Figures of Speech in the Words of Jesus

Have you spent hours trying to comprehend Jesus’ comment about the camel and the eye of the needle?

Have you puzzled over what Jesus meant when he said his flesh was bread, his blood was drink, and that we are to consume it?

Have you wondered why Jesus told a gentile woman it was improper to share his healing with dogs (like her)?

camel and needle

A Flat Reading of Jesus

Many of us read the Bible in a flat, straightforward way without realizing it is not flat at all but dynamic; real personalities interact with each other.

Even Alexander Scourby’s popular audio version of the Bible is flat. Scourby’s voice is beautiful, but he reads it like an informational news report. No human emotion or dynamic is involved—no raised voices, no laughter, no groaning. The text says Jesus was angry with the temple merchants, but he doesn’t sound angry; and he doesn’t sound happy when the disciples bring wonderful reports of their visits to surrounding towns. He reads the Bible in a beautiful, but matter-of-fact, voice.

I love watching movies about Jesus to see how others characterize him and to gain new insights. The worst I ever saw had Jesus walking around quoting the King James text in a dull, monotonous voice—“Bueller…Bueller…Bueller…” How different it was from Johnny Cash’s Gospel Road (1973). Jesus walked along with his disciples in that movie too, but his chuckling at them on a mountain trail as they pretend to throw a startled disciple off the mountain gave it life and a human connection.

When we read the words of Jesus, we should remember that he was a dynamic person. We must also remember that his words are not dry, impassive announcements. He projects warmth, color, and personality.

He also uses literary devices. Let’s look at three examples.

Hyperbole

Matthew chapter 19 reports:

Jesus said to his disciples…“I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Some believers think this means it’s impossible for rich people to follow Jesus. Others suggest Jesus refers to a supposed needles-eye security gate into the city where camels must get on their knees to scoot through the tight entrance.

These are diversions; Jesus is just using hyperbole—grand exaggeration to prove a point. His observation comes after the rich man wanted to know how to enter the kingdom. Jesus, knowing his attachment to wealth, told him to sell it all and give it to the poor, but the man sadly declined.

Jesus is saying that excessive attachment to riches hinders spiritual commitment. But don’t feel badly if you missed the point because even his disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Metaphor

Jesus says in John chapter 6:

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.”

Some thinks Jesus is referring to the elements of the sacraments or communion; others suggest that the entire episode never occurred. But it seems to me that this is simply metaphor.

Jesus had provided bread to the large crowd, and they followed him around wanting more bread. Jesus tells them they’re missing the significance of his work; bread is not the important thing—the important thing is Jesus himself. So he uses the metaphor of bread and life to let them know that he, personally, is the source of life.

But they missed the point and “Began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”

Jesus then expanded the metaphor: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”

Humor

In Matthew chapter 15, a gentile woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter.

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Some people are outraged that Jesus called this gentile woman a dog, but others see the story differently. Jesus does not dialog with the woman for her benefit but for the benefit of his disciples. It is a case of humor, and it seems that the woman was in on it.

When the disciples wanted to send her away, Jesus exposed their prejudices by making the ‘dog’ remark to the woman; I can imagine the wink or the amused glint in his eye, and the woman picked up on it and gave a snappy comeback.

It was a teachable moment for Jesus’ disciples.

Be Aware of Figures of Speech in the Bible

Jesus, like other biblical personalities, used many figures of speech. Look for them and you should discover a more interesting and personable Jesus. You might also find seemingly difficult questions about his sayings just disappear.

Photo Credit: ucumari via Compfight cc
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim
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19 Responses to Figures of Speech in the Words of Jesus

  1. michaeleeast says:

    I agree that Jesus often uses figures of speech.
    But I’m not sure about the humor in calling someone a “dog”.
    I believe that this episode shows Jesus’ expanding sense of mission.
    Which ultimately included the whole world.

    Like

  2. Lynn says:

    Your posts really help me think from different angles. It’s liberating and beneficial. Thank you.

    Like

  3. fiddlrts says:

    I like your reading of the story of the Gentile woman. Perhaps the Bible, like the internet, needs a “sarcasm font.” We really do have this idea of Christ as deadly serious which affects not only our reading of scripture, but also our view of “godliness.” This despite the abundance of humor that is throughout the scriptures if you only look for it.

    Like

    • Fiddlrts, I think you are right that reading Jesus as ‘deadly serious’ leads to a deadly serious view of life and holiness. In fact, this is exceptionally well put, and I am saving your quote for possible future use. If I use it, you will be credited.

      Thanks!

      Like

      • fiddlrts says:

        Feel free to use it!

        Like

      • Lynn says:

        A thumbs up from me for Fiddlrts comment too. When I first read the comment, I was taken back to distinct memories Catholic school (1st -8th gr). The teachers, while I believe they meant well, were mostly unjoyful, hard, and punishing in attitude. Unfortunately, the priest of parish was not a role model that we could turn to. Looking back now, I can see why so many of us (the children I grew up with) dodged religion and anything faith related completely afterwards. I believe many of us assumed that if our religious leaders and role models were that hard, then God must be non-joyful and someone to be fearful of as well. It is a huge comfort to think of Jesus as joyful, as having a sense of humor. (Sorry to rattle on off topic!)

        Like

        • Lynn, I have heard this from a number of other Catholics and ex-Catholics over the years. It is sad that the sternness of religious leaders reflects poorly on the character of the Father in the eyes of so many.

          It is so opposite to the joy and happiness that following Jesus should bring.

          Like

          • Lynn says:

            Today things are a great deal better, I think. People are better connected. Information is easier to share. Look at your blog, for example. You’re releasing ideas and many of us can share “ah ha” moments. Those of us who are re-learning what it means to have a relationship with the Father, and are learning what Jesus really is about, have the potential to share our experience with others. Who knows what that might spark. It’s all good.

            Faith-wise, I don’t know what to call myself, However, I find Pope Francis to be a breathe of fresh air. He seems to walk like Jesus. His heart is good. I pray he can bring profound change.

            Like

          • Lynn, I think things are better. And I too am impressed and encouraged by Pope Francis; I hope he is pope long enough to make a significant and lasting difference.

            By the way, I don’t know what to call myself either. Labels usually cannot capture the totality of who we are or what we believe even though they are sometimes helpful as a starting point.

            Like

  4. Pingback: Final Thoughts on the Book of Revelation as Apocalyptic Literature | Jesus Without Baggage

  5. Michael Rattler says:

    The term “dog” used by the Jews was a way of refering to all non-jews. You could say it was a derogarory term for some Jews. But Jesus used it as a teachable moment.

    Like

  6. The dog comment has always left me baffled. Thank you for this latest A-ha moment!

    Like

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