“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. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
We are in the midst of a politicized debate about whether or not to open our churches in the time of pandemic. Most churches worry about the risks of transmission and have remained closed in order to protect. But, there are a few congregations who have stayed open and they question if the rest of us have become motivated by fear instead of faith. The implication, of course, is that real Christians have always taken risks for their faith. Why shouldn’t we be willing to do likewise for the Lord? Both congregations will argue they are being Good Shepherds and both will argue they hear the voice of Jesus. Many claim to speak in his name but who is walking through the gate and who is a bandit and a thief? This is a critical problem of discernment and it shows up in every aspect of our lives. Who can we trust? Who actually protects and who really has backdoor agendas?
In the first century the ‘scribes and pharisees’ had the responsibility of interpreting God’s care—they were the designated shepherds of the Jewish faith. Throughout the gospels Jesus challenges the competence and the authority of such people. In the previous chapter Jesus accuses the scribes and pharisees of being blind to their spiritual responsibilities. The blind man sees in a new way and rejoins the community— but the very community that was supposed to protect (the scribes and the Pharisees) failed to see him and kept him isolated and alone. These authorities cast out the blind man because if they acknowledged his new vision, they would be required to see the world differently. The ‘false’ shepherds were more concerned about retaining their position than they were the gift of new vision. The verses in today’s passage extends that challenge. By contrast, Jesus is a shepherd who protects his sheep. He does not have a backdoor agenda. He does not enter the safe space with ulterior motives.
But, when “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Jesus is more explicit: “All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” It is a bold claim. In the twenty first century, we are familiar with Jesus’ claims—
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:);
He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matt 7:29); “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matt 28:14)
Or more generally “You have heard it said….but I say unto you.” (Matt 5).
But we forget that we have the advantage of knowing the rest of his life. Imagine hearing this claim in the first century. Hundreds of years of tradition are to be read through the lens of Jesus.
Jesus must have sounded preposterous at the time. Most of us have been fooled by false claims. Scammers prey on our greed (‘Have I got a deal for you–You can lose 30 pounds in 30 days ’); our fears (There is danger lurking, Let me sell you my new patented Corona Virus test kit.”) and our pity (My children are starving, please send money). Then as now, there were many competing claims to superior knowledge and/or great need. Who is conning us? Who is self inflated? Who actually protects? There is hardly a political leader who does not make promises that will never be kept. People claim special knowledge all of the time.
The real life question becomes ‘How is it that we listen to Jesus’ voice in the din of competing voices—all claiming wonderful things for us?’ Jesus offers at least three basic indicators—relationship, regard and reliability. These are the traits that are the foundation of trust.
Jesus’ figure of speech’ suggests that he is like a shepherd who has a relationship with his flock (they know his voice). When we were in Antarctica, we stood in the middle of hundreds of penguins. Even if they were completely on the other side of the colony, the chicks could find their mothers (and vice versa) by their individual voices. When mama called, the chicks came running—not unlike our mothers calling us to dinner when we were out playing as children. The other chicks (and children) carried on as if nothing had happened. Relationships create this type of recognition.
The shepherd also shows regard (he knows them by name). It takes effort to learn names, to learn what identifies each individual. In real life, we need to know who is skittish and who is stubborn. One size does not fit all. When we take the time to know the individual quirks and characteristics of a person, we validate that person. It is one of the things the ‘word made flesh’ offers us. God knows what it is to be us.
And finally the shepherd is reliable— “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” We can have relationships and have regard but a good shepherd follows through day in and day out. The shepherd makes sure the flock is protected each night and can find food each day. The shepherd desires an abundant life for the flock.
That is a high standard. Lots of people can be caring in short bursts, it takes an entirely different level of effort to offer that care when we are exhausted, anxious or at risk.
Hopefully these are familiar concepts but notice that this image is foreign to his listeners. For them life was about right and wrong. Coming closer to God was about obedience. The idea that the way to life, and an abundant life, was about relationship, regard and reliability didn’t make sense. Jesus tries again, comparing himself to the gate which protects the flock but it too fails to penetrate what people thought they knew about life. Later in the chapter we read: 19The Jews were divided because of these words. 20 Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” 21 Others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
We have the same problem when we listen to anyone who claims authority. We must decide if they are ‘thieves and bandits’ with exploitive and self serving motives—or, if they actually have our best interest at heart. We can only make those determinations over time. Jesus walked the walk. He entered our skin, he seeks to know us and seeks to show us an abundant life—even if we refuse to listen. Such a person can be trusted.
Listen to his voice and follow him. Let it be so.