Gospel: John 10:1-10

The Shepherd and Sheep Gate

Do you have a pet dog? How have you tried to train that dog? What limits and freedoms do you give your dog?

Ah! The joys of owning a dog.

The Broding household once had a dog. A German shepherd mix named Teddy. Teddy was intelligent, for he was the only dog I knew who barked at the television when an animal (not a human) appeared on the set. I had two options for watching television with Teddy in the room. Either I quickly used the remote control channel button to avoid the animals. Or, I put him on leash. In either case, I tried to control the situation, like a gatekeeper. In many other ways, I led Teddy by calling him, petting him, and encouraging him. Most of the time, Teddy responded admirably. But, sometimes he didn't.

Teddy is gone, but not forgotten. He still has a special place in our hearts.

There was a strong, emotional bond between my family members and Teddy. He wais part of our family. We were his pack. This bond is analogous to the relationship that Jesus has with us. He is our gatekeeper. He is our shepherd. And, we belong to his flock.

Popular Translation

Jesus told the Pharisees:

1 Listen! The thief doesn't enter the sheep pen through the gate. He climbs in another way. 2 But the shepherd of the flock enters through the gate. 3 The guard will open the gate for the shepherd. Then, the shepherd will call his own sheep, each by name. They will hear his voice and follow him out. 4 After the shepherd gathers all his sheep outside the pen, he leads them. His sheep follow him because they know the sound of his voice. 5 The sheep won't follow a stranger. No, they will run away because they don't know the sound of the stranger's voice.

6 Jesus used the image about the shepherd, but the Pharisees didn't understand what Jesus was talking about. So, Jesus told them in a different way:

7 Listen! I am the gate the flock enters! 8 Everyone else is a robber. But the sheep don't listen to them. 9 I am the gate! If anyone enters God's Kingdom through me will find God's life! They will go back and forth freely. And they will find pasture. 10 The thief only comes to destroy my flock. But, I came to give life to my flock. God's life!

Jesus used two images to describe his relationship with us: the shepherd and the gate. In a relationship with him, he leads us. But he puts conditions on that relationship, the responsibilities of discipleship.

Literal Translation

Jesus told the Pharisees:

1 "Amen, amen, I say to you. The (one) not coming through the gate of the courtyard of the sheep but going over (the wall or fence) another (way), that (person) is a thief and robber. 2 But, the one coming through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens (the gate) for this (person), the sheep hear his voice, (the shepherd) calls (his) own sheep, (each) by name, and he leads them out (of the courtyard). 4 When he brings out all (his) own, he walks in front of them and they follow, because they know his voice. 5 They will (certainly) not follow another, but will flee from him, because they do not know the sound of the other." 6 Jesus told them this parable, but they did not know what he was telling them.

10:1 "...that (man) is a thief and robber." Was John redundant? Or did he have two different images in mind?

One of the more interesting theories about different images lay in the tradition of the robber-marauder. In 165 B.C., Judas Maccabee led a successful revolt against the Syrians who occupied Palestine and violated the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees used the tactics of the robber-marauder to strike against the Syrians and their sympathizers, like Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

After the revolt, the Maccabees proclaimed their family royalty and even claimed the power of the Temple priesthood. Both assertions had Messianic overtones. In time, the Maccabean kings (also known as the Hasmonean dynasty) proved to be as corrupt as the Syrians. Fighting within the royal family was one of the determining factors that led to the Roman conquest of Palestine in 65 B.C. and the rise of King Herod.

The image of the robber-bandit with Messianic aspirations raised the dark shadow of the hated Hasmoneans. Their power led to heartache among the people and the eventual destruction of the nation. In this light, the robber-marauders who freed the nation from oppression acted as thieves among their own countrymen.

According to this theory, Jesus used the image as a means to compare the Pharisees with the Hasmoneans. Both had aspirations of power. Both used the image of the Messiah to met their ends. Both would not serve the people or their interests.

These passages comprise a small portion of a debate Jesus had with the Pharisees. John placed these verses immediately after Jesus healed the man born blind in Jerusalem (9:1-41). Remember the Pharisees excommunicated the healed man because he defended Jesus. So, these passages reflected the polemic of Jesus against the leadership of the Pharisees.

