Ask me about hiking to California’s Mt. Whitney’s 14,505 feet summit, the highest peak in the United States (outside of Alaska).
“So, Larry, how was it tackling ole Whitney?”
“Rugged. Miles of uphill and the oxygen thinner with each step. Went with a group and we did the trip in two days. On the first day we reached 12,000 feet and camped in a stark, treeless meadow with granite spires looming above like skyscrapers in a stone city. And there, as we set our tents for the long alpine night, in the merry month of August, snow started fall–”
Stop me before I exaggerate too much.
That backpack adventure with a church group long ago was a grand time. I retain vivid memories, and I’ll happily boast about the mountain beauty and my hardy companions. But I’ve told the story in the past to folks who were sometimes interested and sometimes bored, and almost always I casually (but emphatically) mention the August snowfall. I don’t dwell on the white stuff—I might even add that a late summer snow wasn’t unusual in the high country—and I’ll quickly move on to the other adventures.
But was there really snow? Was there cold, white danger in the high country?
Okay, for a few fun minutes, flakes fell. Mostly, it was like tossing the contents of a near empty container of instant oatmeal over your head. We witnessed hints of a weak weather system that melted the moment they touched earth. But it adds to the story! It was darn chilly! The trip was arduous! It is a precious memory! (Frosty side note: years later I chatted with someone on the Whitney hike and she doesn’t recall any snow! He said, she said? Trust me, it snowed! A little.)
What fish stories do you have? You know what I mean . . . the tale where you extend the length of the trout or increase the size of the salmon? And if not fish, at least fishy. Exaggeration happily or miserably accompanies the most profound events of our lives. What are the truthful or not so truthful words you brandish to describe your first kiss, the worst moment of your divorce, the lousiest job, the touchdown you almost caught in high school, or the explanation you gave to the cop when pulled over for speeding?
Everyone exaggerates. For good and bad reasons. Stretching the truth can add humor and heartache to the story. Or slathering on layers of—well, let’s be polite—horse manure can successfully hide our fears and doubts.
Jesus was a great exaggerator. Wasn’t he?
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell… Mark 9:47
That’s an exaggeration . . . wasn’t it?
Imagine a disciple, having followed Jesus into the dusty environs of Capernaum, and his wandering eyes focused on another’s wife. Ah, lust. Ah, longing. Ah, the fantasies of the glance. And then the once-distracted fellow returns his attention to Jesus as the part about tearing out your eyes if you stumble along the path to God’s Realm of Love is pronounced.
I can easily picture our poor disciple, tentatively raising his hand, clearing his throat, and asking, “Rabbi, are you serious about plucking out the eye?”
This disciple’s question, of course, will enliven his friends in the crowd. Like the one who used his hand to steal fruit. Or the one who kicked the kid who asked too many questions. Eye, hand, foot, and more . . . we all have appendages or attitudes that make us stumble.
Are you serious, Jesus?
Calmly, I’ll interpret Jesus’ intentions when he spoke of bidding farewell to body parts. He exaggerated. He didn’t really mean it. He only spun a tall terrible tale to garner their attention.
The Bible does that all the time. Jonah, swallowed by a fish? No way! Daniel, escaping that den of lions? No way! David, smacking Goliath with the first smooth stone? No way! Some country bumpkin, hurrying across an open field, and finding a pearl as easily as you or I spot a weed in our lawn? No way!
And yet, maybe—just maybe—Jesus couldn’t not exaggerate. Stories, wild and wooly, may be the only way to shake us up. To help us see, hold, and walk with purpose.
Do I exaggerate those delicate flakes that swirled about for a few exciting moments? I have in the past. I will in the future. I do it, though, to help the listener listen. Of the many “high” points in my life, the trip to Whitney was something I’m proud of, a time treasured.
I believe the Bible in general, and Jesus specifically, embellished the well-told tales. Sometimes listeners and readers and believers need the flamboyant or the disturbing to get our undivided attention. After listening to Jesus’ words, even two thousand years later, I wonder about my eye. My hand. My foot.
How does my way of seeing or grasping or walking assist—or prevent—my sharing about God’s Realm of Love?
Photo of Mt. Whitney: Craig Wolf Photography