Fourth Sunday of Easter
Many of us are familiar with Gospel passages where Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd. We know the parable he tells of a shepherd who, noticing that one of his hundred sheep has wandered off and gotten lost (as sheep do), leaves the 99 grazing securely in their pasture and looks for the one who has wandered away. Jesus also refers to himself as the Good Shepherd whose sheep know his voice and follow him: “I know my sheep, and mine know me.” This imagery flows from the images of God as shepherd in the Old Testament. Psalm 23 offers perhaps the most famous example: “The Lord is my shepherd…” But in the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Jesus is the Gate for the sheep.
What does it mean that he is the Gate? “Truly I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” John goes on to add: “Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them. So Jesus said again, ‘Truly I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep….A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.'” But in this cluster of metaphor where Jesus is the gate, he is also the shepherd. He says in verse 14, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
If we think of Jesus not as a physical gate that opens and closes, but as the shepherd who is himself the “gate” because it is he through whom the sheep come and go safely each day, he who leads them in and out, then it becomes somewhat easier to conceptualize him as both the gate and the shepherd. But I think there is another meaning at work here as well. Shepherds who are like Jesus — those who enter through him as the gate — are those who are faithful to his call to care for his people in his name. Jesus distinguishes between these true shepherds — such as Peter, to whom he said, “Feed my sheep,” and faithful priests and ministers today — and the thieves and robbers who pillage the sheepfold by breaking into it far away from the gate. These robbers try to steal the sheep and harm them, pretending or assuming that this sheepfold is theirs. But they are violating it; it is not theirs, because they did not enter through Christ.
We know who some of these thieves and robbers are in the text because John tells us that Jesus is directing this metaphor at the Pharisees. Among the Pharisees were many corrupt religious leaders of the time. It is remarkable that the only people toward whom Jesus ever expresses any anger in the Gospels are those who are self-satisfied, without mercy, and corrupt. Into this category fall many of the powerful and those with status, especially Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, who are supposed to be religious leaders. Instead, many of them have been corrupted by their status and indulge themselves in self-righteousness, legalism to the exclusion of compassion, and lord their power instead of serving the people and showing them the love that comes from God. In every Gospel, Jesus indicts their self-satisfaction, accusing them of placing heavy burdens on others and then not lifting a finger to help them. He sees through their flattering exterior to their interior corruption, telling them that although they think they have no need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, they are in fact a brood of vipers who have placed themselves far away from God and far away from God’s mercy. By their own choice they have closed themselves off to God’s transformative love.
But the fact that they are sinners is not the problem, according to Jesus. He continually poured out compassion for people who, knowing their sins separated them from God and knowing their need for God’s mercy, came to him and always received the purifying mercy and forgiveness that they sought. The problem occurs when a person does not know of their sins because they will not allow themselves to acknowledge any sinfulness. They are too busy taking pride in themselves to recognize any sins that may be theirs. Not acknowledging their human need for God’s mercy and so never experiencing its tenderness, they cannot and do not show that mercy to others. The Pharisees constantly criticize Jesus for spending time with “sinners,” never recognizing that they should have been putting themselves in that group too, and joyfully doing so! If they had, they could have experienced the same restorative compassion that Jesus poured out to the “sinful” woman with the alabaster jar, and to the woman caught in adultery, and to the tax collectors, prostitutes, and all the others who represented sheep in need of their Shepherd.
If those who are to care for people in Jesus’ name will be true shepherds and not thieves and robbers who harm them, they must enter through the Gate who is Christ. That means they must truly know Christ, and be truly known by him. It means being unlike the Pharisees and more like the throngs of people who came to Christ broken in some way and placed themselves in his care, and received more than they ever thought they could. And then they pass all that beauty on to others because they received it from him. The shepherds must have his gentleness. Only then will the people perceive in their voices the voice of the Good Shepherd who loves them.
Redeemer, may I always be willing to come to you, hiding nothing because I know I do not need to hide anything. May I always remember to let you into my heart, so that I may be continually transformed by your gentleness.
Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck