Hyperbole. You probably learned about it in English class in high school, and you probably use it all the time without even thinking about it. Hyperbole is a way of explaining something by using an extreme description that does not exactly fit the actual situation. You might say after a huge win by your favorite team, “We killed them!” You don’t actually mean that you had a part in a mass slaughtering with great loss of life. You might say when your favorite team is on a terrible losing streak, “They’re killing me!” You don’t actually mean that there is a group intent on taking your life. You might say at work, “It’s freezing in here!” You don’t actually mean your boss is trying to turn you into an ice cube. The question for us this week when we read the gospel lectionary text should be, “Is Jesus using hyperbole?”
Jesus opens by saying that to follow him, to be a disciple, we will have to hate our families, and even ourselves all the way to the point of crucifixion. We read this, and we are shocked. The folks listening to Jesus would have also been shocked. The family unit is appropriately an important part of our lives, and the household was an extremely important part of the lives of people in the Ancient Near East. So, is Jesus serious? Of course he is serious, but is he using hyperbole?
There are other places where we believe Jesus uses hyperbole. Suggesting that someone pluck out their own eye or cut off their own hand to avoid sin is meant to teach about the depth of the seriousness of the problem of sin. Jesus is not suggesting that we self mutilate, that would not square with humanity being God’s good creation, or Jesus’ own nature as healer of infirmity. Instead, Jesus is suggesting that we must rightly understand the dangers of sin. A similar reasoning can be seen in this section of the gospel. Jesus is trying to get across to people the level of importance their priorities must carry by using hyperbole.
The next section of the reading helps us make sense of this. Jesus compares the path of discipleship to people who count costs. One is a builder who doesn’t build beyond his resources and the other is a king who doesn’t fight wars beyond his abilities. Jesus wraps those two stories into the whole reading by saying that in the same way disciples must give up everything. But in the story of the builder and the story of the king, neither one gives up everything. They do make choices about priorities, and those choices lead to changes in their lives.
Following Jesus will change you. It will reset your priorities. To some, maybe even your own family, it will appear that you hate them. The costs of discipleship are real, and Jesus uses hyperbole to explain the depth of those costs.