One of the most popular images of God in the Bible is the image of God the shepherd. Through this image, we see God as a humble, but loving and protective man. A man who wants all of his sheep–99 out of 100 isn’t enough!–to be safe.
I particularly like this image, actually. It shows me a God that refuses to exclude the minority. A God that is not simply interested in getting in good with the popular crowd. It shows me a vision for God’s kingdom as a safe space for the marginalized.
But this image of God, like every image of God that I’ve managed to salvage from my days as a fundamentalist, forces me to imagine God in a male body. I think of God as shepherd and I picture a bearded dude cuddling a sheep.
Not that there’s anything wrong with an image of God as a bearded dude cuddling a
velociraptor sheep. There’s plenty to learn from and think about with that image. It can give bearded dudes who love cuddling sheep a basis for affirming that caring and nurturing and sheep cuddling can be a part of their masculinity, for instance.
But in a world where the Christian images of God overwhelmingly (exclusively, in some circles) portray God as a man, I wonder, can the God who seeks out the marginalized be imagined as a woman too?
Jesus seemed to think so.
I want to slap myself sometimes when I think of how many times I’ve read Luke 15, pictured God as a shepherd, and completely missed what was RIGHT THERE.
God, imaged as a shepherd, leaves the 99 sheep to seek out the 1.
Then, right there, in plain sight . . .
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8, NIV)
As Elizabeth A. Johnson says,
In both stories, someone vigorously seeks what is lost and rejoices with others when it is found. Neither story discloses anything about God that the other hides. Using traditional men’s and women’s work, both parables orient the hearer to God’s redeeming action in images that are equivalently male and female. (She Who Is, pg. 56)
Why are we so afraid to carry on Jesus’ tradition of diverse and inclusive speech about God? Why are we so afraid to expand on the speech that we use to understand God? Why are we so afraid to explore the possibilities of what speech about God can look and sound like?
As Johnson says, many of our modern churches’ speech about God “is poor indeed compared with the riot of images spun out in the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus’ speech.” (She Who Is, pg. 80)
Jesus talked about God. And Jesus called Her a woman. Why can’t we?
[Note: My Facebook friend, Wayne Beason, pointed out that even though now-a-days we think of shepherds as men, many ancient shepherds were WOMEN and some of the images of God-as-shepherd in the Bible are actually feminine. As he says, “when Jesus speaks of God as a shepherd, it’s not unlikely that many young women thought to themselves, ‘Oh! Just like me!‘” I love that. I thought I’d share]