The gospel set down for today is a deceptively simple passage. “Are you the Messiah?” they asked him. Notice Jesus reply does not answer in terms of his teaching but rather refers to his works which he presents as providing their own justification. Then he uses the now somewhat arcane example of the shepherd calling his flock and only his sheep recognising the voice. What he appears to be saying is that amongst all the similar sounding voices there is only one authentic voice, and those tuned to that voice will identify their shepherd.
At first impression this seems out-dated for our hard-nosed modern technological society, but on closer inspection of today’s gospel reading, we find Jesus is in surprisingly good agreement with modern psychologists and sociologists. The brain researchers assure us there are competing voices influencing our life choices, but if as our faith teaches, tuning to the voice of Jesus can make all the difference in the world, then it follows we must recognise and be wary of these other voices.
In practice, because we know there are many counterfeit forms of Christianity, we may need to consider carefully our reasons for choosing which voice to which we are going to respond. Because religion is practised by those who are less than perfect, it is unrealistic to hope to hear the voice of Jesus via a leader who is absolutely perfect in their Christian witness. However the general nature of a sincere follower of Christ is still likely to come through in their deeds. Just as Jesus invited those who questioned him to look at his acts to know what he stood for, that probably still remains the most helpful test of the authentic voice of the shepherd.
Now some of the scientific evidence is in, it seems that aspects of what the religious have called original sin is hardwired into our nature by many centuries of selective breeding. This tendency makes us very susceptible to head in a wrong direction. I have recently re-read an article in the Science Magazine Focus (The human brain: Hardwired to sin. | Focus Magazine, Feb 5, 2010 (sciencefocus.com/feature/psychology/human-brain-hardwired-sin) which reviews evidence showing the automatic responses built into the brain as the standard temptations of lust, greed, gluttony, anger, sloth, envy and pride are separately stimulated. Different test subjects have the nerves in the same areas of the brain start to fire in response to the same stimuli, with different areas of the brain associated with each form of “sin”.
In fact from one point of view, when it comes to noting what the practice of religion is up against, the voices from biological and cultural evolution produce some serious obstacles. In many instances the appeal of the so called false shepherds may be nothing more than using an aspect of religion to give voice to one or more of the evolutionary drives that may once have been needed for survival, yet which are positively disastrous when trying to build a harmonious modern society and world.
For the human race to have survived so many years in such a variety of bleak and dangerous settings it is hardly surprising that nature might have selected for preference so many of what now look to be unsociable traits. Biological urges are an inescapable presence that needs to be carefully managed (as the Catholic Church has found to its cost with its required celibacy of priests). And if it comes to that, given that procreation was once essential to the threatened human species, the desire to mate at all costs presents a question. Is breeding with any encountered potential mate still the biological characteristic you would want to bring to a stable modern marriage? When a religious sect promotes polygamy or under-age sex with sect leaders we might be disgusted that sect members would be attracted to something that society considers immoral, but in-built biological temptation is at least partly understandable.
There is also plenty of evidence that the human is a naturally belligerent animal with an intelligence honed by evolution to increase the potential for nasty behaviour. At one time the belligerence was a survival mechanism. A small community struggling to survive in a hostile environment needed its warrior hunters and the more deadly the better. But now the world population has grown so communities overlap and we need to find ways of getting on with one another. The urge for belligerence is still there which presumably is why young men can still be persuaded to march into battle for dimly understood causes.
There is even one sense in which Jesus arrived at an opportune time to provide humankind with an offered alternative to mutual destruction. Unfortunately history reminds us that as a wider community we have been very slow to take up the offer and perhaps this is hardly surprising given the scientists tell us humankind has been developing current characteristics for two million years or more. It is also a voice that needs to be subdued. The inbuilt desire to ensure the safekeeping of one’s own family unit by destroying all who might threaten even in the most indirect manner does not make for natural peacemaking or good race relations.
Again Churches in the past have often been associated with teaching that directly opposes Jesus’ direct teaching on forgiveness of enemies but if we can acknowledge the biological drive we can at least understand why Church members will accept such opposing teaching even when they are familiar with Jesus’ take on the topic. It is almost certainly not Jesus’ voice to encourage crushing rivals or foes – or locking up prisoners and throwing away the key, but again it is subconsciously compatible with our biology tells us is desirable.
