John chapter 10 causes me to remember Mrs Tanner, my grade ten english teacher. I can still see her handwriting all over my carefully crafted compositions. Red ink everywhere as she constantly admonished me not to mix my metaphors. Clearly the writer of the Gospel of John never had the benefit of Mrs. Tanner’s guidance, or he would not have dared to record Jesus words the way he does in his long and rambling I AM passages.
Before we even get to chapter 10, we read that Jesus says: “I AM the bread of life.” and “I AM the light of the world.” In chapter 10, we read, Jesus says, “I AM the gate,” “I AM the Good Shepherd.” Later we will read, that Jesus says, “I AM the Resurrection”, “I AM life.” “I AM the true vine.” “I AM the way.” “I AM in God.” “I AM in you.”
But in the tenth chapter the writer of the Gospel of John goes all out and has Jesus using not just a metaphor but a mixed metaphor. For in chapter 10, we read that Jesus declared: “I AM the Gate. The gate through which the sheep must pass.” and then mixes it up by saying, “I AM the Good Shepherd.”
Which is it? Gate or Shepherd, come on, I know your Jesus but I’m trying to understand how Jesus, who is after all, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is both the Gate and the Shepherd.
I wonder if Mrs. Tanner ever took her red pen to the Gospel According to John? If she did, the letters MMX would have appeared all over this Gospel. MMX = mixed metaphor wrong! Looking back, I know that Mrs Tanner was just trying to help us to be more careful about our ideas. But today I would have to ask both Mrs Tanner and the anonymous-gospel-storyteller that we call John, “What’s a meta for?”
The word metaphor comes from two ancient Greek words: meta means beyond, phor comes from a verb that means to carry. A metaphor is a figure of speech that carries you beyond the actual meaning of the words. A mixed metaphor is a figure of speech that that includes a mixture of images.
English teachers don’t like mixed metaphors. It has taken me years to understand why. You see, you have to have great skill to get away with using a mixed metaphor. The average person simply sounds foolish when they mix their metaphors. So, you might well ask, “Is the anonymous-gospel-storyteller we call John skilled enough to use a mixed metaphor?
Well in the words of the writer we call John, let me say, “’Truly I tell you,’ this is no ordinary writer of metaphors.” This storyteller’s words carry us way beyond words to the Great I AM. I AM, the very name of God. YAHWEH, the name revealed by Moses in the stories that were handed down for generations: I AM, WHO AM. The writer we call John carries us beyond the WORD; the WORD that is Jesus the Christ, beyond the WORD to God’s very self. Now that’s what a meta is for!
The problem is the writer we call John was a little too clever for his own good. Sure, his second century audience would have understood his skillful use of metaphor. But down through the centuries the Christian church has mixed his metaphors to such a degree, that we don’t have much of a clue who Jesus was, let alone the great I AM to whom both Jesus and the writer we call John are trying to carry us too.
We can’t seem to get the metaphor of Jesus as the Lamb of God out of our heads. In fact into every one of the great I AM metaphors we mix a little dab of the blood of the lamb and before you know it Jesus is the way and the truth and the life and unless you believe that Jesus blood was shed for you, you won’t ever be able to understand that you are washed by the blood of the lamb and you will never ever be able to pass through the gate, because Jesus is the only way. MMX, MMX, MMX!
It’s not the writer we call John who mixed the metaphors up, it is the Christian Church. Somewhere along the way, the religious authorities forgot what a metaphor is for. Instead of letting the words carry them beyond the literal meaning to the Great I AM, they slaughtered the lamb of God and killed the Word which points to the wonders of the God who refuses to be pinned down by a name, the God who insists that YAHWEH is my name and will be for all generations; YAHWEH the inexpressible name that can be translated as I AM, or I AM WHO AM, or I AM WHO I AM or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. The Great I AM.
That our ancestors should choose to give to the god they believed to be the creator the verb “to be” as God’s own name, suggests that we might want to take their metaphor seriously. Talk about a word that carries you beyond the meaning of the word: YAHWEH – I AM WHO AM. The anonymous writer of the Gospel According to John, and no doubt Jesus himself, is the wisest of the wise when it comes to the use of metaphor. Too bad the church can’t seem to play in the big leagues. Too bad we have to reduce the beauty of the great I AM sayings down to one simple figure of speech. We are so hung up on Jesus as the Lamb of God that we can’t seem to see Jesus in any other way. So we read a snippet of the gospel and we hear Jesus talking about a shepherd and we are carried away with thoughts of God as the great big shepherd. So, we slap Psalm 23, right there just in case the folks in the pew don’t make the connection themselves. Before you know it, we’ve mixed the metaphor up and added a lamb, because we remember that other metaphor about the lost sheep, and then try as we might we just can’t help being carried away to the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Now we have a shepherd who does either one of two things. This shepherd either lets the lamb be sacrificed, or this shepherd does the sacrificing. If you’re not confused yet, then I’m not doing my job correctly because what I wanted to do is point out the dangers of not appreciating the art of metaphor.
The writer we call John was a master craftsman, skillfully weaving together the images of YAHWEH that his Jewish listeners would have understood in a heartbeat. They knew their own Scriptures and the images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd would have carried them beyond the sheep in the field to the words of the Prophet of Ezekiel who echoed the promises of YAHWEH to the people of Israel. They would have heard YAHWEH instruct the prophet to speak out against the religious authorities, the shepherds who had lead the people into dangerous territory and allowed the flock to be scattered and lost.
They would have heard YAHWEH promising to send a proper shepherd, a good shepherd, who would gather the flocks, tend their wounds and restore them to good pastures. And they would have known that this Jesus was such a shepherd. And they would have rejoiced to have such a shepherd in their midst. And they would have understood perfectly why the religious authorities accused Jesus of being possessed. For surely the religious authorities were the shepherds who had lead the sheep into dangers territory.
After Jesus died the horrible death that he died, his followers struggled to understand what had happened and why it happened and they looked to their own Sacred Scriptures to try to make sense of it all. There were competing theories about why it happened and what it all meant. That Jesus was the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep was one theory. That Jesus was the Lamb who was sacrificed to atone for the sins of the world was a later theory. Two competing metaphors that we all too often mix together and end up with at best an impotent God who stands by while and innocent lamb is slaughtered or at worse a vengeful God who demands a blood sacrifice. These are not metaphors that ought to be mixed.
It is better to live with the mystery of divinity in our midst than it is to claim to have bottled divinity for easy consumption. When we bottle divinity and sell it like snake oil we do tremendous harm. We need to learn to dance among the metaphors that carried our ancestors beyond the literal words so that they could begin to relate to our God WHO WILL BE WHO GOD WILL BE, I AM, WHO I AM.
YAHWEH is more than capable of being both shepherd and lamb. We only need to remember that these metaphors operate independently of one another and God is not the shepherd who let the lamb die, nor is God the shepherd that demanded a sacrifice. The beauty of a metaphor is that it doesn’t always carry you to the same place. Metaphors have a multitude of destinations. Each of us must have the courage to go beyond the literal word and explore the places that the word takes us. If we must mix metaphors, we must take care to remember who it is who carries us beyond the beyond and beyond that also.
Let the MYSTERY we call GOD, live and breathe in you. Let abundant life flourish around you! Enjoy the dance! Rejoice in MYSTERY beyond all knowing: YAHWEH, the ONE Who Will Be, Who God Will Be!