Telling True Messiahs From False
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 28, 2004
Jesus wasn’t the only would-be Messiah wandering around ancient Palestine in those days of Roman occupation. Indeed, scholars tell us that there may have been dozens of other cultic leaders at the same time, all with their own followers, all claiming that their leader was the “anointed one”— a true prophet—the true messiah who had come to rescue the people of Israel and restore the glory of King David.
Nor was Jesus the first. There were many would-be messiahs before the Christian one came along. Indeed, the idea of a savior may well be, as one of my colleagues has put it, “one of the most ancient human yearnings—the hope that a divine deliver from heaven will save the world from its sins and its sorrows.”
One messiah who was earlier than Jesus was Zoroaster, a Persian religious leader from 700 years before Jesus (for whom, of course, “Zoroastrianism” is named). Zoroaster’s followers also claimed that he had been a human being before he died and then became a god. Later, it was also said that Zoroaster had been born of a virgin and that his birth had been foretold by prophets; his followers called him “savior of the world”. They also claimed that, as a child, Zoroaster had been rescued from a jealous ruler, and had even impressed the elders with his great wisdom. Later, he performed miracles and healed the sick. Some guy, that Zoroaster. (Kind of reminds us of somebody else we know, doesn’t he?)
But there were messiahs even before Zoroaster, too. The birth of the Greek superhero Hercules was said to have taken place on December 25th, and he was also believed to have been born of a virgin. Over in India, centuries before, the incarnate Hindu god Krishna was said to have been born of a virgin mother, in a cave, while shepherds outside watched their flocks. The baby Krishna also had to be rescued from an evil king.
There were other ancient messiahs, as well: according to Greek myth, the god Dionysus was born of a virgin mother and the great god, Zeus. The Assyrian god Tammuz also had a virgin mother, as did the Phrygian sun god, Attis.
In the wide sweep of history, one finds, over and over again, religious movements searching for ways to elevate—even deify—their chosen leaders—searching for ways to separate them “out of the pack”—to underline their uniqueness; to emphasize their “special-ness”; to show that they are “a cut above” (or maybe two, or three, or four cuts “above”) all those other teachers and prophets and would-be messiahs out there.
So, religious teachers get mythologized; they get transformed into something more than they may have been when they lived and breathed and walked upon the Earth. In time, their teachings get transmuted into dogmas and doctrines. And while the additions of the centuries can add to a prophet’s luster—and while the golden glow of myth can warm our hearts and inspire our vision and teach us valuable lessons about life and about faith-- it can also obscure from our view the basic (sometimes quite simple) teachings which a prophet offered in the first place.
In Hinduism, perhaps the oldest of the great religions of the world, there is not the promise of one great messiah, but of a whole series of them, called avatars. Avatars are gods in bodily form, who descend to Earth to assist struggling humanity. As Krishna, the eighth and greatest of the avatars said in the Bhagavad Gita:
There is something in troubled times that yearns for a messiah.
Certainly, the spiritual playing field is crowded as never before with choices for religious men and women to make. How do we choose, then? How do we tell true messiahs from false?
For one thing, the call of a true religious teacher in this dangerous world in which we live has to be a universal call. If it is going to help us save our planet, it cannot be a narrow or sectarian call. This world of ours doesn’t need another tribal cult; nor does it need any more great crusades or jihads to convert the whole world to the “only” way of thinking. Any religion for our modern world—whatever it calls itself—must be universalist in its tone and emphasis. In the words of the great comedian Dick Gregory:
As the prophet Micah said, perhaps 2700 years ago:
The gifts of the Spirit are not confined to a single class or race or nation or religion. They are universal. They are open and accessible to all peoples. And true religious teachers remind us of that universal calling of faith.
Secondly, a true messiah cannot be a defender of the status quo. He or she must seek to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. This doesn’t mean that religion has to be socially revolutionary in order to be considered prophetic (though at times it can mean precisely that). A true prophet (unlike the hireling court and temple prophets that constantly surround those already in power) must always exhibit a fierce discontent with the way things are, and a profound, insatiable yearning for change, for deepening, for movement closer to that which is true and just. In a deathly materialistic age like the one in which we now live, the spiritual call is a strikingly counter-cultural call. It means resisting the flow of the mad materialist tide. In any age, a true religious teacher must be concerned with changing individuals and changing society.
Third, true religious leaders do not read public opinion polls before making their pronouncements. They don’t just tell people what they want to hear—what’s cool and comfortable and convenient. Popularity is one thing; prophecy is often something quite different. That’s exactly why so many of the ancient prophets, it is said, were “without honor” in their own lands. They were on the cutting edge of their times—always pulling people forward to the age that was becoming—often, in the course of things, uttering pronouncements which “turned people off”, which alienated many people, which were absolutely loathsome to many people in their own times.
But as Clinton Lee Scott wrote: “Grandchildren of those who stoned the prophets sometimes gather up the stones to build the prophets’ monuments.”
A prophet is one who can clearly discern the choices that a society faces, and is able to articulate the consequences that will result from those choices. Questions of personal popularity figure little in their calculations of what is right.
True spiritual leaders are also not in the “religion business” for personal gain. They understand that “being called” has nothing to do with “being comfortable”, and that prophecy-making is not about profit-taking. The great Hebrew prophet Jeremiah could have remained a comfortable court priest, in service of the king. Isaiah could have remained just another honored, pampered member of the royal family. But they sensed a deeper calling to serve. They understood how avarice and greed were temptations that faced religious functionaries just as certainly as anyone else. As Micah said:
True religious leaders are not overly concerned with their own personal material gain.
