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14 May 2011

The Power of Metaphors I (Good Shepherd Sunday)

When I was preparing my sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday, I couldn't help but think of the song I learned in Sunday School:

Here's one of the English translations that's been around for a good long while:

I am Jesus' little lamb,
Ever glad at heart I am;
For my Shepherd gently guides me,
Knows my need, and well provides me,
Loves me every day the same,
Even calls me by my name.

Day by day, at home, away,
Jesus is my Staff and Stay.
When I hunger, Jesus feeds me,
Into pleasant pastures leads me;
When I thirst, He bids me go
Where the quiet waters flow.

Who so happy as I am,
Even now the Shepherd's lamb?
And when my short life is ended,
By His angel host attended,
He shall fold me to His breast,
There within His arms to rest.

Even though the language and music are old-fashioned, the song gets one thing right that many a modern discussion of Psalm 23 gets wrong.

In a recent article a seminary professor felt the need to confess that his students and their unwillingness to understand the metaphors of Psalm 23 deeply humbled him. Admist the embittered reactions of the students, the professor states that he hastened to acknowledge his need to unlearn the presumptions and assumptions of his well educated past, and to embrace the level of language demanded by his students.  And I said, "WHAT!?"

The word metaphor derives from the 16th century Old French métaphore, in turn from the Latin metaphora, "carrying over", which is the latinisation of the Greek μεταφορά (metaphorá), “transfer”. A metaphor invites us to understand one thing in terms of another.  God's love and care for his creatures are expressed with the help of a set of metaphors taken from the simple world of a shepherd and his sheep.

Rather than forcing every word of the psalm into one dimension, the song above takes the metaphors of the psalm seriously; it assumes that people know that there is more than one layer to reality, and that spiritual realities often cannot be expressed in the flat one-dimensional language of newspapers and television.  It assumes further that "it's all about me" is not an exegetical strategy. Rather than about our fears about losing power and control ("Who wants a shepherd over them?" "I am not a sheep!"), the psalm is about God's grace and presence.  

In addition, singing about God's grace and presence becomes a powerful statement where people of faith are being oppressed. The simple line, "The Lord's my shepherd" becomes a confession in the context of persecution: "The Lord's my shepherd, and you are not."  Take away the metaphors and you take away the power of the psalm!

Psalm 23 

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