Recently in an email someone said to me that they were still a “lamb of God”, even though they were working through some issues in their faith. As Jacob once did, they have been “wrestling with God”. I remember the metaphor “be ye lambs of God”. I remember those words written above a painting of a blond haired, blue-eyed Jesus with a shepherd’s crook, amidst a flock of sheep. It was probably the most powerful image of Jesus from my childhood.
Yet the metaphor does not have the meaning today that it once did, and as such I believe it is more destructive than useful in the modern world toward the message that Jesus taught. In my experience, Jesus did not teach us the passivity of lambs, but rather to “be wise as serpents, and gentle as doves.”
The lamb was the foundation of the society in which Jesus was born. From the lamb came the wool that was made into clothing and bedding. The milk of the lamb could be drunk, as well as made into cheese. The lamb could be eaten. It was one of the first domesticated animals, and it reproduced in captivity with some alacrity. It was precious, it was central to society, and it was a mark of civilization. So, to be called a “lamb of God” was to say that you are the foundation upon which society rests.
The overwhelming majority of the times this metaphor is used in the New Testament is to refer to Jesus. We do not see such references though until Acts and the Gospel of John, both some of the later of the early Christian texts. Many of the cases in which this reference is made seem to be trying to make sense of the death of Jesus on the cross, by connecting him with the Passover lamb from the book of Exodus. The Passover lamb is also foundational to society, for it symbolically represents the first-born male child of every family, sacrificed each year to God. In a patriarchical society, the first-born male child also represents the foundation of society.
When these texts were penned, this was what it meant to be a lamb of God… but there is a second meaning used in the Christian Scriptures that is closer to a meaning that might be useful today. In the book of Luke, Chapter 32, Jesus tells the missionaries that he is sending out into the “world” that they are to go as “lambs among wolves”. This had deep meaning in the society of his time, but it is somewhat lost today.
Perhaps the simile (not even a metaphor, so don’t try and take it too literally) might be better expressed today as “I am sending you out as country bumpkins among the city-swindlers”, or “I am sending you out as pacifists upon the battlefield”. Jesus was telling these missionaries of faith that he was sending them out to be living examples of right relationship, of beloved community. Being a pacifist is easier in a protected community than it is within the dangerous world, and he was telling them of both the internal and external danger of taking his message to a world that was in such turmoil and strife.
I think the second meaning has much greater import for us today than does the first. The lamb is no longer the foundation of our society… that honor might go to the cell-phone. I believe that when you call someone today to be a “lamb of God”, what comes to the modern mind is not that they be the foundation upon which the realm of God is built, nor that they be missionaries in a dangerous world. The image which the lamb metaphor brings to the modern mind is for people to become passive receptors of Truth. The metaphor is taken to mean that they should simply live on an unquestioned faith in beliefs that may or may not have biblical validity (or validity in any other classic scriptures, for that matter). It is often taken as a call to a passivity that I think is belied by the story of Jacob wrestling with God, receiving blessing, and becoming Israel. That passivity is belied by the story of Jesus sending missionaries out to teach right relationship and beloved community.
Now, I know why the lamb metaphor is still taught… because it is good for increasing the importance and authority of the shepherd. I always knew when my childhood Baptist pastor felt threatened in his ministry… we would begin to be called to be “lambs of God” again. So much of the development of the early church after the death of Jesus can be traced to the maintenance of the authority of church leaders, from the selection of the canon, to the elevation of the book of John, to the council at Nicea. Yet that is not the vision that I find within the teachings of Jesus…
The problem with being “Lambs” is that it is a call and an excuse to a kind of passivity in our relationship to God and the teachings of Jesus that is, I believe, contrary to the intentions of those teachings. The creation of covenanted beloved community will never be a passive act by a bunch of sheep following a shepherd.
Yours in Faith,
(And to my more humanist and less Christian readers… this is an example of what I mean when I talk about being multi-lingual. If you look through the language, you will see that I could have made the same points outside of a Christian context as well as in one. To me, the ideas are more important than the language.)