Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Good Shepherd

For some time now I have been hovering around the question of what Jesus the Christ (a.k.a. the Anointed One) really was from the evidence available, rather than from the mythology built up around him as part of a personality cult. The reported words of Jesus in the Bible's New Testament may not be entirely reliable. Where possible, therefore, other sources need to be studied such as, for example, the Nag Hammadi Scriptures. I also need to study my own reactions to the biblical sources to try to determine whether, and how much, my personal prejudices about the Christ, gained from diverse sources, may influence my conclusions about who and what he was. In short, I need to answer questions such as, 

"What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?" 
"But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?"
"But what went ye out for to see? A prophet?" (Matthew 11:7-9)

And I must admit to not knowing the answers to these questions. I need to open my eyes through meditation, and hope that I see what is there, not what I would like to be there. With this in mind I can now approach the parable of 'The Good Shepherd.' (Matthew 18:12-14). This is the well-known story about the shepherd who, discovering he has lost one of his one hundred sheep, goes into the mountains in search of that lost sheep, whilst leaving the rest of the flock on a hillside.

Now as a child, and even later since I lacked the interest to query the story, I was taught that this epitomises the love that Jesus has for even the weakest, meanest, of his spiritual flock. No-one is so worthless that they cannot be saved. This was all part of the 'gentle Jesus, meek and mild,' and the almost long-suffering parent that strove to keep me out of spiritual and moral danger. It was good old Victorian child discipline through the agency of guilt. And that could be a powerful weapon in the hands of one adept at using it. But what does this parable really mean?

What kind of shepherd is it that leaves most of his flock alone on a hillside, undefended against possible, prowling predators, whilst he sets off to try to find one sheep whose survival instincts do not appear to be entirely up to scratch? What kind of shepherd is it that is unable to cut his losses, and settle for the 99% of the flock he still has? Or, and I think this is the crucial question, what is it about that one particular sheep that is worth saving, that marks it out as being different from the rest of the flock? In answering this last question I think I may come a little closer to understanding who this 1st. Century Master of spiritual philosophy was trying to say, and what it said about him.

There are countless stories of people, often teenagers and children (but not exclusively so by any means), who 'kick over the traces', refuse to conform to accepted mores, who 'go it alone', and who make good! These are the people who refuse, or who do not feel led, to follow the flock or the herd. They are the ones who strike out alone, leave their comfort zone, in search of something more, something deeper, something more worthwhile in life. These people are special in society. And that search for greater meaning and understanding is not easy. The paths to their goals often require great courage, great fortitude, and not a little humility and doubt. Without the constant companion of doubt, spiritual pride all too easily raises its head.

But that is not the end of the matter. At some stage, with some luck perhaps and a great deal of perseverance, they attain their goal and return to the fold and pass on what they have experienced and learned. This is the meaning behind the universal hero myths. We have been blessed with many such spiritual heroes in our history. And in modern times we have had our Mahatma Ghandis, Martin Luther Kings, Nelson Mandelas and many others, all following the inner call as did the Jesus the Christs and Gautama Buddhas of old, and too many more to be named here. If I have mentioned only great spiritual and political leaders here, it is not to ignore the leaders, both male and female, in other fields, the arts, medicine, engineering, science and so on.

It is the fact that humanity generates these people that, for me, is the wonder of our species. Too often I look at the world around me.....and I despair. Oh lord, I despair. But so long as there are those who seek truth, understanding and wisdom, there is always hope.


  1. You might be interested in Eric Neuman's "Origins & History of Consciousness" if you don't already know it. His premise is that the archetypal hero is the symbol of human consciousness itself, and thus you can tell much about the nature of consciousness by studying the comparative hero mythologies of human culture through the ages.

    Your make an interesting premise here.

  2. The Geezers; I don't know the book you mention. Unfortunately, it isn't proving at all easy to access a source over here. Buying from the States involves relatively high postage rates. But I will continue to search. Thank you for your comment.

  3. After all the interesting discussions over your last post, I dare to admit that the only thing I can think of is that maybe the Shepherd reacted instinctively instead of responding after clear thinking.

  4. This is a fascinating post. I can foresee commenting on it in stages. Perhaps starting with St Matthew, against whom I have cultivated something of a prejudice: a “grrrrr” reaction, rather than a reasoned response. (Your last post lives on in your readers’ minds.) It’s Matthew I sometimes blame for wasting 30 years of my life, in another reported saying about sheep:

    “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits....Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. (Matt 7:15-20)

    It was quoted by the false prophet himself, or his spokesman, who gave me to understand that the fruits in question referred to the transformation in a disciple’s life. The implication was “What do you have to lose? Test and see.” Thirty years later, I realized that the fruits were imaginary. Unfair to blame St Matthew for my foolishness, but that’s human nature.

    So I can understand you falling foul of another sheepish parable:

    “If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?”

