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Message for Sunday 10 May 2020: “Magnificent Metaphors; Superlative Similes”

Many spiritually-oriented people live in a realm of eternal possibilities. This is fortunate because there is a fantastic world waiting to be discovered. However, using ordinary language to describe the vast spiritual universe is challenging and more nuanced than may first appear.

Consider metaphors and similes, which are powerful because such rhetorical devices are the symbolic, non-literal use of language, creating a lively illustration or connection by declaring (metaphor) or comparing (simile) one thing or quality with another. “Uncle Bob is a lazy cat” is a metaphor in that the description of Bob’s sleeping is declared—perhaps unflatteringly—to a groggy feline. Similarly, “Janet is as tough as nails” is a simile because there the wording suggests that Janet is resilient and that her resolve can be compared to the iron in a nail. All of this symbolic use of language reveals insights into writers’ and speakers’ opinions about other people, even the divine beings described in religious literature such as the Bible.

Metaphors and similes are useful because they attract attention with vivid description by evocative, even humorous, non-flattering or exaggerated language. And not surprisingly, the Bible is full of creative metaphors and similes. Yet such language is troublesome. Consider how over time certain biblical teachings based on Bible words form theological doctrines and core beliefs based on what people read—or what they think they have read. Problems arise when one group’s preferences are elevated above all others. Often, instead of accepting a broad range of views and opinions about religion and spirituality the focus narrows and hardens into static, alienating cold doctrine.

The tension between what to take literally and metaphorically in scripture doesn’t subside easily. While Jesus walked the earth, controversy was his constant companion. Jesus’ teachings have given rise to creeds and other tests of orthodoxy. This is not surprising given that Jesus’ words have been cherished by generations of believers. Whether in the Bible or elsewhere, language is subject to varying interpretations, biases, prejudices, and perspectives. It takes focus and a good conscience to work through the complexities of biblical language. Even so, it is not always possible to recapture with absolute certainty what was in the heart and mind of the character whose words you may encounter in your Bible. Rather than invoke frustration, the challenges of language can promote a humility that encourages you to gain insight from different viewpoints, which can enhance and mature your spiritual life.

Today’s lectionary text from John is a robust collection of verses that brilliantly utilize symbolic language (although many people claim the words to be only literally true). Consider a key verse about the source of salvation. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). Such wording is classic metaphor in one sense but other people interpret the biblical words as rigidly establishing Jesus as the only way to heaven, such that you can’t have salvation from sins, eternal life, and escape a fiery hell unless accepting Jesus—on their terms.

Given the power of biblical words, varying thoughts throughout the history of the Christian church continue to polarize opinion about who Jesus was/is and what you’re supposed to believe. Rather than throw up your hands and walk away frustrated (as many people increasingly do) it can be productive to discern what all this means for you, in your personal relationship with God. If a belief helps draw you closer to the Almighty and to love your neighbor then that’s great; if not, then why pressure other people to believe something which doesn’t even have the power to transform you?

Next is a comparison between Jesus and God the Father. This is a grand controversy because the discussion between Jesus and his disciple Thomas collapses distinctions between Jesus and God the Father. The text suggests that seeing God the Father is the same as seeing Jesus. Is there a metaphor or simile here? The biblical prose continues with statements about Jesus being in the Father and the Father in Jesus. The biblical writer doesn’t directly say that Jesus is the Father but he comes about as close as you can get. The idea of the Trinity, comprised of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, receives support from such verses. People of faith rightly disagree over these and similar claims but rather than demonize opposing opinions you are invited to elevate love of your fellow human being over love of doctrine.

Finally there is the theme of Jesus promising his followers that they would do greater works than even he accomplished. That’s a tough task given that Jesus did so many miracles. Is this another case of symbolic, metaphorical language as opposed to literal truth? Then comes Jesus’ promise that “I will do whatever you ask in my name . . .” (John 14:13) and “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:14). Anything? Really? Are these statements yet more metaphor or if not, whose idea of any limitations can be placed on these provocative promises?

On the one hand, Christians are told that they can do the same works (e.g., miracles) that Jesus did. On the other hand, Jesus offered to do anything for those who ask in his name. One way of interpreting all this is that people of faith will receive nurturing no matter what. But as always, a deeper look may reveal something else. Some Bible interpreters suggest that the “in his name” wording is troubling because many people speak Jesus’ name without miraculous results. Other interpreters argue that these narratives represent the Bible’s prolific use of hyperbole, which is attention-grabbing exaggeration designed to make a point rather than establish literal truth.

Whatever is going on with the use of biblical language you may question “what’s in it for me?” If you find certain words, phrases and verses comforting then that’s great, However, trying to establish a litmus test of authentic or orthodox Christianity may not be optimal if you pressure or coerce other people to adopt only your angle or the official point of view.

As with any form of religion or spirituality, discern what works for you, ultimately judging what is helpful based on how any belief or conviction promotes loving your neighbor as yourself. Don’t succumb to pressure to believe something simply because it has become traditional or part of some catechism or creed. You are a precision child of the Almighty whose destiny exceeds simply serving bureaucratic interests. Find God and God will help you find yourself on that wonderful path of light and life. And that’s no mere metaphor!

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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