Don Martin was billed as Mad Magazine's maddest artist. His characters usually had long, roughly rectangular faces, spindly limbs, delicately crooked fingers with upturned pinkies and flappy feet that folded over as they walked. His drawing style was unique. And so was his sense of humor. Ordinary things took bizarre turns. When a woman clipping her nails has one toenail land in the beer can her husband is holding, he upbraids her--for only getting one out of five in there. As she turns in shame, we see from the back of her embroidered shirt that she is on the international nail-clipping team. One of my favorite strips showed this large dumb goon in a restroom. He washes his hands and then goes to the paper towel dispenser. The sign on it says, "pull down, tear up." In the next panel, we see him leaving the restroom, the towel dispenser lying on the floor in pieces.
Interpreting things literally can cause problems. Especially when the thing you're interpreting is the Bible. Oddly enough, the Jews have always been quite open to the idea that certain passages were to be interpreted metaphorically. In fact, even fundamentalists don't treat the entire Bible literally. I've never heard one advocate cutting off one's hand or plucking out one's eye if either is the occasion of sinning, nor seen one propose that, based on the Book of Revelation, the Antichrist is literally a 7-headed, 10-horned beast that would rise from the sea. I think part of the problem is that people confuse the word "literal" with "true" and the word "metaphor" with "false." It's gotten so bad that people now insert the word "literally" where it has no business being. "If I come home late again, my mom will literally bite my head off." That's one mean mother! But I sincerely doubt she will devour her son's head however angry she gets at his tardiness. On the other hand, if I say that someone's heart is broken, the fact that it's not literally in pieces doesn't mean it is not true. And most people know that when we say "the sun sank into the sea", the sun did no such thing. But saying "our part of the earth rotated away from the sun" is wordy and lacks poetry. In addition, metaphors can state things in a way that is more psychologically true that a flat recitation of mere facts. When one says that something was "mind blowing" or "gut wrenching" or "breathtaking" or "hair raising" it is both more relatable and memorable.
Parts of the Bible are meant to be literally true, others are metaphorically true. Jesus literally told people to repent and prepare for the kingdom of God but he didn't mean we should lop off body parts that make us sin. (For one thing, he said sin comes from the heart but we don't think he was suggesting doing cardiac surgery on oneself). He was saying that we should be ruthless in ridding ourselves of temptations, even if they are so close to us that they feel like they are a part of us. Jesus said it more memorably and perhaps more graphically than was absolutely necessary but that doesn't make it less true.
For the most part, it is easy to discern what is meant to be taken literally and what is meant to be metaphorical. When it says that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, do not expect to see this as a bizarre contest on judgment day. In fact, the obvious conclusion was easily grasped by the disciples, who had been taught that riches were rewards from God. "Who then can be saved?" they ask. The true meaning is underlined by Jesus himself when he says, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God." In other words, just like Paul, Jesus is saying we are saved by God's grace, not good works, despite the fact that a rich person can do more of them and affect more lives with them than a poor person can. But in the afterlife, the rich do not have the advantages they have in this life. We are all sinners dependent on God's loving and forgiving nature.
Similarly, when Jesus says that following him means hating your family, he is using hyperbole, just as he was with his talk about amputating bad body bits. A good rule of thumb is that if something in the Bible sounds outrageous on a literal level, especially if it seems to contradict other Bible passages, see if it makes more sense as a metaphor. For instance, in Genesis, God tells the first man not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day he does he will die. But the man and the woman don't die immediately. One has to conclude that either the writer of Genesis is a terrible storyteller or that God means something deeper than mere physical death. Separation from God is spiritual death and that begins the day we disobey him. There are countless examples of difficult Bible passages that can be resolved by taking into account context, cultural conventions, idiomatic expressions, rhetorical language, or metaphorical interpretations.
That doesn't mean one should take such passages less seriously that literal ones. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is going beyond the literal meaning of several Bible passages but not in a way that waters them down. If anything, he makes them more formidable.
He first looks at the commandment not to murder. Jesus says it is just as bad to be angry with or insult another person. Citing the commandment against adultery, Jesus says it is just as bad to regard someone you're not married to with lust. But how can words or thoughts be regarded by Jesus as being as bad as actions?