Jesus began by getting the attention of the Pharisees with an emphatic phrase: "Amen! Amen! I say to you." [10:1,7] Jesus implied he was witnessing to the Pharisees; he was really telling them "the way it was."

Then, Jesus painted a urban image with two interlocking pastoral symbols (the shepherd and the sheep gate). Imagine a house with a stone-walled courtyard. Various sub-groupings an extended family occupied the "apartments" of the house. To protect the families' animals (in this case sheep), family members brought them into the confines of the courtyard at night. A gatekeeper acted as guard for the family and its valuable assets. [10:3a]

The family considered anyone who did not enter through the gate an enemy. Such an enemy would sneak over the wall in the dark of night to steal valuables and terrorize the family. The Greek word for "thief" implied approach by stealth. The Greek word for robber implied "intimidation." [10:1]

Using the thief and terrorist as background, Jesus introduced the image of the good shepherd. The good shepherd entered through the gate, as he was recognized by the gatekeeper. [10:3a] The good shepherd loved his sheep. He called them with a special sound and he had a name for each of them. [10:3b] The good shepherd walked in front of the flock and they followed. [10:4] Jesus evoked a sense of trust for the shepherd. The gatekeeper and the sheep both believed in the shepherd. But, the sheep would not follow one who stole or intimidated the flock. [10:5]

Here, Jesus cut to the heart of the matter. Who led the faithful to God's Kingdom, the Pharisees or Jesus? Both agreed that God established a covenant relationship with his people build upon mutual self-giving. God intervened in history to save and guide his people. His people, in turned, owed him fidelity. But, the Pharisees and Jesus represented two different types of fidelity.

The Pharisees held God's people could express fidelity only through strict adherence to the commands found in Torah. Sincere, heartfelt fulfillment of the Torah raised duty to an act of worship. And, at the same time, fulfilling God's Law allowed the faithful to glimpse into the mind of the Law-giver. If one could act in true duty, raise adherence to prayer and insight, one could grow closer to God and hasten the day of God's Kingdom.

As the leaders of a Law-keeping community, the Pharisees saw themselves as interpreters and judges. They led through legislation, striving to create a "fence around the Torah" with a set of guidelines that controlled every aspect of daily life. With the multiplicity of guidelines, no one could possibly break the Law by accident.

In one sense, the Law liberated the faithful, for it gave them a certain spiritual path. However, the Law burdened the outcasts. They could not easily enter into a community of Law-keepers, no matter how magnanimous. As a result, they felt hope stolen away and feared the sanctions of the Law. Did God really want the outcasts so distant?

Jesus countered this approach with faith. If one could not trust in themselves to please God (who truly could?), he or she could trust Jesus who did please his Father. The sinner, the outcast, and the Gentile simply aligned themselves with Christ and approached the Father through Christ. Relationship replaced adherence as the road to fidelity.

Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus presented himself as the "Good Shepherd," the messenger who could bring all God's people together in hope. The message of the Pharisees was parochial, but the message of Jesus was universal. Yahweh was the God of all, the God for all. Jew or Gentile. Slave or free. Saint or sinner. Trust in Jesus, the messenger led one to the Yahweh.

There was just one problem with this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. No one really believed a shepherd led a moral life. Shepherds left their wives and families without protection for months on end. Popular rumors had shepherds taking license with their sheep. And, according popular wisdom, shepherds ran from their flocks at the first sign of trouble. No wonder the Pharisees did not understand Jesus! [10:6]

Catechism Theme: The Church's Origin, Foundation, and Mission (CCC 751, 759-762)

Beneath the question of community leadership, lay a deeper one. What does it mean to be God's people?

Originally, the word for Church ("ecclesia" in Greek) meant (a group of) "those called out." The Church teaches that from the beginning of time God chose to call people together and share himself with them. Through Abraham, he called a people to be his own. Through Moses, he liberated that people and welded them into a nation. Through David, he planted the seeds of divine leadership for that people. Through Jesus, he gave his people an intimate presence. Throughout history, God has invited a people closer to himself and provided the means for that intimacy.

