Jesus and Metaphors

John 6:35: "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry."
John 8:12: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
John 10:11: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."
John 15:5 "I am the true vine; you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit."

painting of Jesus speaking to two women

When Jesus made these statements about himself, he tapped into the particular power of metaphors. He compared himself to bread, to a shepherd, to light, to a vine because such likeness allowed him to say complex things in a fairly simple manner. Paul Ricouer has noted that metaphors have a "surplus of meaning." They don't just say one thing that can be put into other words; instead, they offer a kind of overflow of additional suggestions and nuances. You haven't completely understood a metaphor by saying that it can be substituted for one statement and one statement only.

For example, when Jesus told his disciples that he was a vine and that they were branches, he was making more than one simple point. A vine and its branches implies an organic relationship, one that changes and grows. Such a metaphor tells us that the disciples' life is not static. It also implies a sense of connectedness, even a sense of extension. In this manner, Jesus' disciples do not do works of their own power; instead, they must receive strength and ability from the source. The metaphor also suggests an extension of appearance: the vine and its branches are one, until a branch is cut off. Disciples must share in the public reputation of Jesus. What would happen if we tried to reduce Jesus' meaning to just one of these elements? Which would you choose? And how much would be lost by reducing it to that sense only?

In a way, metaphors require "thick description". They ask us to take the time to unpack all the subtle possibilities they offer. What the speaker says in a moment, may take us a number of occasions to explore. They are little "texts in miniature" (to quote Ricouer again), and like texts, they must be studied and explicated over time to be fully understood. In this sense, metaphors remind us that God's truth is something we live with and continue to explore as we grow. Likewise, they remind us that it takes time and sensitivity to truly understand what someone has said to us.