Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What's a Meta-phor?

Almost as soon as we finished reading the Gospel at our Wednesday bag lunch Bible study, one woman asked the question, "So, is this a metaphor?  This is a metaphor, isn't it?"

She was referring, of course, to the beginning of the scripture reading from Matthew,  "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."

I thought it was a great beginning, in part because it reminded me of an incident that happened a couple of weeks ago on a Sunday morning.  It was just before the 10:00 contemporary worship service, and I was milling about, welcoming people and making sure everything was in place for the service.  A young mom sitting with her two girls saw me come by and said, "Pastor, you're a literary person.  What's a metaphor?"

This is one of the things I like about my work.  There's so much variety:  you never know what question you will be asked, who who ask you to pray for them, what stories you will hear.  No one had every asked me, "what's a metaphor" before, and I was momentarily flummoxed.  I was thinking on a totally different wavelength, I'll confess, and kept thinking only of similes (God is like... oh, wait!).  Finally,  I partially recovered and remembered that the Bible is full of metaphors.

"Ok, one example," I said quickly.  "God is a rock."  It wasn't the most elegant or subtle metaphor in the Bible, but it worked for about a minute before the worship service was supposed to begin.  God is a rock.  Or, more poetically, "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing."

So today I was very pleased when we were done hearing the verses, "You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hid," and someone blurted out, "Is this a metaphor?"

Yes, it is.

Did you know that the Bible is full of metaphors?  I wonder why that is.

I suppose that the easy answer is that the Bible is full of metaphors because literature is full of metaphors, language is full of metaphors, despite my inability to come up with a really good one at a moment's notice.  But I think there's another reason that the Bible is full of metaphors, that we need to speak of God in comparison with something else, and we need to speak of our mission in terms of something else, because we're always grasping at something greater than ourselves, and greater than our ability to express.  As Paul writes in 1st Corinthians:  "as it is written, 'what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him' -- these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God."  If you read on in 1st Corinthians, you can tell that Paul alternates between clear, poetic language and grasping at straws, trying desperately to describe the mystery of the great God who chose to be known in the weakness and shame of crucifixion and death. 

So 'you are the salt of the earth' is a metaphor.  and 'a city on a hill cannot be hid' -- which means that the church is prominent and will be watched, to see if we practice what we preach, if we really live by the mercy and love that we say God has given to us.  But it seems to me that a city on a hill might be vulnerable to attack as well.  If we hide, there's a better possibility that we can stay safe.  But the church is not called to be safe.  The church is called to risky loving, all the time holding on to that other great and true metaphor:

"A mighty fortress is our God; a bulwark never failing."


Magdalene6127 said...

Fabulous! Every time I talk about a metaphor in the text, eyes widen. I love it!

angela said...

It sounds like you had a 'teachable moment' there! I'm always amazed that people take some things as literal when to me they are often figurative. Then someone told me there are people who really cannot understand metaphor or irony--a place in the brain is not developed enough to do it. Ah, I'd still teach though.