God gathered his people over time. Finally, with the incarnation, God would sweep aside any obstacle, whether sin or pride, to an intimate life with all people. He now offers us the same gift: eternity with him. All he asks in return is trust. Trust in himself and trust in his Son, the messenger.

The Church is the community of those who trust.

Have you ever felt that your best was not good enough? Have you ever been in a situation that demanded trust in God? Compare the two experiences.

7 Again, Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you. I am the gate of the sheep. 8 All, as many as came [before me] are thieves and robbers, but my sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the (sheep) gate! If someone goes in through me, he will be saved; he will enter and exit; and he will find pasture. 10 The thief does not comes except that he might steal, slaughter, and destroy. I came that they might have life and they might have it overflowing."

10:8 Who are the "all" in this verse? While the thieves and robbers can be paralleled with those in 10:1, the time frame of "before me" seems to infer other false prophets, leaders, and Messiahs before the appearance of Jesus. Does this phrase include the false leaders in the entire Old Testament? The context of the verses seem to point to the Pharisees, but the false leaders cannot be ruled out.

Now Jesus compared himself to the gate of the sheep courtyard. He controlled access. All others would have to climb the walls and take the sheep by force. Those who preceded Jesus (presumably the Pharisees) stole the sheep and persecuted the family. No one would possibly follow such a ruffian. [10:7-8]

Unlike the thief and persecutor, Jesus provided salvation, freedom, and spiritual sustenance. He came to give his followers a full and complete life, for he gave them eternal life. [10:9-10] Jesus declared he not only brought the message of God's intimacy, he stood as its means.

Catechism Theme: The Church's Origin, Foundation, and Mission (CCC 763-769)

Christ centers the Church in himself. He is its source. His very Spirit is its means. Without Christ, the Church fails to exist. With Christ, the faithful touch God's Kingdom, for he is the presence of the Kingdom to all.

How does Christ center the Church in himself? Through his Holy Spirit. The Spirit gathers all believers into Christ's body. It breathes its fruits and charisms into that Body. The Spirit empowers leadership to proclaims God's Word and act in the place of Christ at sacramental worship. It makes Christ present to the Church, especially at Eucharist. Through the Spirit, Christ reaches out, brings all people to himself, and presents them to the Father.

Has faith in Christ given you times of safety, freedom, or spiritual sustenance? Share those experiences.

An aside:

With one changed word, John painted the scene that rang true with his audience. Sheep were normally field animals, held in countryside corrals. By changing the term "corral" to "courtyard" (in 10:1) John turned sheep into household pets. He also transformed a rural pen with wood fences into an urban apartment house with stone walls. Since, the early Church and the synagogue movement of the Pharisees competed in the cities, this change made some sense.

The early Church communities and the Jewish synagogues gathered as "houses" (i.e., extended families) whose strength faced a hostile, pagan world. A community of believers, whether Jewish or Christian, could combine talent and treasure to survive in a foreign environment. A synagogue or a Christian church also possessed its own world view and cultural practices that gave it a unique flavor, just like a proud family.

At the time John's gospel was completed, however, Christianity just began to break away from Judaism. In the eyes of pagan society, Christianity stood as a cult within Judaism. Hence, in-fighting broke out between the groups. So, according to John, the Pharisees (leaders in the Jewish synagogues) strove to "reconvert" Jewish Christians (steal sheep) and persecute an excommunicated Christian community (terrorize the sheep).

We are the flock of the Lord. But, like sheep, we can wander off in our own direction. And be at the mercy of thieves and false Messiahs. Jesus brings us back, like a good shepherd. And he gives us a true way to the Father. His very self!

The next time you see a sheep flock or a family dog, think of Jesus, the way he treats you, and what he offers you. Who knows? You might be tempted to see pet ownership as a reflection of Christ's care for you. And you might resolve to become a better pet master.

How do you remain in the Lord's flock? Trust in Jesus and his way. That trust has changed you and continues to change you. How can you share that change with others?