    You see it in your mind’s eye as a solitary shepherd abandoning the ninety and nine to the wolves. But it doesn’t even say he’s a shepherd. For all we know, his name is Jesse, and he’s a big land-owner, with a team of eight sons to look after his sheep. Even the youngest of these, a youth called David, rather under-rated by Jesse and his elder brothers, boasts of smiting to death a lion and a bear who were engaged in carrying off a lamb under his care. Entrusting those 99 sheep to David, with his sling and a handful of smooth stones, our man Jesse can spend days looking for that lost sheep in the mountains …

    But more later …

  5. Ellena; It may well be so, particularly in the light of my point that the lost sheep might be especially valuable. All the same, it's a bit tough on the rest of the sheep, from their point of view. :)

  6. Vincent; Yours is a tantalising comment. Paragraphs 2 and 3 are crying out for further explanation. But no pressure from me. I share your feelings about St. Matthew's Gospel, but for different reasons I think. All too often there is a moral sting in the tail of what he says, which I suspect was added by others; but who can be certain? It is those stings that cut this gospel off from what may have been the true sayings of Jesus. Certainly there are occasions when the same texts appear in other gospels, Gnostic Gospels for example, where the stings do not appear. Church moralising; ugh!

    You pointed out that the parable speaks of a 'man' not a 'shepherd'. My apologies for not checking my source correctly. Of course that could be significant. As an alternative to your excellent suggestion, he might have been a local marketeer trying to maximise his profits.

  7. I must admit to being rather shocked by the very idea of “one particular sheep” being more “worth saving, that marks it out as being different from the rest of the flock?”

    It seems to be a cornerstone of modern Western thinking, that our Father in Heaven, whether we believe in him or not, doesn’t discriminate. All are equal in the eyes of the Lord. I can’t think of the right quote.

    But it’s so ingrained in our culture, never mind our religious institutions, that if scholarly research discovered that actually Jesus was a bigot who preferred Samaritans to Pharisees, shall we say, we’d find ways to denigrate that research.

    On the other hand, the Old Testament goes to great lengths to pick out instances of chosen ones given a leg-up by God, while those who stand in their way are cursed and slain.

    Christianity had to have a brand image that distinguished it from Judaism, in the form of a merciful Saviour. Even atheists would be upset, I suspect, if this image is undermined.

  8. Vincent; I can recall the moment this idea first surfaced in my mind. I argued against it quite vociferously because I found it so unacceptable. Gradually, as I have tried to keep an open mind on the subject, further ideas have surfaced. This is a very complex question, and I can do no more than hint at, and suggest, some avenues of exploration.

    1. The notion of equality before the law, which itself is based on moral principles, lies at the heart of modern, western culture. It is very difficult to see through spectacles that are not tinted in that direction. I think it must be remembered that whether it is deemed to be positive or negative, prejudice remains prejudice.

    2. It seems to me that the notion of equality and a loving Father in Heaven, built into early Christianity, was done so as being necessary for the then politico-religious agenda. Without it, converts might have been difficult to find.

    3. The idea that God was a loving entity who looked out for us, suits our personal, national and cultural egos, whether religious or atheistic. That doesn't justify the notion of a loving God; it simply makes us feel more secure. In other words, God becomes the benevolent aspects of our egos, writ large.

    4. Once we begin to move away from an anthropomorphic divinity, and move towards the idea of 'process' and 'process of becoming', and the developmental aspects of interactions between energies, then the way becomes open to allow for preferential reactions dependent upon local conditions. This idea is quite common in science.

    5. As you say, the Old Testament goes to great lengths to pick out instances of chosen ones given a leg-up by God. Yet even here, it is very difficult - at least I find it so - to escape the idea that the Yahweh is ego writ large across the cosmos.

    As I said, this seems to me to be a very complex subject, and one which needs much meditation, and even that may not supply all, or even the correct, answers.


  9. It was in the mid-80s that a group of biblical scholars (the Jesus Seminar) determined after years of investigation that 82% of the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were unlikely to have been uttered by him. As you know, Constantine and his enforced Council of Nicea revised the teachings of the historical Jesus of Nazareth into a dogma about the Son of God. The New Testament is not a history, but a document of faith. As such, I'm not sure anything about it matters other than the heart teachings that speak truly to our deeper selves. That's where meditation and/or prayer provide the best lessons.

    You're right that reading more of the Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea Scrolls provides an amazing insight into early Christianity. Having no personal ability to read Aramaic I read Elaine Pagels (the Gnostic Gospels) and Stephan Hoeller (the Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead might interest you but I also love his Jung and the Lost Gospels). I haven't read Marvin Meyer's Nag Hammadi Scriptures but I know they've been well reviewed.

    It is a wonder that such people as the ones you named and many more appear among us. Every morning and evening before I pray/meditate I ask to join my efforts with all the others who are doing the same at that moment. Yes, there is always hope - despite what we see.

  10. Susan; From a scholarly viewpoint, your opening sentence is fascinating, and well received. Rather than looking to see where the Gnostic gospels confirms the New Testament, perhaps I should approach this study the other way round.

    I have most of the books you mention, but I usually only have time to dip into them. It also seems to me that although there are many great names that everyone has heard of, there are many more that the world might put into a lower bracket that also have made a massive contribution to the world's spiritual life. I suspect there are millions more that go unnoticed.

    Thank you for being here.

  11. ps: When it comes to ordering books online I've been ordering them from the Book Depository most often. Their selection is excellent and they ship worldwide without shipping fees.

