I’m a big fan of metaphors. Apparently, the same can be said for the Gospel writer John. Eventually I learned a few hard truths about these figures of speech: (1) no metaphor is perfect; (2) sometimes a metaphor is not at all what it seems at first glance; and (3) mixing metaphors will probably lead you down a path you just shouldn’t go. And that brings me to the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John.
“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. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. –John 10:1-11 NRSV
First off, I can sympathize with Jesus’ listeners, at least in this case. For John tells us, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” This short passage of scripture is filled with metaphors, and readers, too, are left scratching their heads, Abbott and Costello-like as to “who’s on first?” There’s a shepherd, a gatekeeper, a gate, sheep, and thieves and bandits. Furthermore, in his explanation Jesus says “I am the gate” and “I am the good shepherd.”
Keep in mind that anytime a Gospel writer has Jesus say “I am…” that’s a direct tie-in with the ancient Hebrew story of Moses and the burning bush. Remember how Moses wanted to know the name of the Voice coming out of the bush? And the response was “Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” (Actually, that’s what our KJV Bibles say, although a more precise translation is something along the lines of “I cause to be what will be.” Sometimes it’s best to go with short and poetic rather than long and scholarly, and John chapter 10 is one of those places. In the end it just means that Jesus is tied directly to God.)
Certainly the image of Jesus as Good Shepherd is a familiar one. The challenge here is tackling the related issues of “gate” and “gatekeeper.” Probably most Christians are more familiar with another Gospel passage than John 10, and so we turn to Luke 13:
Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:22-30 NRSV)
This is a favorite passage of folks who are drawn to what I’ll charitably term a “Christian gatekeeper theology.” It’s important to know–and make everybody else aware of–who’s going to be saved. The gateway to salvation is mighty narrow, and there will be lots of people who simply won’t qualify. Now it’s one thing to express that opinion and quite another to proclaim boldly and accusingly that you know the exact moral qualifications and parameters. I’ll just cut to the chase on this point by noting I think that’s God’s business, not mine.
Maybe you’ve run into some of these gatekeepers and furthermore don’t pass judgment in their eyes. (On a side note, perhaps you recall the controversy that surrounded popular evangelical pastor Rob Bell who began his book, Love Wins, with the gatekeeper-abhorant thesis that Gandhi is not rotting in Hell, as many Christian true-believers would contend.)
In any event, it’s maybe best to separate the passages from Luke 13 and John 10 as not really addressing the same issues. Notice that Luke is concerned about “who gets in.” As for John 10, Jesus tells us he is both good shepherd and the gate. He doesn’t say he’s the gatekeeper, but it’s possible to surmise that. However, I’m going to go with God in that role. Look closely at what John has to say next: “The gatekeeper [God or alternately Jesus] opens the gate for him [Jesus], and the sheep [that would be us] hear his [Jesus’] voice. He [Jesus] calls his own sheep [followers] 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.”
Instead of a select few squeezing in through the gate to qualify for eternal salvation, John tells us that Jesus leads “his own sheep” out. In Luke 13 it’s all about what human beings can hope for if they get their act together. In John 10 Jesus is essentially describing and explaining a much bigger picture, what later Christians eventually termed the “Incarnation”: God came into the world for the express purpose of leading human beings to abundant life in all its possible richness, fullness, and eternal glory. God in Jesus Christ calls us, his sheep, to follow him out of whatever has fenced us in (and here you can fill in the blanks with whatever restrictions and constrictions that we human beings are prone to) and into an eternal future in the presence of God. That’s not a “pie in the sky at the end of time” thing but begins in the “here and now” addressing the world we currently inhabit.
There’s an old hymn we don’t sing much anymore in church (I’ll skip the possible reasons why that may be the case, saving that discussion for another time; I’ll just note it tends to be a bit old-fashioned and “sing-songy”):
Jesus is calling, O hear him today.
Calling for you. Calling for you.
Will you not quickly the summons obey?
Jesus is calling for you.
On this fourth Sunday of Easter it’s a good time to back up a bit and realize “It’s not really about us,” either individually or collectively. Rather it’s about what God has done in Jesus Christ, who in turn calls for us to follow and participate in the divine plan of salvation, the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
Adapted from the ForeWords archives:
My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book.The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use.