Greed seems yet another non Christian characteristic that once helped our species survive. At a time when resources were limited it made perfect sense to try to gain a disproportionate share. Accumulating food at a faster rate than potential rivals is great for a time when unexpected plenty provided the insurance for the season when food was short. Unfortunately the inbred acquisitive fortress mentality rewarded the selfish and we don’t have to look too far before we encounter a marked reluctance to share. Although I have the greatest admiration for Pope Francis’ insistence of the need for the Catholic Church to return to becoming poor church, the acquisition of the present levels of colossal material wealth by a Church with teaching motivated by baser instincts for centuries does create some practical problems in reverting to Jesus’ teaching.
In many cases there is a fine line between what Jesus advocated and what now happens in practice. Offering hospitality by sharing food is very much in line with gospel teaching. Where we might go wrong is to forget we also have the drive to engage in gluttony. Encouraged once as a survival tactic for those rare occasions where sufficient food presented itself, perhaps we should not be surprised gluttony is still alive in some Churches today. The sight of obese church members gorging themselves at Church feasts suggests that even here we may be distorting Jesus teaching.
The prophets and religious leaders before Jesus had already identified many examples of behaviour that needed to change as the Jewish society became larger and more stable. In terms of what Jesus was offering that was different for his day, I guess it was more a question of a change of emphasis than a change of direction. Many of his teachings are foreshadowed in the Jewish religious literature, yet there is another sense in which the Jewish religion had already been hijacked by false teachings.
Love your neighbour (the positive form of the so called golden rule which appears in so many approximately similar forms in all the great religions) was introduced in rudimentary form in China and Egypt and later in the book of in Leviticus (19:18), yet by the time Jesus appeared on the scene, the oft times embattled Jews had convinced themselves that neighbours could only be fellow Jews. Stronger was the older appeal of the code of reciprocity whereby you returned like with like. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was the preferred rule. The story of the Good Samaritan found its novel impact precisely because the Samaritans were the heretics of the day. Notice too that Jesus is actually calling us to pro-activity. One commentator Dr. Frank Crane put it this way, “The Golden Rule is of no use to you whatsoever unless you realize that it’s your move!”
Perhaps we should reflect on what we have seen in modern times to ask if the biological and cultural drive to favour one’s own has continued to distort the central teaching which was the focus of Jesus.
The record of the separated Catholic and Anglican communions has not always reflected the love of neighbour. Think Henry the eighth ordering the sacking of the Catholic monasteries or the flying bricks in Belfast, Ireland. Interfaith dialogue is clearly an ideal, yet Communion is not freely offered or freely received when the priest at the front does not recognise the faith of some in the congregation. Tribalism continues to trump brotherly and sisterly love in many places of the world and by way of example the Hutus and Tutsis, two Christian tribes in Rwanda have both at various times attempted genocide on the other. Nor is it love for neighbour when Christians attack Muslims in the Balkans. It is almost as if we learn nothing from history. Remember at least one of the earlier Popes told those Christians setting out on the bloodthirsty Crusades that taking up the sword in this cause guaranteed them an instant pathway to heaven. Does that remind you of what some of the suicide bombers of this century are taught?
Please don’t think I am implying that it is only the Christians who lapse from their ideals. The same desire to be selective in recognising neighbours might equally be directed at the extremist Sunni bombing the Shiite Mosques, the intolerance of extremist Hindus in India towards their Muslim neighbours or the minority Shia Alawite Government raining destruction on the Sunni majority in Syria. However we might also remember it is not Christian teaching to notice the sins of traditional enemies while turning a blind eye to our own shortcomings.
Jesus taught forgiveness of enemies and was himself called the Prince of Peace. We can therefore only speculate what he might have made of an US Army chaplain blessing the mission to drop an atomic bomb on Japanese city or for that matter whether he would have favoured the invasion of Iraq which, now the fiction of weapons of mass destruction has been put to rest, looks increasingly like a geographically misplaced attempt to hit back at those who had sponsored the Saudi terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers. The recent Gun debates in the US shows the right to shoot in self defence is held as a basic right by some who claim to be Christian. Whether or not this is compatible with forgiving one’s enemies is a question that may not go away.
So there are competing seductive voices still. The true shepherd also continues to call down through the ages. As Jesus put it, only my sheep will recognise my voice. The choice of which voice to follow may require careful thought but it is still a choice that each one of us is called upon to make.