1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 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 listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we are in the fourth Sunday of Easter and for the past weeks we have been reading about testimonies of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, but today we are on a different discourse from John’s gospel. Last week’s readings were based on a journey experience of certain two men and stranger from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Later on, the man who appeared to be a stranger revealed Himself as the resurrected messiah. Today’s gospel reading takes us to a rural setting of shepherding the flock. Those who had some rural experiences in the past connects well with the shepherd image. There are Several ‘I am sayings’ (ἐγώ εἰμι-Greek) in the gospel of John. I am the bread of life (6:35); I am the living bread (6:51); I am the light of the world (8:12; 9:5); I am the Son of God (10:36); I am the resurrection and the life (11:25); I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6); I am the true vine (15:1); I am the gate (10:9); and I am the good shepherd (10:11).
Exegesis of the Text
This is one of my favourite gospel passages because the metaphor of a shepherd connects well with my shepherd background in the early years of my life. However, there are several things that need to be unpacked in these metaphors since it was said in a different cultural context where certain details vary. I will highlight those details as I interpret the two metaphors. In today’s gospel, Jesus uses two metaphors for himself in this passage. First, he is the shepherd who enters by the gate which the gatekeeper opens for him (v. 2-6), and second, he is the gate (or door) by which the sheep enter into salvation and go out to find pasture (v. 7-9). The use of these two metaphors is confusion, because if Jesus is the shepherd who enters by the gate, how can he also be the gate? However, the use of these two images is part of a rich layered extended metaphor that speaks of sheep, shepherd, gate, gatekeeper, strangers, thieves, bandits, and wolves.
Firstly, there is the mention of the sheepfold and the door. The issue of a gatekeeper is foreign in my context because back home kraals are built in a fenced area therefore there is no need of a gatekeeper. The context of a sheepfold and gatekeeper does not match a solitary shepherd watching over a small flock. What is being pictured here is a large sheepfold capable of accommodating several flocks. It is more of a community sheepfold rather than an individual family sheepfold. The gatekeeper recognizes the shepherd and opens the gate for him. Second, the shepherd calls his sheep by name and they would recognize his call and gather around him. This is another difference with my home context because we don’t give names to sheep and goats. We simply recognize them by their external appearances. Only cattle and donkeys are given names in our context.
In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name. The point of this verse is that the good shepherd knows the sheep with the same kind of intimacy that we have with friends and neighbors. Remember that Mary Magdalene recognizes the risen Christ only when he calls her by name (20:16).
G. A. Smith tells of watching shepherds in Judea. Several shepherds would converge on a water hole and the flocks would get intermixed. Smith wondered how the shepherds would separate them once again into their individual flocks. The answer came when it was time for a shepherd to move on. He would use his distinctive call, and the sheep from his flock would make their way to him
Third, the shepherd leads them out. Another big distinction with my context where the shepherd doesn’t lead the flock but drives them. For years I struggled to understand this part of the metaphor until I witnessed shepherds leading their flock in Agra India. While inside the sheepfold, the sheep have the protection of its walls. When the shepherd leads them out of the sheepfold, the shepherd is their only protection. Once the sheep have recognized the shepherd’s call and have separated themselves from the other flocks and gathered around the shepherd, the shepherd leads them out of the sheepfold to pasture and water. He leads rather than drives them and goes ahead to ensure that the path is safe. He repeats his call periodically to keep the sheep together. The sheep recognize his voice and follow him.
Then Jesus changes the metaphor. He was the shepherd, but is now the gate. Villages often have a large communal sheepfold with a strong door. Instead of a well-made door, they have only an opening. The shepherd makes his bed in the opening—blocks the opening with his body—protects the sheep with his life. He is the door to the sheepfold. The purpose of the sheepfold is to be a safe haven in a dangerous world. It protects sheep from thieves and predators. The function of the gate is to keep the sheep together in the sheepfold during the night, safe from thieves and predators. During the day the gate is opened so that the sheep can go out, following their shepherd, to find pasture. The gate and the shepherd work together for the well-being of the sheep, so that the flock thrives. Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd at the same time; he guards and protects his sheep from danger, and he provides for their nourishment, for their life in abundance.
It is important to note that the metaphor of the gate is not one of exclusion, not a license to think of ourselves as Jesus’ true sheep and others as outsiders.
Rather, the purpose of the gate is to guard against all that threatens the well-being of the sheep — thieves, bandits, and wolves. The question then is; as sheep do we recognize the voice of our shephered. Are we not like those two men who travelled all the way from Jerusalem to Emmaus without reccognizing their shepherd -Jesus? We live in a world full of wolves, theives, robbers, and predators and our protection and wellbeing is in Jesus our true shepherd. As we continue to celebrate the risen Lord, let us continue to listen to his voice. Amen.
The Rev’d Canon Dr Ishanesu Sextus Gusha
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