  12. Thank you Susan. I'll sound them out.

  13. If the words we thought were actually spoken by Jesus, even if mis-translated, were not his words or thoughts but somebody else's, then that 'somebody else' was/is worth paying attention to, whoever they were. The essential Christ-message, as I understand it, is to live a life of simplicity, forgiveness, childlike wonder and love of God, nature and our neighbours - i.e. all sentient beings. All the rest, it seems to me, is dogma.

    As for Jesus being the son of God: since there is no way of truly knowing what God is, all we can do is imagine or compare to concepts we know about, such as 'father and son'. I don't see anything wrong with adopting that concept, along with awareness that it's a symbol for something that we have no language for and no means of verifying.

    As always, Tom, you set off trains of thought that lead to long and fruitful journeys.

  14. Natalie; Glad you are able to join in here. With regard to your opening sentence, I would go further and say that everybody's thoughts are worth paying attention to, even if later they are gently discarded. But I do not know what the essential Christ-message is. That is my point, and that is what I wish to discover, and further to determine whether what he said is relevant to my life.

    That is not to say that what has been handed down to us as 'Christianity' has no value. It is the use of the Jesus-precedent, rather than admitting to the heavy influence of pagan Neo-platonic thought, that I feel uncomfortable with, plus the thought that at the heart of Christianity may be a great lie. Again, I would stress that, as a belief system genuine Christianity is no worse but possible no better than any other belief system, even atheism (for the atheists).

    Consider, if you will, the idea of Jesus as an Essene. Certainly much of what is taught as the ideal Christian life-style is Essenic in nature, not necessarily of Christ. Let us go a step further and ask whether Jesus might have been what later ages called Agnostic. Bearing in mind the brutal treatment handed out by the Church to agnostics, the great Heretics, that would not sit comfortably with the idea of Jesus the Christ being a would be heretic before the time of to speak.

    The point I am trying, rather ham-fistedly perhaps, to make is that I wish to know what the Christ really thought and taught. I might agree or disagree with him, but at least I would like to know, and not simply accept what the Church says he thought and taught.

    My apologies if this response to your comment comes across as somewhat garbled, but there is just so much to be considered, and it is so easy to get lost.

  15. Natalie; As an afterthought to my previous answer to you, I am reminded of the film, "The Lord of the Rings" and my response to it as a Tolkien fan. I thought the film was a travesty of the book. Now many have claimed that the film was good "in its own right", and that is possibly a valid comment. But it is what it is, a film based on a book. Now Christianity may be based on Jesus' teachings, or some of them (the bits Emperor Constantine and the Church Fathers found convenient) but it may not accurately reflect Jesus' philosophy in full.

    Again, I would like to know what Jesus thought and taught. How do his thoughts chime with mine?

  16. Perhaps it is the impossibility of ever discovering what he thought and taught that has generated Christianity in its form of calling upon us to have faith: for example, faith in the gospels, no matter who wrote them and how literally inaccurate, as being “the word of God”.

    I believe it is commonly accepted that St Paul invented Christianity as a religion. He never met Jesus in the flesh.

    There are many who would like to bypass Christianity and get to the real man Jesus. We can only do this through scholars piecing fragments together. I only got a taste of their conclusions through school and personal reading. It’s in St John’s gospel that we get an impression that Jesus was himself setting out a framework for Christian belief, e.g. John 14:6 “…no man cometh to the Father, but by me.” And yet that same chapter is poignant with fond recollections of Jesus with his disciples, all mingled with what has now become bedrock theology.

    We wonder but we cannot know. As Natalie says, it’s not about dogma. It’s about what resonates with us, and that’s why to a believer, Jesus is alive, a felt presence transcending the written words and ego-consciousness too.

    Even if we knew accurately what Jesus thought and taught—if, say, he’d kept a diary and it was discovered intact, in a jar in a cave—I don’t think it would much add to, or subtract from, that believer’s felt experience. But what do I know? I’m not that believer.

  17. Vincent; You raise some interesting points, as do my other commenters. Yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Christianity was based less on the teachings of Jesus, much of which can be found in the heretical Gnostic Gospels, and more on the need for compromise, any compromise, at the Council of Nicea, to hold the Christian Roman Empire together.

    Belief is of course a major factor in these discussions, and there is no way round that. We all at some stages, on certain issues, rest on belief, however it is expressed.

  18. Tom, there is so much that could be said about this complex and controversial subject, from many points of view, whether strictly historical or from an apocryphal or canonical religious perspective but, as I see it, what various institutional authorities created - now known as 'Christianity' - following their own agendas, may or may not reflect some of the actual teachings and person of Jesus. But what Vincent says in his comment above resonates with me. In order to know what relevance Christ might have in one's own life, the most direct path, as I see it, would be through some form of personal inner dialogue - via meditation/prayer, or however one applies this. This is what I think the sentence means: " man cometh to the Father, but by me.” No intermediaries needed: the direct line is open.

  19. Natalie; I cannot but agree with your comment. There are no easy, simple answers to this subject. Indeed, there are no easy questions. We just do the best we honestly can.