Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:5-15

Metaphors play an important role in our scripture reading today. Do you know what a metaphor is? A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses one thing to mean another and makes a comparison between the two. For example, Tom Glover told me the other day that he was glad to see me continuing to “come out of my shell.” Obviously, I’m not a turtle, nor do I regularly wear a shell.  Tom was using a metaphor to say that I’m showing my personality more and more. Metaphors are very helpful in communicating because they can illustrate an abstract idea or concept in concrete ways people can more easily grasp.

Metaphors are also useful for expressing feelings and emotions more fully. News organizations often use metaphors in headlines.  Online news sources are especially notorious for this. The term “clickbait” refers to over-embellishing a headline to gain attention.  The website Upworthy is well-known for this. For instance, a headline “9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact” goes on to tell of income inequality in America. Now will one’s brain literally explode from this news story? Probably not, but it might be a bit shocking. Further FoxNews.com ran the headline “Server Fallout” in regards to the Hillary Clinton email scandal. Wanting to suggest that the findings from Mrs. Clinton’s email server would be significant and devastating, they used the metaphor of nuclear fallout after the dropping of an atomic bomb. Not to be outdone, weather reporters have given the name “Godzilla” to the latest El Nińo weather pattern forming in the Pacific Ocean.  Weather reporters are trying to suggest that the resulting storms could be very dangerous and destructive.

As helpful as metaphors are in communicating an idea, they do have their limitations. Taking a metaphor literally can cause confusion and further misunderstanding. Will Godzilla be rising from the Pacific Ocean and tromping across southern California? Was Hillary Clinton’s computer radioactive? Metaphorical statements are not meant to be taken literally. If I had taken Tom’s statement literally, I would be very confused. Is my skin peeling or cracked? Does Tom prefer me to wear my clergy robe more often? Or a suit? Or does he like when I instead dress down? Though not meant to be taken literally, metaphors can help us understand something more fully.

The other challenge with metaphors is that it’s easy to equate the metaphor with the message. By using the term “Godzilla,” weather reporters want us to understand that the El Nińo weather pattern could be very big and powerful, but they don’t want us to become obsessed with analyzing the ways that the Godzilla monster is like a powerful storm.  In the Bible, there are many metaphors used for God. The Psalmist says that the stars are the work of God’s fingers,[1] Isaiah imagines God as a nursing mother.[2] Recognizing and interpreting metaphors as such is important. Misunderstanding a metaphor might lead us to peer into the stars each night, looking for a huge hand molding stars. The Psalmist wants us to understand that God was delicately involved with creation, Isaiah wants us to understand that God is tender and loving. Anyone who insists on always reading the Bible literally will miss out on the richer meaning that is often intended.

In our scriptures this morning, there are some very intriguing metaphors. Can you name some of them? How about from the book of John? Jesus says, “I am the living bread…you must eat my flesh and drink my blood.”[3] How about from Ephesians? There we read of “evil days.” But there is another metaphor I would like to draw to your attention; that of being drunk. The church at Ephesus is told not to be drunk with wine but instead be filled with the Spirit.[4]  While for many years pastors have preached this as a literal command, what if we understood it as a metaphor?

The stumbling drunk

What comes to mind when you think of a drunk person? The common signs of drunkenness are lowered inhibitions, poor judgement, and physical impairment.  Not necessarily admirable qualities. Yet from Dumbo the elephant’s huge hiccups and dreams of dancing purple elephants to the belching and bombastic Homer Simpson to the forgetful fellows from The Hangover movies, Hollywood has sort of idealized the drunk. But “the notion of a ‘loveable drunk’ was always problematic, at least to people who’ve come into contact with actual drunks… while tipsiness can still make us laugh, an alcoholic is just sad,”[5] one commentator pointed out.

And this is the image the writer of Ephesians is wanting to bring to mind; the foolish, sad, pathetic drunk who tries to drink away his sorrows; the bumbling, stumbling drunk who staggers unsteadily across the floor; the hollering, howling drunkard who can’t recognize his own volume level. Surely many of us have gotten a bit tipsy or buzzed, but even then we can see the guy sitting all alone at the bar, acting completely inappropriate because he’s so out of his mind drunk.  We shake our head in pity, wondering what deep pain he is trying to drown.

And if we bring this image to the church, as this letter was written to the Ephesus church, what comparisons would we make? Is a drunk church one which staggers and stumbles ahead, disjointed and discombobulated, no direction, no plan, and no vision? Is a drunk church one which is only fooling itself? Has the so-called “beer goggle” effect convinced the church that it’s far better looking and more popular than it actually is? Is a drunk church that which tries to drown some deep pain or hurt? Is a drunk church one which outsiders look at and shake their head in pity?

