OK, so who’s on first? Or, actually, who’s in the sheep pen, who’s the shepherd, who’s the gatekeeper, who’s the gate, who’s the thief, who’s the stranger and what in the world is Jesus trying to say here? And which one is Jesus? Is he the gate-keeper or the shepherd or the gate or all of the above? Seems like a lot responsibility for one guy.
One thing that’s abundantly clear, however, is that we are the sheep. We’re always the sheep. That’s one part of the story everybody gets right. We are always the sheep. Ba, ba, ba.
Here’s part of why this gospel is a bit confusing. There are two metaphors included in this one teaching with two different messages, so we are going to have to unpack them separately. With a bit of luck good exegesis on my part, maybe we can make some sense out of all the different people and roles in these two metaphors.
But first, let’s talk some background. Some of it may be familiar to you, and maybe not. In ancient Palestine, shepherds were considered among the lowest of career choices, barely above thief or leper. Therefore, most shepherds were dirt poor. So in most villages, shepherds shared a communal sheep pen on the edge of the village. At the end of each day, each shepherd brought his sheep from the pasture and dropped them off at the communal sheep pen. One of the shepherds served as gatekeeper/ guard for everybody’s sheep that night. The next morning, each shepherd went to the communal sheep pen, called his sheep, and the sheep would follow him out of the pen to go to the pasture. Mind you, the sheep were not tagged or branded or marked in any way. They knew their shepherd by his voice and he knew his sheep by sight and by their response to his presence.
Before this teaching, Jesus had just finished healing the blind man and telling the Pharisees—who treated the blind man very badly—that they were the blind ones. Jesus then turned to the disciples and began this teaching about sheep and shepherds.
In the first metaphor, Jesus talks about someone who enters the sheep pen by a way other than the main gate. Jesus calls this one a bandit or thief. Since Jesus has just rebuked the Pharisees, and he starts his metaphor with the remark about the thief and bandit climbing into the sheep pen by another way, it is commonly assumed that the thief or bandit refers to the Pharisees. They were the ones who were trying to steal or harm the sheep. The one who enters by the gate is the true shepherd, who is, of course, Jesus. Jesus enters the sheep pen, calls his sheep and they follow him.
But remember, this is a communal pen. Suppose a rival shepherd entered through the main gate and tried to steal some of the flock of another shepherd? On the surface, this shepherd appears to have every right to be in the sheep pen—and who’s to say which sheep are his and which are someone else’s? Remember, no ear tags or brands on the sheep. In the metaphor, Jesus calls this rival shepherd the stranger. Jesus went on to say the gate keeper opens the gate for the shepherd and the shepherd calls his sheep and his sheep follow him because the sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Sheep may be pretty dumb, but they are smart enough to know and trust the voice of their shepherd. The sheep do not listen to the voice of the bandit or the thief or the stranger. The sheep trust their shepherd’s voice and it is that trusted voice they follow out of the safety of the sheep pen.
Since we are the sheep, we get the point of this first metaphor, right? We are supposed to listen for Jesus’ voice and follow only his voice and not the voice of the thief or the stranger. I hear you bleating at me—as sheep do—Preacher, how do we know which is Jesus’ voice and which belongs to the stranger? There are, after all, many voices out in the world, all calling us to follow their way.
Truthfully, I do not think that it is all that difficult to tell which voice belongs to the Jesus the shepherd and which voices belong to the stranger or thief. If someone says “think only about yourself, look out for number one, disrespect others” that is the voice of the stranger. The voices that tout violence as the answer, the voices who think little of hurting others, especially the vulnerable, and the voices which encourage us to hate or discriminate against others—these are not the voice of our shepherd. Jesus never said such things. Quite the opposite.
But the voice says, “love one another as I have loved you” and “love your neighbor as yourself” and “what you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done to me” and “forgive as you have been forgiven” and “pick up your cross and follow me,” is the voice. We know that voice. It is the voice of our Shepherd, calling us to follow. And like good sheep, so we should, no matter how alluring the other voices may be. Those other voices should not be trusted, for they are the voice of the stranger. Only the voice of Jesus can be trusted. And let’s be honest: we DO know the voice of our shepherd even when it calling us to do the hard thing—like loving our neighbors by staying at home.
Now Jesus’ listeners didn’t get the point which quite frankly, since I do, makes me feel like a pretty darn smart sheep. So Jesus switches up his metaphor and gives them a second one: Jesus as the gate.
Now, many shepherds lived with their sheep in the wilderness, as in Luke 2, the Christmas story which says that there were shepherds living in the fields, watching over their flocks by night. There were no sheep pens in the wilderness like there were in the towns. So these shepherds in the wilderness would cobble together some brush, maybe back up against some rocks and create a makeshift pen for the night. Or they would find a cave and put the sheep in there. After the sheep were secured for the night, the shepherd would lie across the entrance to the pen or cave to keep out predators. The shepherd became the gate.
So in the 2nd metaphor, Jesus says he is the gate to the sheep pen. With him, the sheep are safe. With him, the predators are kept at bay. With him there is life. Without him there is death and destruction and wolves waiting. Jesus is the one who became the gate for all of humanity. He is the one through whom we go out and come in. He is the one through whom we have life. He is the one who defeats death, who overcomes all predators, and who offers not only eternal life, but abundant life now.
Mind you, when Jesus talks about abundant life, he’s not talking about having lots of stuff, no matter what those TV preachers may say. Anybody who tells you that God will give you stuff is the voice of the stranger. No, when Jesus talks about abundant life, he is talking about a life that is rooted and grounded in his goodness, in his teaching, in his life, in his love. Abundant life is Jesus-life. A life filled with Jesus. And that’s an abundant life we can experience right now, even in a time of pandemic.
But let’s be clear: Jesus being the Gate does NOT mean that we will never suffer or that we will always be safe from bad things or people. Again, pandemic. But it does mean that the bad stuff will not be faced alone and that it will not last forever. Jesus will bear it with us and will, in the end, bring us into the safety of the sheephold.
Gate and shepherd, Redeemer and Savior, Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus does it all. Compared to that, our job is simple: to be good sheep, following his voice, trusting in his protection, and living our lives in him. We can do that. Amen.