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Fr. Michael's Thoughts on Biblical Imagery: Metaphors


(Fr Michael Boakye Yeboah: Vice Rector of St Gregory Seminary, Kumasi-Ghana)


            The word metaphor comes from the Greek noun metaphora and the Greek verb metaphorein, meaning ‘to transfer’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines metaphor as the figure of speech in which a name or descriptive term is transferred to some object different from, but analogous to, that to which it is properly applicable. In the study of literature, one’s knowledge of metaphors can come handy because metaphors are complex literary devices that require familiarity with the world view and historical context of the respective author of a particular ancient text and also communicate on an experiential level.

            The multiplicity and polyvalence of metaphors together with their ability to create tension requiring reorientation make them ideal rhetorical tools. In this sense metaphor connects perfectly with pragmatics, which does not focus upon form, significance, sounds, or structure but, rather, upon the strategies that authors employ to communicate effectively.

            The inspired writer used three metaphors in today’s Gospel to bring home his message. It gives three images in a row, each of which is introduced when Jesus addresses his disciples with the words, “You are.” This descriptive form carries with it, as the rest of the passage shows, a prescriptive implication: “You ought to be this”, indeed, you must be this if you are to avoid “being thrown out”. The metaphors are very simple and would enlighten anyone. All three have something in common. Salt does not exist for itself, but to season things; the city on a hill is constructed to be a visible orientation point for others. The excellence of each lies in its potential to give something to some other being. This theme, which was self-evident to Jesus, is itself expressed in the first reading, where light is mentioned twice and noonday once: light rises where someone shares bread with a hungry person, clothes the naked, takes the homeless into his house. In the second reading the Apostle’s light and seasoning power is announced when he says that he “knows nothing” and wants to proclaim nothing “except the Crucified One”. That is his spiritual gift.

            Jesus explains this when he mentions two of the three metaphors: the disciple who should be salty can go flat. In that case, he no longer seasons anything and the entire dish tastes flat to the community that surrounds him. One thing about the use of metaphor is that it comes with multiple layers of meaning, because the use of salt comes with many connotations in Matthew’s tradition and context – including sacrifice (Lev. 2:13; Ezek. 43:24), ; loyalty and covenant fidelity (Ezra 4:14; Num. 18:19; eating together was called “sharing salt” and expressed a binding relationship), purification (2 Kings 2:19-22), seasoning (Job 6:6; Col. 4:5), and preservative.

            When Jesus says, “you are”, it can refer equally to the Church, or community, as a whole or to an individual Christian. A Christian who does not live out the Beatitudes, every single one of them, no longer radiates anything and should not be surprised if he is tossed out into the street and trampled on. Salt loses its saltiness not by some impossible chemical miracle, but by becoming so impure, so mixed with other elements that it loses its function. The emphasis on “the earth” is Matthean. “Earth” is here the equivalent of “world”. Matthew refers to “the world” nine times, never in a negative dualistic sense. The world does not belong to Satan. It is the creation of God, the scene of the disciples’ mission, where God’s will shall finally be done. Salt does not exist for itself, nor do the disciples; their life is turned outward to the world. Here is no sectarian or provincial mentality – “the field is the world”.

            I will like to think that the inspired writer’s use of metaphors can also serve a purpose of radiance. Radiance so that children of God will make a difference in the world. When first you think of it, salt and light seem to have nothing in common. But they do, in fact, have one thing in common that is quite striking: and that is, they make a difference. And the difference that they make is a positive one. Salt brings out the flavor in your food, while light brightens your surroundings. The lesson we can take from today liturgy of the word is that in concrete terms we who are disciples of Christ should be constantly engaged in making the part of the world that we find ourselves in better than we found it. That is true even of the family that divine Providence has placed us in. What can we do to make our family better, to improve the lot of each and every member of our family, not however to the detriment of other families? That is to say, while I am striving to make my family better, I must take great care not to make other people’s families worse in the process. The same things can be said about my place of work. How can I create a better, a more conducive atmosphere in my workplace? Similar things can and should be said about our community, our local church, and, especially, our nation, a nation that is not merely materially prosperous, economically sound, but one that is founded on sound moral principles, such as justice, equity, freedom, respect for human rights, accountability, probity, fear of the Lord, and, above all, to crown them all, love.

            If more and more Christians take it upon themselves to be salt and light in these different ways, then indeed will their light shine in the sight of men and they will give praise to the Father in heaven. May your presence in the world bring flavor and light to the world.


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