Woman Wisdom

Another metaphor I would like to bring to highlight is that of Woman Wisdom in the book of Proverbs. In chapter 9 it is written:

Wisdom has built her house;
she has set up its seven pillars.
She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine;
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servants, and she calls
from the highest point of the city,
“Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
“Come, eat my food
and drink the wine I have mixed.
Leave your simple ways and you will live;
walk in the way of insight.”

Let us recognize that wisdom is not a person, rather the writer of Proverbs is using a metaphor.  Anyone who has read the book of Proverbs has likely recognized another metaphor, that of the foolish or strange woman. Throughout the first nine chapters of Proverbs, Woman Wisdom and the strange or foolish woman are continually contrasted.[6] The writer uses metaphor to give concrete examples to the abstract idea of wisdom. The implication is obvious, why would anyone want to go down the paths of folly? Woman wisdom builds a large house, prepares and abundant banquet, and issues an open invitation. The foolish woman is loud, ignorant, and knows nothing.  She simply sits at her front door, yelling to others to come inside as they pass on by.  She prepares nothing in advance, rambles on incoherently, and expects people to show up anyway.  Though written as metaphor, the message is clear, we should pursue the ways of wisdom in our lives.

The time is right

There is one more metaphor I’d like us to notice, that of making the most of every opportunity in Ephesians.  Now in the original language, the phrase is to “redeem the time.” This is another good example of the importance of understanding and interpreting metaphors as such. And our NIV Bible does a good job explaining the metaphor in the translation.  If we read this literally, we would focus on trying to buy up time, and might start collecting clocks in an odd attempt to live biblically. But when the word “time” is used, the word suggests a time rich with prospect and possibility.[7] So then “the mark of the wise, according to this passage, is using time wisely, and using it to change the world, ‘making the most’ of the time.”[8] There is a powerful presence of possibility in the time of right now in which wise people recognize and then capitalize.

The three metaphors

So we’ve looked at three metaphors, the stumbling drunk, Woman Wisdom, and the opportune time. Recognizing that two of these metaphors come from the book of Ephesians and were written for the benefit of the Ephesus church, I wonder what metaphor might come to mind when you imagine this church. What metaphor might you use if you had to describe this church to another person? Perhaps we might also ask, what might the writer of Ephesians been seeking to convey to that church through these metaphors?

One commentator states that the deep concern within the book of Ephesians is that the church would be so foolish as to miss out on what God has for it. “The times are so urgent, so pregnant with possibilities for redemption and transformation, that the church cannot afford to miss its vocation. That is the key to the church acting wisely. When the church is acting contrary to its vocation, it is acting foolishly.”[9] Such a drunk church is as clueless as a stammering drunk. Drunkenness then, in the context of Ephesians, “is the condition of being unfocused, off balance, and out of kilter” with God and God’s dream for us.[10] A drunk church then is, like a drunk person, one that stumbles into this or that, is unkempt and unorganized, is without direction or purpose, and is unaware of its own inappropriateness and need for change.

In contrast, there is the church that is walking or living in the way of wisdom and insight.[11] The church behaving as the wise woman. What might be the comparable traits of a wise woman to that of a wise church? Remember that she builds her house, she prepares an abundant banquet, and she issues an open invitation. Could we say that  wise church is prepped and prepared? Could we say it is shiny and shimmering for expected guests?  Could we say that it is prepared for newcomers, ready to welcome them in, minister to their children, and meet their needs?  Could we say that the wise church acts as if they’re expecting people to come? And of course, wouldn’t the wise church be welcoming of all?

Like the Ephesus church, we are also invited to consider these two metaphors in our mind. Which metaphor fits us? Are we behaving like the drunken fool or Woman Wisdom?

Just as was told to the Ephesians so long ago, the time is right for our church, let’s not miss out on the opportunities God has for us. Like the Ephesians, we are ever given a choice, to act wisely, or to stumble around like a drunkard. I pray then that we would be careful how we live. Not as unwise people, but as wise. That we would make the most of our time, not being foolish, but seeing God’s will for us. That we wouldn’t be drunk and staggering, but rather filled with the wisdom of God’s Spirit.

[1] Psalms 8:3-8

[2] Isaiah 66:13

[3] John 6:51-53

[4] Ephesians 5:18

[5] Bob Mondello, “A History Of Hollywood’s ‘Lovable Drunk’: Arthur Doesn’t Booze Here Anymore,” <http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2011/04/08/135242959/a-history-of-hollywoods-lovable-drunk-arthur-doesnt-booze-here-anymore> (accessed August 14, 2015).

[6] Rein Bos, “Proverbs 9:1-6: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 3:339.

[7] Ephesians 5:16

[8] Paul V. Marshall, “Ephesians 5:15-20: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 3:350.

[9] Richard F. Ward, “Ephesians 5:15-20: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 3:355.

[10] Richard F. Ward, “Ephesians 5:15-20: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 3:355.

[11] Dean McDonald, “Proverbs 9:1-6: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 3:341.

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