Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. John 10.6
St John the Evangelist, one of the four biographers of Jesus, in this section of the gospel narrative comes across as an absolute genius or complete no brainer. He puts into the mouth of Jesus some amazing words. Hear the words of our Lord in red letters! ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’
Jesus seem to be hot on the subject of being a shepherd, even a good shepherd. There are two possible entrants to the sheepfold, the sheep and the shepherd. And there is the gatekeeper who opens the gate and the shepherd calls his sheep by name and leads them out. The essential point is the relationship, a relationship of trust between the shepherd and his sheep. The sheepfold has multiple flocks gathered in one and each shepherd calls his own and they follow him. Then there are the thieves and bandits who come to steal the sheep. The sheep have no relationship with the thieves and bandits but the shepherd does the sheep hear his voice.
As we come to get grips with this amazing parable, the Evangelist says, ‘Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.’ Here is the problem. Was the Evangelist accusing Jesus of being a thief because his sheep did not understand what he was saying? Or, is there more to this narrative than meets the eye.
The narrative moves on and so does the figure of speech. Now Jesus claims to be the gate and this may explain further why the disciples did not understand. It is possible to accept Jesus as the Shepherd because it is a concept familiar to the disciples. They had learnt to say Psalm 23 from their childhood and Jesus rightly claims his lordship by calling himself the shepherd. Had he stopped there, all would be well. He did not and hence the disciple had a problem seeing Jesus as a gate. The figure of speech moved on to an inanimate comparison.
I found myself in good company of the disciples, faced with this problem of Jesus as a gate, a gate as I know and have heard sermons about it. For a gate to have a purpose and meaning it needs walls to make a boundary with inside and outside categories. The emerging market for gated communities is a sign of barriers in the society. The church in general, and some churches in particular have this need to be ‘gated communities’ where there is a clear distinction between the ones inside those who aren’t. And the grounds for such notion of a church is our figure of speech in focus – Jesus said, ‘I am the gate’ and somehow these communities become gatekeepers.
There is a problem when we choose to follow this figure of speech and explore it in the context. The gated sheepfold designed to prevent thieves and bandits from stealing is rare to come by. If the Evangelist put the words in the mouth of Jesus as an hyperbole, then we may deduce it to the common sheepfold found around the world which are designed to keep the sheep together and protect them from wild animals like those stories said by David the shepherd who later became the king of Israel. In that context, there are pens with low walls and a narrow entrance for the sheep to go in and out. Here the figure of speech gets close to reality. In this image of a sheepfold, the sheep will go into the walled area for protection from the wolf, for instance and will come out for feeding, led by the shepherd. The gate to this walled area is not an inanimate wooden or metal structure but the shepherd himself would sit or lie down at the entrance, thus preventing the sheep from being lost and the wolf from coming in.
If a sheep fancies a night out, it would have to step over the shepherd and it is unlikely. Similarly, should a wolf come looking for a leg a lamb, it is more likely to get a bite of the leg of shepherd rather than the leg of lamb. And this seem to make sense.
When Jesus said, ‘I am the gate’ he certainly did mean it. As a shepherd, he would be the gate to his sheepfold, risking his very own life for the love his sheep. He would let his sheep go in and out and find pasture.
Should the world remain in peril and darkness, it is the disciples who fail to understand the figure of speech used by Jesus. Jesus said, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.‘ The abundant life that Jesus offers is yet to be known fully and received by all his creation because his disciples do not understand his figure of speech.