(for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 11, 2014)
‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:1-10, NRSV).
Jesus must have spent some time around shepherds and their sheep. He seems to have sat with their life and work to the extent that he saw something of his own mission in their daily tasks.
Perhaps this is not so surprising. Sheep and their shepherds were part of daily life in the first century. Theirs was not the most desirable of jobs, but their art was widely practiced.
I say ‘art’ because this was a more involved profession than occasionally driving a flock from one paddock to another. The shepherd in Jesus’ culture was responsible for the protection of his sheep. This involved leading them from the sheepfold each day, finding pasture, protecting them from predators while they grazed, and, at the end of the day leading them back to the sheepfold for greater protection overnight. Many a shepherd would sleep at the gate offering further comfort and security.
Shepherding involved long hours and a high level of commitment to the welfare of the sheep.
And it went even further. Early shepherding involved a relationship with each sheep. Jesus’ description of the task includes the naming and calling of each sheep. If they were to survive – indeed thrive – among the surrounding dangers they needed to come know, trust, and respond to, their shepherd.
This nurtured trust was their greatest protection. At night a ‘stranger’ may try to steel. But, being unable to call them through the gate, this one must improvise his entry and drive with fear. Climbing the wall and forcing the sheep indicated a sinister motive.
All this talk of sheep might make one think Jesus was moonlighting as a mentor for shepherds. This is, clearly, not the case and we do well to remind ourselves that Jesus is talking with students he is training for God’s mission. All this sheep talk is ‘figure of speech’.
Perhaps the fact that this parable is difficult for the disciples to understand is a good indicator that Jesus really was a master teacher and story teller. They are going to need to sit with these teachings and discover for themselves the insights on offer.
For me the moment the disciples must begin to think outside the box is when Jesus ceases to point to familiar shepherding practice and begins to speak of himself: ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep…’ It is a hinge point that explicitly indicates that all this sheep-talk is really about the mission of Jesus.
Only now can Jesus message begin to slowly fall into place. Jesus speaks of a danger to his followers. There are imposters who seek unconventional access to the growing number of disciples. Jesus wants the inner 12 to look for signs of forced entry and the people’s natural fear and a familiarity response. Such indicators will guide them well as they take on their role as protectors.
And his claim in all this is as extra-ordinary as it is confronting: there is no other ‘gate’ through which to find true protection and sustenance.
Pass through here and you will find abundant life.