by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“I am the sheepgate. All who came before me were thieves and marauders whom the sheep did not heed. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be safe…I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance.” John 10: 1-10
To appreciate the significance of this gospel-reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we would do well to recall that it follows in John’s Gospel immediately after the long account of Jesus’ cure of the man who was born blind (gospel-reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent). In the course of that account, Jesus was highly critical of the inadequate shepherding the Jewish religious leaders had extended to the blind man both before and after his sight was restored. Moreover, the opening verses of today’s gospel-reading, in which Jesus refers to those who break into sheepfolds as thieves and marauders, call to mind a warning given by the prophet Ezekiel to shepherds of Israel who were more interested in themselves than in their people: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves. Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured…Thus says the Lord God: ‘I swear I am coming against these shepherds. I will claim my sheep from them and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep so that they may no longer pasture themselves’” (Ezekiel 34: 1-31). Today’s gospel-reading describes how Jesus was the servant- shepherd raised up by God to care for the people of Israel who had been neglected by their appointed leaders for far too long.
But today’s gospel-reading, the other accompanying readings, along with the Good Shepherd Psalm, present us with other challenges. To begin with, today’s gospel reading, taken from John chapter 10 and later verses of the same chapter, contain two of the “I am” statements made by Jesus: “I am the sheepgate” (sometimes presented as “I am the door” and “I am the gate”) and “I am the good shepherd”. There are at least five more of these in John’s Gospel: “I am the vine”, “I am the bread of life” for example. They are metaphors which have to be pondered and depthed for their meaning. But we have all discovered that, in a very real sense, Jesus is the gateway to God. In no sense is he a “gate” to keep us from access to God. Once we accept him as shepherd, we may be a little reluctant in extending the metaphor to the logical conclusion that we are “sheep” – creatures that easily wander away and get lost, that are not easily gathered up without the assistance of a capable dog. And, when we come to the “Good Shepherd Psalm”, we might best approach that prayer with a little caution. When we venture into it, we would do well to remember that we are stepping up to pray a psalm that is an integral part of Jewish culture and history. It is still prayed by the people of Israel – a people whose name Israel means “those who have struggled with God”. While we, too, might struggle at times to put our faith in God, the Israelites had a long history of struggle with God. They complained that God had deserted them, had led them out of Egypt only to let them die in the wilderness. They were so disillusioned, after putting their trust in God, that they adopted pagan gods and even worshipped golden calves. They struggled to live in peace, they struggled to grow into firm faith in God. They struggled with God to be given access to food and water. They struggled with God to get assurance of a secure future. They sporadically referred to themselves as sheep in the care of a God who shepherded them, but they proved to be hesitant when it came to believing unequivocally in the Shepherd to whose leadership they could not fully commit themselves. Whenever they were conscious of being lost, they showed a marked tendency to run away in panic.
But they are not alone. We, too, know the experience of being lost, confused, panicked, overlooked, seemingly forgotten by God. It might have been when we were made redundant by our employer, when serious illness struck us down, when a close friend betrayed us, when death claimed a family member or a close friend, when feelings of guilt have tormented us. When we find ourselves “in the valley of darkness” we have to have learned to hold tightly to the assurance that “you (God) are at my side” Ps 23: 4. In my experience, and in the experience of the people of Israel, that is and was something more easily said than done.
When we hear the assertion made by Jesus in today’s gospel-reading: “I am the sheepgate” (John 10:7) and later in the same Chapter of John’s Gospel: “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:14), we have to decide for ourselves just who we believe he is. We have all come to appreciate that Jesus, the man, was fully human, and that he eventually discovered that he had been invited by God to be the Messiah for whom the Jewish people had been waiting. They had been waiting so long that they failed to appreciate that he really was the Messiah, the Christ of God. In that sense, he could be described as God’s man doing God’s work. But many Christians still seem to want to believe that the uniqueness of Jesus was based on his “divine connections”. The only conclusion that can be drawn from that mistaken belief is that God’s work in the world was based on “who-you-know” or “the connections you have cultivated”. It’s a bit like one of us saying: “The President or the Prime Minister is a relative of mine, so I can get him/her to do a few favours for me. All I have to do is ask!”
However, if we bother to look closely at today’s gospel-reading and the remainder of Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, we will come to realise that the uniqueness of Jesus lay in the fulness of his humanity. Moreover, he picked up and shouldered burdens, challenges and problems not of his own making, without complaining. That’s an experience which we have all had to undergo, except that most of us are quick to complain when others dump their problems and responsibilities on us. Feeling sorry for ourselves when things like that happen to us, we do our share of bleating. When he was courageous enough to take upon himself the sins and failings and fragilities of humanity, he sensed how that would all end up, but he did not allow himself to get drawn into attributing blame. Instead, he reached out in forgiveness to those whose, ignorance, pettiness and inadequacy led them to betray him and dump their failure and inadequacy on him. The consequence of that was that he became the target of the same kind of criticism that had been directed for centuries by his Jewish ancestors at the God for whom he worked. Isn’t it fascinating that similar criticism continues to be directed at God, the God of Jesus, when that God does not deliver in our time and on our terms on the demands that we and our fellow human beings make? In today’s second reading from the First Letter of Peter, we hear its author saying as much: “If you put up with suffering for doing right, this is acceptable in God’s eyes. It was for this you were called, since Christ suffered for you in just this way, and left you an example, to have you follow in his footsteps. He did no wrong; no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was insulted, he returned no insult. When he was made to suffer, he did not counter with threats. Instead, he delivered himself up to the One who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2: 20-23). When we feel that our integrity or reputation has been slighted, we launch into being “bush lawyers” and demand retribution and our own justice. Somehow, we have to come to realise that we have grown to full human maturity only when we can acknowledge that complexity and contradiction are inescapable aspects of the human condition. Once we can see that Jesus is the gate who protects us from being deceived by anyone who wants to convince us that we can get through life without having to learn to cope with our own frailty and the frailty of those around us, we have grasped the significance of his assertion: “I am the sheepgate”. Those who offer us escape routes are strangers to humanity. Jesus was no such stranger. As our sheepgate, he protects us from those intent on deluding us with false hope and empty promise.