by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“O God, my shepherd, I don’t need anything. You let me lie in fields of lush grass, you lead me to restful waters to revive me.” Psalm 23
“I am the gate of the sheepfold…I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full. John 10, 1-10
Because of the theme running through the gospel of the day, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday”. Over centuries, the image of Jesus as shepherd has accumulated lots of emotional overtones. Christians have found comfort in a warm, gentle, cuddly Jesus, who cares for his sheep and knows them all by name. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, to hold tightly only to that particular image of Jesus is to do him a disservice and to miss some of the complexity of this part of John’s Gospel, which takes up the theme of Jesus, the shepherd.
As we hear today’s gospel reading we quickly pick up that John is mixing several images as he presents Jesus as the shepherd of his sheep and the gate and gatekeeper of the sheepfold which safeguards the sheep. This may cause confusion for some of us.
But first let’s look at what prompts Jesus to speak about himself in this way. The whole of chapter 9 of John’s Gospel gives a detailed account of Jesus’ cure of the man who had been born blind, and the conflict which followed when some Pharisees and leading Jews took exception to the fact that Jesus had cured the man on the Sabbath. This, in turn, led to the victimisation and rejection of the cured man when he eloquently testified to Jesus as being the one who had been sent by God to raise up the people of Israel. For his outspokenness, the poor man was made to pay dearly – he was excluded from both the synagogue and the community to which he had just been restored after a life-time of exclusion. His critics were particularly hostile in their condemnation of him: “ ‘Are you trying to teach us, and you a sinner through and through, since you were born!’ And they drove him away” (John 9, 34).
Those leaders who had interrogated and ostracised the cured man were the very ones whose responsibility was to be the shepherds of their people. It was they who were meant to nourish and safeguard the people in their care. Yet, they were more intent on preserving their position and power than they were on shepherding their own people. That’s the context in which Jesus was prompted to describe his own role as shepherd. Today’s gospel reading, then, is an interpretation of the story of the cure of the man born blind, spelling out how true shepherds of people are required to meet the responsibilities that are integral to the role entrusted to them.
Jesus began his teaching with a parable, stating that there were people who gained forced entry into the sheepfold seeking only personal gain. The sheep are not used to their voices and, so, just don’t follow them. The narrator of the story then breaks in with the comment that Jesus quickly realised that his audience didn’t really understand the parable he was using. The narrator then tells us that Jesus started his teaching afresh. He used the same image, proclaiming: “I am the gate to the sheepfold”, and pointing out that all who had come ahead of him (the leading Jews and Pharisees) “are thieves and brigands” to whom the sheep took no notice. To stress his point, Jesus repeated: “I am the gate”, adding “whoever enters by me will be saved and will go in and out freely and be sure of finding pasture”. And to further emphasise his message, he repeats: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy”, while he himself has come “ so that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10, 7-10).
We have to remember that John is using this long metaphor to explain who Jesus is, what his mission is and what exactly is our relationship to him. While the image of Jesus as shepherd sits comfortably with us, that of Jesus as gate might strike us as somewhat artificial. However, John is saying that Jesus is both shepherd and gate. Shepherd we understand easily, but as gate Jesus protects the sheep at night from predators and by day opens up for them to follow him to pasture that will nourish them. The implication is that the officially-appointed leaders have only pretended to be leaders who offer nourishment, security and safety but, instead, have preyed on their sheep for their own personal gain. They are locked gates, leading nowhere.
If we fail to link today’s gospel reading to the cure of the man born blind, we run the risk of missing the full significance of the extended metaphor of shepherd, sheep, gatekeeper, gate, thieves, robbers, wolves and strangers, and we might even conclude that the gate is meant to exclude. Indeed, there was a time in history when many Christians lived with a sense of entitlement, believing that they were Jesus’ privileged sheep, and everyone else, those of different faiths and of none, were excluded, locked out! To look at it that way would be to behave in exactly the same way as the Pharisees and Jewish leaders, who locked out from the community the cured blind man. In contrast, Jesus went in search of the man and made him welcome: “Jesus heard that they had driven him away, and when he found him he said to him: ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ ‘Sir, tell me who he is so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said: ‘You are looking at him; he is speaking to you.’ The man said: ‘Lord, I believe’, and worshipped him” (John 9, 35-37).
If we read on from today’s gospel, we will see how Jesus himself makes the point that he excludes nobody: “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and they know me…And there are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and these I have to lead as well” (John 10, 14-16).
As I ponder today’s gospel and the psalm following the first reading (Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd psalm), I am challenged to ask where I situate myself in the story. The gospel reading concludes with Jesus proclaiming: “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10, 10). The life that Jesus speaks about and that John writes about in his Gospel is not the life which we envisage comes after we die. It is life right here and now, the life that our relationship with Jesus fills us with, the life we give to one another in our families, communities, friendships and work teams, it is the life we infuse into others as we encourage and affirm them. If I genuinely pray Psalm 23, saying: “O God my shepherd, I don’t need anything, for you have blessed me abundantly”, what do I do with the abundance with which I have been blessed? Do I share it with those who struggle to make ends meet? Do I share my time and talents with those who feel excluded? Does it occur to me that I, too, have a role in shepherding? Are there sheep whom I exclude through avoidance, sheep I ignore, sheep whose smell I detest, sheep who, I fear, might contaminate me? Am I prepared to be a participant in today’s readings or merely an observer? In what ways do I breathe life into others?