less true and no less of an exaggeration: as little ones who belong to Jesus, we can trust him to love us – to love us and shape us and guide us – into becoming the people he wants us to be: believers whose words and deeds show others the light of his love.