“I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate to him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore, Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate, whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."”(NIV)
ARE YOU HEARING THE BLEATING TOO?
One may wonder how fortuitous it is that Christianity emerged on Middle Eastern soil known for it’s sheep and shepherds. On the one hand, there are those who critique the analogies which arise from such happenstance. Sheep may be loveable creatures, but they seem to lack independent spirit. They mooch along relentlessly seeking grass. They are relatively defenseless against wolves and coyotes. They easily lose their way. It’s because they are, thus, dumb and defenseless that they need a shepherd and a sheep dog. “Don’t call me a sheep,” some now loudly protest, “and I don’t need a shepherd either. I can do perfectly well on my own, thank you!” The analogy is not popular with some.
I’ve considered other analogies, and wondered what it would be been like had the people of God found their homeland in another clime. Like Silicon Valley. How interesting would it be to be led by a techno-dweeb? Like Zimbabwe. Would we like to be harassed by a ruthless dictator, like Robert Mugabe (to whom neighboring Prince Charles awkwardly “passed the peace” during the Pope’s funeral mass this past Friday)?
On the other hand, there is something lovely about the imagery of sheep that trust without fail. About a shepherd who cares without ceasing. About a bond which words can’t fully express. For millions of us who have never seen a sheep except in a petting zoo, the Biblical imagery is not too much of a stretch for our understanding. In today’s text, despite any fear about surrendering too much of our independence to shepherd-like divinities, we can appreciate some of the profound meanings of Jesus as gate to the sheepfold and voice to the sheep. It’s worth asking whether this Middle Eastern imagery can have power even in our urban, cosmopolitan, and industrial centers. In fact, isn’t it possible that we long precisely for the kind of relationship between God and us that such imagery promotes?
Preventing chaos at the gate
Jesus begins in this text with the image of the gate of the sheepfold. This is such an important image that it’s fascinating to me what artists and writers have done with it. One of my treasured art pieces is an etching done by Sebald Behm about 1500, showing this text’s meaning within the understanding of the time before the Reformation had really begun (Luther was only about 17 at that time). The woodblock print shows Jesus standing at the doorway of a sheepfold (which is actually a church) determining who can go inside. A text beneath the picture by the poet Hans Sachs explains what’s happening (for the really dumb sheep)! On the roof are monks and bishops, indeed the pope himself, chopping their way in and escaping with big bags of money. In the distance Christ is being re-crucified by such violence to his church, and the sheep that should have been in the sheepfold are now outside, in the raw elements, gathered around the crucified shepherd.
Of course, this is a kind of early cartoon, and it’s wonderful not only because it tell us how the people in the early 1500s interpreted this text, but also a great deal about the politics and religious life of the day. Much has changed since that cartoon was printed, and we would no longer criticize the Roman Catholic hierarchy for trying to use means other than Christ to gain access to God. (The Joint Declaration attempted to put a stop to that.) However, the picture does encourage us to consider who the text’s “thieves and murderers” in our own time are—and whether we really want to insist on our independence to the extent that we allow no one to look out for our welfare.
I’m currently preparing to teach a course entitled “Alternative Visions.” It seeks to help the students understand why in the United States we have evolved this huge panoply of fringe religions not only in the 60s and the 70s, but also throughout our history. Participants will learn there are two essential reasons for this. One has to do with the rapid cultural, economic, social and political changes that took place in certain eras such as the 1830s-40s. The other has to do with individual needs, interests, and passions at given historical moments. The reality, however, is that the first reason is interpreted only through the second, so that religious diversity, even sectarian chaos, if you will, is ultimately produced by the insistence on one’s right to take a stand and shape a new direction. And this needs to be said out loud to those who insist on personal independence over against being shepherded by a tender of sheep, no matter how caring the tending.. The end result of our insistence on the freedom to express ourselves as we choose has not been the end of religion (as some might have hoped), but the creation of one new religious movement after another to meet the changing interests of the moment.
