Bah Bah Black Sheep, The Screwloose Letters, Vol 1, #10
Who wants to be a sheep?
Not me, you say, with no hesitation. It’s not a good image to cultivate. A sheep is thought to be none too swift, one who just follows the herd, blindly, even if over the nearest cliff. Perhaps you may recall that scene in Far From the Madding Crowd where the shepherd Gabriel’s dog drives his whole flock down the hill and into the sea below, even as he blissfully sleeps. All you have to do is get the first one headed in the desired direction, the rest will follow behind, no questions asked.
The “black sheep,” in popular iconography, fares even worse. He’s the one who just doesn’t get it right, even from the flock’s perspective. He’s somehow lost his way, turned up a loser. If you’re the black sheep in your family you probably don’t brag about it.
Unless you’re a 21st century American that is, maybe a “millennial,” born after 1980 and coming of age in the new postmodern proto-Trump world.
Okay, you say, so what’s the problem? I think for myself, I follow no herd, I‘m defined by none of your musty old proverbs. I make my own way, I’m onto your Fake News. Don’t talk to me about sheep! Who ever took them seriously anyway?
Jesus, that’s who.
You may remember that parable, if dimly, from your Sunday School days. If so, forget it. You’re reading it for the first time, here in its original version, long before “Luke” and your Sunday School teacher got hold of it. Read it anew, in the Gospel of Thomas:
The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep.
One of them, the largest, went astray.
He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it.
After so much trouble he said to the sheep,
“I love you more than the ninety-nine.”
….logion 107, Meyers translation
All right, so now you’ve read it… notice anything missing? Read it again. Need some help?
Well, for starters, there’s nothing here about repentance. Your Sunday School teacher left you with a lifetime image: the shepherd of course was Jesus, who, distressed over this one sheep who had “gone astray” (deserted the flock), left the other 99 presumably okay sheep to seek out the wandering one, now become a “sinner,” who when found is promptly reinstated, hoisted onto Jesus’ shoulders and brought back to the flock… After which we hear those timeless and unforgettable words from this long-ago and equally unforgettable Jesus Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. …..Luke 15:3-7
The Gospel of Thomas asks us to forget those unforgettable words.
There is nothing in the original saying, recounted above from Thomas, about sinners or repentance, or even rejoicing. The sheep, when finally found, is not returned to the flock… Rather, the shepherd seems to endorse this virtual black sheep, even to suggest that he is uniquely deserving of reward because he has gone astray. This shepherd is more pleased with wandering sheep than with those following the herd ... The shepherd simply tells this rebel sheep you know, I love you more than all the others, always have. I’m with you—and that’s where the story ends.
More: this sheep is the largest. Did you notice that? This shepherd might be you. Forget Jesus for the moment--ever think of yourself (apologies to the Gospel of John) as The Good Shepherd? Like the wise fisherman a few blogs back, this good shepherd knows what is really important in life. He knows when this most important element in his life is missing, senses the loss when it has departed. The fisherman spots the one large fish in his net, immediately throws the smaller fish back, rejoicing that he has found the one thing that really matters. Most of us modern shepherds (to change the metaphor!) are totally unable to discern the one crucial element in a successful life: what really matters… The large fish, the large sheep that is missing. That takes a true human being (title of a few blogs back).
May I strike a personal note? In that recent above-mentioned blog, ironically titled A True Human Being, I let myself indulge in a little self-pity. I was bewailing the lack of comments I was getting, crying about my seeming lack of readers. Lo and behold, this brought forth a comment, from none other than my friend Gary Patton! Gary sympathized, said that he himself as a fellow blogger received not all that many comments, and had long ago decided to see his blog as an exercise in self-examination, a chance to collect his thoughts and maybe connect with Spirit, see where he was at, so to speak. Gary was right, of course, and let me just say that his comment set me thinking a bit about Gary himself. This man has been a household name for Santa Cruzans for as long as I can remember, but I wonder how many of us have taken the trouble to learn a little about his own story, his own journey to become the true human being we’ve come to appreciate during these decades of his political leadership? Which of us has known his brother?
Gary now describes himself as an environmental attorney, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, haas been a long-time champion of liberal causes, so he’s gotta be all right… He has found his groove as a servant of humanity, but it’s my guess that he started out as a conservative of sorts, theologically and otherwise, may even have been a seminary student. Am I right, Gary? Did you find out what really mattered, how to make Spirit work for you, for us?
But back to the Gospel of Thomas. What does it say really matters, what makes one a true human being? It never waivers, from beginning to end, in all its 114 sayings, This question of the most important thing in life is the key to opening up this bag of riddles. No matter what you may accomplish in life, if you miss this one thing, it avers, you’ll live out your days a spiritual pauper, a poverty-stricken being. You’ll have missed the really big fish, you’ll have lost forever the greatest sheep of all.
What really matters?
No, it is not being straight in your theology, not coming to know the “truth,” of whatever stripe. Not believing in Jesus. Not being in the right church, not making a good marriage, not achieving professional success, not even spending your life in the service of others. And it certainly is not heaping up money. And forget about coming to know the All, even, as some good Gnostics recommend. Isn’t even “love.” What then can it be?
It is YOU.
You have to find out who you are.
The Kingdom of Heaven is for NOW, and it is for you.
You have to get onto who you are, look inward to find the treasure, the Pearl of Great Price, the spark of Spirit that makes you truly alive, fan it into unified consciousness, connect with your twin brother Jesus, make the two into ONE. The Good News of the first Gospel was that you don’t need religion. You can’t build a church around the Gospel of Thomas.
You may have to leave a flock or two, a relationship or two, because the up-close presence of others can be destructive of your own integrity.
This puts a thrilling new vitality into the old parable, does it not? Let it sink in. Does this mean that this Jesus loves me, the religious derelict, the hopeless heretic? He seeks out the lost sheep, not to drag him back to the fold in shameful defeat, but to embrace him, tell him he loves him more than the ninety-nine! Tell him that the best sheep is the sheep who goes his own way, heedless of the opinions and beliefs of the flock, to serve humanity of course but first to discover who he is, and do something about it. This black sheep is the sheep that the shepherd loves best and leaves the others behind to be with...
This is it.
“This is support for those who wander intellectually and spiritually. Jesus favors those who think for themselves, who have the courage to go their own way, to withdraw from the dominant culture, strive to achieve the unitary consciousness that is the large fish, the large sheep of the Gospel of Thomas. This provides another window into the experience of the seekers who in the process of losing themselves have also found themselves, and who in withdrawing from the dominant religious culture have discovered a new and intense relationship with Jesus.” Valantasis, Gospel of Thomas, Rutledge, NY 2009