Metaphor and meaning   

Acts 2.42-47

Psalm 23

1 Peter 2.1-10

John 10.1-10

                         ©Suzanne Grimmett

The Lord is my shepherd…therefore can I lack nothing…I am the good shepherd, says the Lord. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Sheep and shepherds are everywhere this morning. And what a complex and contradictory metaphor it is!

Take a moment to consider your associations with sheep and shepherds.  You may think of green fields and hundreds of white woolly sheep obediently following one another to their allotted pen. Or you may think of those superbly trained border collies gathering up the recalcitrant or confused sheep with a science of combined creeping and lightning manoeuvres.

Or perhaps you think of that reputation of sheep as dumb- blindly following anywhere with no creative thought of their own. Perhaps that even triggers a thought in you, “Why have I always been such a sheep, just going along with the everything?” But I bet there are also some sitting here who have felt always like the “black sheep” of the family- always causing a bit of trouble and never really belonging. If any of these associations have stirred memories or emotions, you will have a sense of the power of metaphor!

Then there is the comfort of the parable of the lost sheep with its image of a God who would seek and search for the one who had gone astray. Or we may keep thinking and remember that other scriptural image of sheep and goats and judgement. We might find a lurking fear in our subconscious, “What if I am really just a goat?” Metaphors play a powerful role in shaping our beliefs, attitudes and actions in ways we don’t even realise. Underpinning these images can be a fear that we will be judged to be of insufficient worth or ultimately undeserving.

A recent study of metaphors revealed how helpful or harmful they can be, and how they have effects in real time on the decisions we make as individuals and as a society. For example, when we use military language about health issues- “her fight against cancer”- it can actually undermine treatment by making a patient feel fatalistic about outcomes, and ascribe blame when outcomes are not as they had hoped. In speaking about crime, the emotions and responses generated vary according to the metaphors used in the way we communicate. In one study, where the metaphor for crime was “a wild beast preying on a city” the respondents were far more likely to proscribe stricter policing and harsher punitive responses than those who were given the metaphor of crime as “a virus plaguing the population”. It pays to be awake to the metaphors being used in public and political discourse and how they can manipulate our emotions.[1]

So what about these scriptural metaphors? The problem is, a metaphor is never static but can be moved and shaped by culture, context and time. Jesus used many metaphors in describing himself in John’s Gospel- the “I am” statements most famously. The images are very powerful in helping us attend to our own lives, as long as we are alive to the way that metaphors play in our imagination, shaping our perception.

Jesus is not adverse, it seems, to rapidly shifting metaphors! We may have grown up with those Sunday School images of Jesus, the comforting shepherd, and so we may expect that our text today would be full of reassuring images of Jesus the shepherd who gathers the lost sheep and protects the flock from harm. It is a little disconcerting then, when on what is commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”, we don’t hear Jesus saying these famous words, “I am the good shepherd.”  That line comes immediately after the text we hear today.

What we do hear is “I am the gate.” Small wonder that we hear in verse 6, that those gathered to listen to Jesus, “did not understand what he was saying to them.” We have, after all, references to shepherd, sheep, gate and gatekeeper.

And what associations might we have with a gate- is it for keeping the sheep in or shutting others out? There is in the image a sense of safety, of having what we need and a flourishing of life and community. However, too often the tribalism that has plagued the human species is given free rein in this text to conjure the idea of securing a safe pasture for deserving sheep and shutting the gate on the undeserving. Is the church meant to be the gatekeeper and Jesus the gate in order to mark out the boundaries of an ethically and religiously pure community? When considering the church’s history of inquisitions and various different expressions of purity movements, it would be possible to reach such a conclusion.

But of course, it’s not about being deserving, is it? It never has been.

I think we find a better way into this text by seeing the heart of the message in the last line, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” How does that fit together with our image of Jesus as the gate?

Abundant life is the desire Jesus has for all. In some ways, the variety of metaphors are just different images to assist in communicating what that might look like. We can see images of life and peace and goodness expressed in shepherding metaphors, perhaps most clearly of all in Psalm 23; lush green pastures, still waters, the staff that guides us to safety and comfort and a God who lavishes us with honour and steadfast loving kindness.  It is all there, and should be a healthy tonic for any time we think this is some kind of self-help project to become the right kind of believer, fencing around the boundaries of a life we have secured for ourselves, perhaps with a few appeals for divine assistance.

The Rev’d Dr Sarah Bachelard expresses well the real meaning of what is being offered in this gift of life, saying,

The whole point of Jesus’ life was to save us from our compulsion to secure our lives for ourselves, to make ourselves matter or make ourselves good.

We have a human tendency to stake out our own ground or our tribal territory and defend it from others. This metaphor, however, reveals Jesus as the gate through which we find our way to life and to one another; a way through, rather than a gate that separates. It involves us dying to all that would bolster our own self-importance or self-sufficiency. I love in today’s Collect the prayer that we might be sent into the world to “heal the injured and to feed one another with understanding.” What a gentle image. For you see, just as we find in Jesus a way to life, so we are called to lead others to life. We love as we are loved, forgiving as we have been forgiven and honouring the life in others as ours has been honoured. When this gentle respect and honour of ourselves flows into the dignity with which we treat one another, then we begin to see what flourishing human life can be like. We begin to witness what scripture calls ‘salvation’. If we are to navigate safely through the way metaphors can be used and misused, playing a role in some of our own instinctual attitudes and beliefs, we need clear vision to recognise the direction in which life may be found. No metaphor of Jesus should ever be used to stake out territory that would exclude, dishonour or demean.

Perhaps this is why Jesus takes such care to warn us against thieves and bandits. To steal or destroy is to leave people less than the way you found them- robbing them of that which is precious or life-giving. Perhaps you have been in situations before where people have robbed you of dignity or your capacity to live and love. I love Parker Palmer’s saying that, “The soul is shy and will not be manipulated.” This is a truth known by Jesus who draws on the image of sheep who follow only when they are called by name, and only when they know the shepherd’s voice. Sadly, there are those who come disguised- to use another famous sheep metaphor- as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’. We need the Spirit’s guiding and a clear-sighted vision of the truth of ourselves as beloved and worthy of dignity if we are to hear the voice of the shepherd of our souls over other beguiling voices which would lead us away from life. How easy it is to lose our way when we neglect the truth that all of us and all creation are known and beloved.

Later in John’s Gospel there is another “I am” statement from Jesus that distils all of these metaphors down to three simple words; way, truth and life. May we hear the call of the One who knows us and guides us into all truth, that we may have life, and have it abundantly.


[1] BBC Ideas