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Raining cats and dogs (2)

To speak figuratively is to say something in a non-literal manner.  It is to use words in a way other than their primary, normal meaning.  We all know what the word “bread” means.  When Jesus spoke of Himself being the Bread of Life He was using figurative speech.  No one takes Him to be literally saying He is a combination of of dough and water.  He was saying that He is to us spiritually what bread is to us physically --- a staple of life.  He is the One who provides the sustenance we need. 

We use figurative speech because it:

*      stretches the imagination --- (“It’s so hot outside it will make you return
       things you never stole”),
*      appeals to our senses ---  (“It’s hotter than a steel playground at noon”),
*      and generally just gets out attention --- (“It’s so hot I saw a dog chasing             a cat and they were both walking”).

In all of this it should be clear that figurative speech is a more emphatic, expressive way of saying something.  That’s the point and power of speaking/writing in such a manner.  The Scripture is filled with this type of language.  The prophets and poets majored it.  Jesus employed it quite often in His teachings.

Figurative speech (as its name suggests), is speaking in pictures.  It helps us not only to hear what is being said, but to “see” it as well. That being so, we’d do well to think about the general correspondence between the picture being employed and the subject matter rather than get lost trying to exhaustively look for dozens of details.  Jesus speaks of Himself as the Good Shepherd.  As far as we know, Jesus never lived or worked on a farm.  He wasn’t literally a shepherd so He’s not speaking of animal husbandry. In what way then, is He a Good Shepherd?  Of course, Jesus could have just told us (and He does points to many characteristics in John 10 that qualify Him as the Good Shepherd), but a picture is worth a thousand words and figurative speech challenges the reader/listener to participate in the communicative process that literal speech doesn’t.

Part of our challenge is to stay alive to the pictures that are embedded there.  In a book that is less familiar (like Revelation or Ezekiel), this isn’t hard to do but pictures we’re grown familiar with, (say those found in the gospels), tend to get washed out through repeated readings and lose their brightness.  Nobody blinks when Jesus speaks of the foolishness of trying to remove a speck from someone else’s eye when we have a plank in ours (Matthew 7:3-5), or straining a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24).  Yet these are outlandish images and when He initially spoke them it’s hard to imagine them not evoking a strong reaction.  To fully engage the text then, we must look at these pictures as one would the pictures in gallery; appreciating their rich textures and hues.
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,” (Hebrews 1), let’s appreciate all of them!
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