In the face of this, Jesus says, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”
It sounds very exclusive, and it is, but consider the meaning in context. A typical sheepfold out in the hills of Judea was simply piled-up rock in a circle with an entranceway. At night, the shepherd lay in that entranceway. Wolves or coyotes would have to attack him first. Strays couldn’t enter the fold without waking him. Granted that this analogy from nature has some limitations and problems, if I knew that my God loved me so much and cared for me so much that he was willing to lay down his life for me, I would surrender my need to insist on independence. I would stop seeking to prove that I need no one at all because I can go it alone. There’s enough evidence to show that when left to ourselves we just continue to create one goofy extreme after another—as we, like thieves and robbers, stumble over the shepherd who is the gate.
Longing for the sound of the shepherd’s voice
Then there is the matter of the shepherd’s voice. When left to ourselves, we who insist on independence, often create a sect or cult, which is resoundingly authoritarian. Granted that new societies need aggressive leadership, there is a difference between caring encouragement on the one hand, and coercive control on the other. Jim Jones, David Koresh and the Heaven’s Gate group leader all led their people to suicide. When these people died, there was no one lovingly calling them by name. It was group-think! The mind of the mass working with the dictatorial leader shouting out commands! This was not heard from the shepherd calling his sheep. This was no stranger’s voice. He knew their names.
Today, I conducted services at a church to help a pastor friend who is in the hospital for surgery. During the education hour, I visited with a five-year-old boy, Pete, and his three-year-old sister, Cassandra. He told me that it was also his father’s name, and that it was an important name. Cassandra mumbled many marvels. When, later, during the Eucharist in the service following, they came to the rail along with their mother; I gave them each a blessing, calling them by name. They were stunned that I would know who they were, and so are we when Jesus claims to know us as his sheep, by name. There is something important about personalization in our religious life, knowing that we are accepted and loved by one to whom we are not strangers. There is no place for strangers in our faith. Isn’t that amazing!
There is something stunning in nature about mothers and children knowing one another’s voices. At primitive levels, mother bats find their babies in the midst of hundreds of thousands of different ones, by the sounds emitted. Research shows that blindfolded human mothers can identify their infants in group settings by the sound of the cry. It is awesome to think, extending such a principle exponentially, that the God of the universe knows us by our baptized names and responds to our needs. There is something deeply moving about the notion that, independent as we may chose to be, deeper yet within us is the longing to hear ourselves called and claimed by the voice of God. St. Augustine said something similar when he wrote, “Oh God, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Finding our focus in community
As Christians, we can’t simply drop this subject at the point when we feel comfortable with having been cared for by a crucified and resurrected shepherd. Knowing how we are claimed and called leads us to a whole new way of life. Of course, if our God were a techno-dweeb or a vengeful dictator or a disinterested divinity who “once declared that he was true, then drew the curtain and withdrew” (Robert Frost), we would have no need to take this a step further. Here too, the shepherd/sheep analogy is fortuitous for it encourages us to seek caring, nurturing relationships with others. Those who look at the negative side of the analogy must also struggle with trying to find positive analogies in other realities. If God is indifferent to us, for example, what an encouragement that is for us to be indifferent to one another!
The Jews had a legend, which gives perspective to our concern at this point. When Moses was feeding the sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro, a young kid ran away. Moses followed it to a spring where it found water. Having let it take its fill, Moses carried it back on his shoulders. God then told Moses, “Because you have shown pity in leading back one of a flock belonging to a man, you shall lead my flock, Israel.” (Barclay, 55) As we learn from God’s own loving shepherding in our lives, we are given opportunities to care for others. In this way, our community grows in its ability to stand in the gate to provide mutual protection and to call one another by name, demonstrating our sense of concern.
Admittedly, there are some problems with viewing ourselves as sheep in need of a shepherd. However, there are insights that come from recognizing that I really can’t escape being part of a flock. The shepherd/sheep analogy affirms my place in community. There is no such thing as a solitary sheep. And if there is, it’s lost, and the shepherd has to find it. This much of this analogy is clear to me. I tend to goof things up when I go it alone, just re-inventing the mistakes others have made before me. And this much is also clear to me. Knowing that I am merely an unimportant accidental number in the universe puzzles me: Knowing that I am loved and affirmed by the one who also gave me life empowers me—empowers me to become a shepherd in the making. It’s kind of fun when you think about it. There are sheep all around us, bleating and baahaaahing away. They belong to us and we to them, and I can’t help wondering if there’s a name I need to call or a helping hand to offer? How about you? Are you hearing it too?
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus
Concordia University at Austin