At our church, we’ve spent the last two weeks rummaging around in the biblical cupboard, looking at the various metaphors employed to describe God and human beings. It’s been an interesting exercise, at least for me. In both cases, the metaphors are numerous and diverse. God as rock, lion, breath, lamb, light, fire, tower, warrior, friend, and on and on it goes, the biblical writers reaching and straining, borrowing from the world of creation and human relationships to express some partial aspect of who God is and how God works in the world. Human beings as grass, dust, vapour, treasured possession, bride, the apple of God’s eye, each image contributing to the complex mix of transience, sin, glory, and beauty that is humanity. We need these metaphors, to help us learn to see what God is like, what we are like.
As I was writing my sermon last Saturday, I paused on one metaphor, in particular. It is a metaphor for humanity that is as prominent in Scripture as it is difficult to stomach. Whore. The metaphor drips off the pages of the prophets and resounds, directly or indirectly, throughout the broad narrative of Scripture. It is a metaphor that is simultaneously unavoidable and oh, so avoidable! Do I really want to deal with this one? I thought… Can I get up in front of all these nice people and compare them to a brazen prostitute? I didn’t really want to, but I did it anyway. There were a few raised eyebrows, a few curious questions and comments after the service, but mostly just silence. I don’t know if the metaphor made people uncomfortable or not. But I do know that it made me squirm. I’m still squirming.
It is a bit of a misogynistic metaphor, after all, isn’t it? It smacks of a backward, patriarchal culture where women were often treated like cattle, or worse. It betrays a damnable ignorance of the many ways in which those who sell their bodies for sex are victims of myriad abuses and the products of intractable systems of exploitation and injustice. It’s an insulting, demeaning, and degrading metaphor. It can convey an appalling image of a jealous, oppressive God who demands uncompromising loyalty and devotion and flies into a rage when this isn’t given. It is an image unworthy of our enlightened, equality loving, tolerance-soaked postmodern selves. It is a primitive metaphor for primitive people—a metaphor that we ought to simply file in the “glad we’ve moved beyond that” file. Right?
Well, no, I don’t think so. While I am sympathetic to each of the critiques above (in a limited way), and while I am convinced that the gender inequality that was the norm during the time period when the biblical authors lived and wrote was deplorable, I think this is a metaphor that is as relevant today as it was millennia ago when the people of Israel were panting after their Asherah poles and foreign gods. We are just as skilled at chasing after other gods as the people of Israel, just as determined to forsake the love for which and through which we were made. The gods look different today, certainly, but they are no less alluring. And we are no less shameless in our pursuit of anything and everything but the One who loved us into being and who stands at the door, ready to welcome us back, hurting for what we are so determined to do to ourselves in our confused pursuit of that which does not love and cannot save.
We chase and we pant and we long and we give ourselves away to unworthy suitors for meagre rewards. Sometimes we come to our senses and penitently drag ourselves back to God. We try to love and to let ourselves be loved by God. For a while. And then this strange life with this strange God gets hard or painful or boring. We don’t get the benefits we think we deserve. God doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain. And then we are chasing, panting, giving ourselves away… Again.
Or maybe I should drop this safe, comfortable “we” and just say “I.”
I am a whore.
It’s an ugly metaphor for an ugly truth.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, goes the line from the famous hymn. Yes, I am prone, so very prone to wander. Yes, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. I need this distasteful metaphor, this window into my soul. I need to stare into this mirror, uncomfortable though it might be. I need other metaphors, too—metaphors that capture other, better, more beautiful aspects of what it means to be a human being, a bearer of God’s image. But I dare not scrub this one out of the picture. It tells a truth to important to ignore.
So, Lord Jesus, let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee…
Here’s my heart—conflicted, divided, stubborn and obtuse. Take it, seal it.