We used to dream of having a hundred sheep

The good shepherd

The other day, Mrs Acilius and I went to see the feature film Shaun the Sheep.  A story about a flock of sheep who rebel against their shepherd and then struggle to be reunited with him sounds rather like a pastiche of Jesus’ parables, so I remembered something about those parables that I’d been meaning to post for some time.

Amy-Jill Levine, author of last year’s Short Stories by Jesus, remarks that the characters in Jesus’ parables are usually pretty rich. Very few people would have a flock of a hundred sheep, for example.  I don’t think this is very hard to explain.  Most people do fantasize from time about being rich. These fantasies give a speaker many reasons to populate stories s/he wants his or her audience to remember with rich characters.  Among those reasons are these four:

  1. Fantasies of wealth draw people to collect information about the rich and to identify with them.  Therefore, details about the lives of the rich are likelier to be familiar to a large and diverse audience than are details about any other subset of the population.

    If Jesus were telling parables that took place among workers in the building trades, for example, members of his immediate family might have been able to follow what he was talking about, but people who made their living in other walks of life would probably have lost the thread somewhere along the way.

  2. Fantasies of wealth bring some measure of cheer to people who entertain them.  They bring other feelings too, of course, and are often cause and symptom of serious problems, but people get hooked on them the way they get hooked on everything else, by pleasure in the first few experiences.

    We can see something similar in, for example, the way debates about pacifism tend to go.  Godwin’s Law states that every Internet discussion that goes on long enough involves a reference to Hitler; discussions of pacifism, whether conducted online or face-to-face, needn’t go on more than about 10 seconds, usually, before someone asks “What do you do if you’re confronted with Hitler?”  Well, if you’re an average person, you hope he doesn’t notice you, since there’s bugger all you can do if the absolute dictator of your country decides you are his enemy.  But the “you” in that question is not the average individual under Hitler’s rule.  Rather, it is some hypothetical person who rules an empire capable of opposing the Third Reich effectively by military means.  Of course this is the example opponents of pacifism always choose; examples drawn from situations in which an average person might actually have a strong reason to consider the use of violence, such as bullying, street crime, domestic violence, etc, are not only complex, but are also immensely depressing.  Imagining oneself to be the hugely popular prime minister of France in the early 1930s, or the unchallenged dictator of Britain in the mid-1930s, or the god-emperor of the USA in the late 1930s, is quite pleasant enough to offset any discomfort that arises from thinking about the Nazis for a couple of minutes.

  3. Fantasies are abstract enough that they can be narrowed in application to a single point.

    If the first audience that heard the parable of the lost sheep were a convention of extremely prosperous sheepmen, then the line “If a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one who wandered off”? might have led to an intricate discussion about the practicalities of flock management.  If, on the other hand, no one in the audience has done more than wish s/he had a hundred sheep and tried to imagine what it would be like to have so large a flock, then the speaker could be confident that the audience would bypass such irrelevant matters and take the main point.

  4. Fantasies, no matter how many people share them, always take shape in the intimate confines of the private mind.  So when first one hears a fantasy of one’s own described in public by someone else, the thought might occur, “That person is reading my mind!”  Even if, upon reflection, one realizes that one’s fantasies are probably quite commonplace, indeed that the intimate confines of one’s private mind are probably pretty much indistinguishable from the intimate confines of everyone else’s minds, that reaction often lasts long enough that one is left with a feeling that one has been understood.

    That’s one of the reasons why science fiction is so popular.  No matter how many people might fantasize about flying among the stars, meeting aliens, traveling through time, etc, the first time one sees such a fantasy in a book or film or other product created by someone else, there is a shock of recognition, a feeling that the creators of that work have heard and shared one’s own secret thoughts.  So of course a preacher who knows his or her business will try to create that same shock of recognition as a step towards encouraging his or her audience to feel that s/he has an intimate connection with them.

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