That brings us to the matter of integrity and authenticity—perhaps the most important characteristics to look for when shopping for a messiah.
True prophets are men and women of genuineness and sincerity, whose very beings reverberate with their living message. They live what they profess. They live among the people, not isolated and apart from them. They speak a language which the people of their day understand, and they spoke it with utter truthfulness and directness. True leaders are not elitist.
The false prophets of ancient times (and of our own, no less) preached one thing and practiced another. They offered up one moral standard for public consumption, yet ordered their own lives by a very different one.
They speak of peace, yet wage war.
They speak of unity, yet search out new ways to divide. (They’re dividers, and not uniters, whatever they might profess.)
They speak of justice, yet harden and intensify the injustices and disparities that already exist.
They preach a gospel of love, yet, in their actions, put forth a nightmare of enmity and strife and division and fear.
A true leader is the same on the inside as he or she is on the outside. A true leader lives by integrity and authenticity.
Perhaps the most vital lesson offered by prophetic women and men of every age is that religion, primarily, must be concerned with deeds and not with creeds. “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,” Yahweh tells the prophet Hosea, “the knowledge of God, and not burnt offerings.”
Prophetic religion is not merely an intellectual or theological pursuit. It has to go deeper—beneath creeds—beneath ritual. As Shirley MacLaine once wrote: It’s one thing to be able to say all the right prayers and do all the right rituals “and to be metaphysically sophisticated; to know all the techniques and rhetoric and meditational processes. But it’s quite another to relate to the world with simple love in your heart.”
Prophetic religion is love and justice made manifest.
This is the season of waiting—of waiting for Christmas, of waiting for the Messiah to arrive, of looking far and near for that which can only be found, ultimately, in the recesses of our own hearts and souls.
Let me tell you a story:
Long ago, there was an old monastery, that had fallen on hard times. It was off in the woods, far from where the action was, and few people were drawn there any more. Those who did stop by from time to time never stayed for long. The few monks that still lived there were very old now, and every year they seemed to lose another. The abbott feared that, sooner or later, the inevitable would happen, and the monastery would have to be closed.
So the abbott called the monks together to discuss with them his fears. All of them shared his concerns, but no one had a solution. Brother Matthew offered, however, that he had recently noted that their neighbor the rabbi was back after a long trip. Perhaps the rabbi, who was known as being very holy and very wise, might have a suggestion for them.
“Why not?” the abbott thought. “Why not ask the rabbi? What harm could it do?” So, the next day, he put on his coat, and travelled across the field, and visited the rabbi at his house in the woods.
The rabbi greeted the abbot warmly, with open arms. But when the abbot told him about the monastery’s problems, the rabbi shook his head said he didn’t know what to do either. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I wish I knew the answer.”
So, the two friends just sat and talked, late into the night, and when the abbott finally rose to leave, the rabbi helped him on with his coat, and said that he did have one idea that had come to him during their discussion. “I don’t know whether this will help you or not,” the rabbi said, “but I believe the messiah is among you. I don’t know why, or what that means—I can’t explain it—but I know that the messiah is among you.”
Puzzled, the abbott returned to the monastery. Calling the monks together one more time, he told them that the rabbi couldn’t help them; but then, he also shared the rabbi’s cryptic message with them—“He said that the messiah is among us. I have no idea what he meant. Perhaps we should pray on those words.”
Shaking their heads, the monks all went to their rooms. What could the rabbi mean? The messiah was among them?
Well, if it was anyone, it must be the abbott. He was so gentle and wise. But then again, even the abbot wasn’t perfect.
The rabbi certainly couldnt have meant brother Matthew. That man, always thought he knew everything. But it was true that brother Matthew was frequently right.
Well, it certainly wasn’t brother Thomas. A more foolish person didn’t exist. But it was true that Brother Thomas was the first at your side if you were sick or in pain.
So each monk pondered the dwindling list of their number, until finally he came to his own name. And each would think—“Me? It could certainly never be me!... Or could it?”
Then, something truly amazing happened in that old monastery. Because they couldn’t rule anyone definitely “in”—or anyone definitely “out”-- the monks began to treat each other differently-- kindly, reverently, almost with a kind of wonder. They treated one another as though it was, indeed, the Messiah who stood before them (just in case it was).
One day, some folks who were picnicking nearby asked for a tour of the monatery. Impressed by the extraordinary holiness they encountered there, they told their friends. In the spring, two young men—who had been just visitors the year before-- asked if they could join the monastery. Then, four more joined that summer. Then, there were several dozen more. Before they knew it, the monastery was thriving once more, able to carry out more good works than they ever had before.
Indeed, my friends, whatever the particular faith each of us professes, the Messiah dwells, ultimately, within each of us. In each one of us, and in each person whom we encounter along the journeys of our lives, there lies a fragment of the Holy, some small part of the power and the glory that is needed to change this world of ours.
Tielhard de Chardin once wrote:
At this season of Advent, may we honor all those Teachers-- those Prophets-- those Messiahs—who call upon us to heed our New Birth. And may we honor the Messiah that dwells within each of us, which keeps hope alive in our souls, which reminds us of the deeper truths by which we seek to live. May that Inner Power guide us and inspire us all the days that we are here upon the Earth.