Meaning, Metaphors, and Distrust

Our Struggle to Find Meaning

Many of us were taught in school that metaphors merely add interest to speech or writing. As we saw in my last post, many of us use metaphors to do just this, and we don't think much about the ability of metaphors to harness deep truths. The end result is that metaphors have been effectively stripped of their purpose in literature. Like so many other things in the west, we have neutered metaphors. This must stop.

Since we have never been taught differently, people in Western culture also typically have an innate struggle with properly and correctly interpreting metaphors and figurative language when it is being used properly. Instead of being able to recognize metaphor as a way of interpreting the world around us, we predominantly think in terms of scientific reasoning. This kind of thinking leads us to believe that proper interpretation of things requires us to be as literal as possible, even when dealing with figurative language. This is one of the main reasons we may find it difficult to interpret metaphors and symbolism, as we may naturally assume that the metaphor or symbol itself represents meaning directly. 

The long and short is that our culture has become distrustful of metaphors as a means of accurately and precisely representing truth.

Things to Consider
There are several factors that we need to consider when interpreting figurative language.
  1. Our own cultural context may provide us with definitions or meanings of words that differ from an author's culture or era
  2. Figurative language must be interpreted within the context of a piece of writing as a whole, and should never be treated by itself. The exception here is that treating figurative language separately from the whole can be a starting place for interpretation.
  3. We can and should draw on our general knowledge of the world and of the subject matter the author is writing about. 
Here is an example to work through from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus said "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34)

If we use pure logic and pure deductive reasoning (i.e. we are as literal as possible) to try to find the meaning of what Jesus said, we end up with this:
  • The sword has two figurative meanings: It can mean war, but it can also mean the scriptures. Both bring division
  • Because we are followers of Christ, we are therefore called to bring division.
  • Because Jesus was talking about the sword, and because the sword is a symbol for both war and the scriptures, Jesus is sanctioning us to use war ('the sword') as a means to spread the gospel.
In this example, we have trapped ourselves in our own deduction, not because our logical process is bad, but because we don't understand how to interpret figurative language. We cannot use strict deduction or pure logic to interpret this kind of language. We must draw from a variety of sources if our interpretation is to be accurate.

For example, figurative language always finds its roots in time, space and culture. So, knowing even basic facts about the culture Jesus was speaking to becomes immensely helpful in our figuring out the meaning behind what Jesus said. Now, there is always a possibility that we can get these facts and figures wrong, so it is possible to go too far in using our general knowledge as an interpretive aid. Still, it's useful when stewarded carefully. In the case of Jesus bringing a 'sword', we can look to other places in the bible to deduce probable meanings of 'sword symbolism', if Jesus is in fact using symbolism here.

We know from Hebrews 4:12, that the idea of a sword is connected to the scriptures. Specifically, as a 'double edged sword", the scriptures can get into the core of us. The author uses the metaphor of scripture being able to divide soul (meaning: a person's core identity, or core being - which we get because God gave us life - Genesis 1) and spirit, just as a sword can divide joints from that which encloses them (translated: marrow). 

Therefore, to properly answer the question "what does Jesus mean when he says, 'I came to bring a sword'?", we need to ask another question: "Who is holding the sword?"

More questions immediately surface:
If Jesus came to bring a sword, and the sword has been used other places in the bible to represent the scriptures, was Jesus being figurative or literal? Given the context of Jesus' ministry and the history of the early church, is it possible that Jesus was being both figurative and literal at the same time? Perhaps prophetic?

The context of the verse in Matthew 10 suggests that Jesus was not being explicitly figurative, as he extends the idea of the sword to setting people of the same household against one another. So, the question that underpins our ability to properly interpret Jesus' words here is whether or not we as Christians are called by Christ to be wielders of the sword, even against our own family, or whether Jesus is letting us know that we will be recipients of the sword by even members of our own family. For Christians in the first century, option number two was the case more often than not. Alternatively, for Christians during the Holy Roman Empire, option number one was the case more often than not. So which is the correct response?

Given Jesus' ministry as one who reconciles things to himself, dies for his enemies, and practices enemy-love, it would take some serious mental gymnastics for us to conclude that Jesus wants his followers to wield weapons for the purpose of the Gospel. Given Jesus' message in the wider context of his place within the scriptures, a far more plausible interpretation is that that we are explicitly called to wield the scriptures as a conduit for truth.Specifically, we proclaim foundational truths of the cross, who Jesus is, and the truth about who we are in Christ. This, in turn, may lead members of our own household to stand against us as we stand for truth.


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