Actions are born as thoughts and fed by words. Adultery and other unhealthy sexual actions are usually incubated in the mind over time. Violence comes from emotional wounds brooded over, even if the eventual target of the lashing out is not the author of the perceived injuries. And the combination of sex and violence is often the product of carefully cultivated fantasies nursed over months and years. Jesus sees an action as a symptom of the disease working within the person, the way a high fever signals a serious infection. Treating the symptom alone but not the disease leads to the destruction of the lives of everyone affected.
Jesus was opposed to the legalism practiced by the Pharisees, not because he was unconcerned about sin but because he took it more seriously. Today we focus on how legalism punishes people for minor and technical infractions of God's law. But Jesus points out how it also offers limits on what is considered sin. Kids are experts at exploiting the limits of language when it comes to prohibitions. Tell your daughter she can't call her boyfriend till her homework is done and she will text him, IM him, email him, or chat with him on Facebook and feel she has observed the letter of the law you laid down. Jesus was more concerned about the spirit of the law. The sabbath prohibition was all about taking time off from your work to do God's work, so it meant you could eat when hungry or heal those who needed it. The prohibition on murder meant you couldn't think murderous thoughts or use fighting words. The prohibition against adultery meant no dancing up to the line by flirting with the person or with the thought of being unfaithful. Speaking to those who game the system, Jesus is saying, God knows what you're doing and he isn't going to let you off on technicalities.
When it comes to divorce, Jesus is opposing the fact that it had become so easy for a man to divorce a woman that it was being done for almost any reason, from disobeying her husband to burning the bread. Men had all the power. Only they could initiate divorce and all a man had to do was give his wife a certificate. A divorced woman was stigmatized and in the Roman world, might lose her children to her husband.
Again, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. Two people are supposed to become one organism, so to speak, when they marry. Unless one person breaks the very nature of marriage by committing adultery, the marriage should be preserved. In this, Jesus represented a minority position among rabbis. In addition, even conservative rabbis recognized divorces that were granted on grounds with which they disagreed. Jesus didn't and said subsequent remarriages amounted to adultery.
Finally, Jesus takes on the practice of making oaths. To the Jews, any oath taken in the name of God was absolutely binding. Swearing by heaven or Jerusalem or by your head or any other thing was not considered binding. Jesus says this is nonsense. Whatever you say should be truthful, even without an oath. And it is this part of the passage that really draws this whole discussion together. Jesus is indicating that the type of person you are matters more than some external form of words. Let your "yes" be "yes" and your "no" be "no." Be the kind of person who doesn't need to reassure people by taking an oath.
God is not looking for people who are just good at following rules; he wants people who are good without having to consult the rules. Of course, no one is that good all the time. But neither are people static. Moses killed a man. David divorced his disagreeable first wife, committed adultery and got rid the man he cuckolded, Bathsheba's husband. Paul was an accomplice to the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. They violated both the letter and the spirit of the law. But then they changed, which is the first step of repentance. They turned to God and he forgave them, despite their past sins. And just as a plant turns towards the sun, they changed the direction of their lives and began to grow into the people God intended them to be.
Christianity is not about simply moving from God's naughty list to his nice one. It is about becoming, day by day, more loving, more just, more forgiving, more selfless, more Christ-like. The Christian life, C. S. Lewis said, is less like following rules and more like painting a portrait. We were, after all, made in his image and that is what he is working in us and with us to restore. Which is why most language about God is metaphorical. God is truly, though not literally, our Father, our Shepherd, our fortress. Jesus is truly, though not literally, our Divine Physician, our food and drink, our King. The Holy Spirit is truly, though not literally, our Advocate, our Comforter, the life-giving breath of God. Our God is so far beyond our ordinary experience that we need these picture words, these everyday comparisons to give us helpful insights into how to see him and respond to him. They are true, though by no means exhaustive, illustrations of who he is and how he works. Contemplating these vivid glimpses of God's unfathomable grace demand that we truly, but not literally, give him our hearts, truly, but not literally, be Christ's body on earth, truly, but not literally, pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, knowing that what he has in store for us is far beyond what we can express or imagine.