Sometimes, Jesus’ train of thought can be a little hard to follow. First, he’s talking about blindness. Then he’s talking about sheep and shepherds. And when the people listening get confused, he explains. Instead of saying more about shepherds, however, he starts talking about the gate that leads into the sheep pen.
If this were a college course in religion, I can only imagine what kind of student evaluations he’d get at the end of the term.
But of course, this is something different. This is a shepherd calling to his sheep. And those who know his voice will listen.
From the very beginning of John’s gospel, the reader is confronted with the matter of Jesus’ identity. This man called Jesus is the eternal Word of God made flesh. Will people receive him as such? And in particular, will those who are supposedly the leaders of God’s people recognize him for who he is?
Jesus has already made bold, controversial claims for himself. He miraculously feeds thousands and then declares that he is the bread of life (John 6:35). He claims to be the light of the world (8:12), and soon after, gives sight to a man who has been blind from birth. He tells the Samaritan woman that he is the Messiah (4:26) and the formerly blind man that he is the Son of Man (9:37). Some people are saying that he is the Prophet foretold by Moses or even the Messiah. And some just think he’s nuts.
Some Pharisees, like Nicodemus, believe. But most, it seems, don’t know what to make of him. The signs point to him being the Messiah. But he’s not the messiah they want.
And likening himself to a gate probably doesn’t help. Here’s what he says:
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 10:7-10, NRSV)
Again, we have to imagine a stone sheep pen, with a single gap in the wall where sheep could go in or out. Sheep could be kept in such an enclosure even out in the wilderness. If there was no actual gate over the gap, the shepherd could lie down there, serving as the barrier, protecting the sheep.
It’s possible, of course, for a person to sneak around to the other side, and climb over the wall. But such people — variously translated as thieves, bandits, outlaws, and robbers — are only there to harm the sheep. As we’ve seen in the previous post, this is the same kind of imagery as that used by the prophet Ezekiel to describe the self-serving greed of Israel’s leaders, the so-called false shepherds.
To whom is Jesus referring when he speaks of “all who came before me”? We can’t be certain. Anyone who has falsely shepherded God’s people is probably implicated, including those condemned by the prophets of old, the various false messiahs that arose in the meantime, and even some of Jesus’ contemporaries. But his point seems to be less about who the bad guys are, and more about the declaration that there is only one gate, one way by which the sheep may find pasture and be saved.
He may not be the “gate” the Pharisees want, but he’s the only one there is.
It’s easy to read Jesus’ words as saying, “You Pharisees are nothing but thieves! People, ignore them, and listen to me instead!” And there is some truth in that. But I still hear an open and gracious invitation in what he says: “Whoever enters by me will be saved.” Who knows if there might be another Nicodemus among them? To them, the offer of abundant life is still open — life as it should be, life as God meant it to be.
That’s good news to all who have been grazing in the wrong pastures.