- Meister Eckhart
“Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good—a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.” Jesus told this simple story, but they had no idea what he was talking about. So he tried again. “I’ll be explicit, then. I am the Gate for the sheep. All those others are up to no good—sheep stealers, every one of them. But the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for—will freely go in and out, and find pasture. A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of. “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary. A hired man is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him. “I am the Good Shepherd.”
- John 10.1-14a (The Message)
When I was in graduate school, Dominic Crossan delivered a lecture series on the parables of Jesus at my university. His work on the parables is first rate, top drawer, and comes highly recommended. And this lecture series was no different. An exchange during this series made a lasting impression on my spirit, and has stuck with me for years. In one lecture Professor Crossan discussed the various ways that Jesus’ parables can confuse and call into question our long cherished ideas, thus allowing new meanings to take their place. And they can do this again and again. One pastor in the audience was scandalized by the very thought that the parables refuse to be reduced to one and only one meaning now-and-forever-more-amen. They can continue to interact with our spirit – and mess with our confident knowledge – and introduce new, profound notions that enrich our understanding and our faith if we will simply allow it.
This passage from chapter 10 is as close as John comes to a parable. Even though it focuses on Jesus rather than the Reign of God (as in the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke), it shares some of the characteristics that make Jesus’ parables so enigmatic, profound, and a fertile ground for new meaning. Specifically, this narrative identifies Jesus as both the gate through which the sheep enter, and the good shepherd that cares for and protects the sheep. This ambiguity tends to throw us off balance - we are much like the scandalized pastor, and want one, clear identification and one definitive meaning - and in this way create an opening for new, more profound meaning.
Jesus as shepherd… well, we know just how to make this image boring and mundane. This Jesus is harmless, gentle and oh so sentimental and, to be honest, would fit best in a velvet painting (much like the ones that depict Elvis’ blue swede shoes). Forget the fact that this shepherd cares passionately for the sheep, and protects them even if self-sacrifice is involved. There is nothing sentimental about this shepherd.
Jesus as sheep gate blows sentimentality out of the water. Get past the double image of Jesus and the confusion it causes, and what appears is the notion that Jesus is not only the shepherd that protects us, but is as well the protection itself. Think about that… the shepherd who protects is identical with the One from whom all things come – our creator God – and the unique, reliable source of protection .
This shepherd, this Jesus can be trusted absolutely with all we are and all we have. This Jesus would never abandon or inflict pain into our life. This Jesus cannot be painted in sad, somber colors, and depicted as an ill-tempered judge (and jury!). This Jesus can only be painted in vibrant, rich colors that reflect fulfillment, peace and joy. Need I say more? Perhaps… perhaps we should pray:
“We’re ready God… ready to worship. We’ve all brought along our coloring book; that palette nestled deeply in our heart on which we draw your image. We rarely show this sketch to others, because we’re not sure what colors to use, or what name to choose as a title. We can easily see you in dark, somber colors. Such images are as varied as they are numerous, yet they reveal a common thread of distant, brooding authority, hungry for adulation and ready to pass judgment. Then that weaver of tales comes along and draws a shepherd in simple, gentle words; a guardian strong yet loving, firm yet protective, always given to laughter and joyful exuberance. Such a one is beyond our ability to draw. The colors required surpass our wildest imaginings in their brilliance and beauty. And the names…. the names are as numerous as the stars, as deep as love, as broad as compassion. Draw this image in our heart, O God, so that we may draw near to you, and find in you all that we need…”