My guess is that whenever most of us associate Jesus and sheep, the first thing that comes to mind about Jesus is that he’s the shepherd.
But that isn’t what the writer of the Gospel of John records as Jesus’ own first association about himself and the sheep. Jesus-the-shepherd comes in second.
The first thing Jesus says about himself in relation to the sheep is that he is the “gate” – not the gatekeeper, mind you, but the gate itself. He is the gate that has permanence, that endures.
All this takes place in the 10th chapter of the Johannine text, where Jesus-as-the-gate is described in the first ten verses and Jesus as the good or model shepherd comes only afterward.
What I find interesting about this first image of Jesus’ self-portrayal is how his hearers – presumably the Pharisees – don’t get his point and how Jesus has to make it explicit for them. (I suspect their confusion is our confusion as well, but more on that later.)
Jesus has told the audience with a kind of marked seriousness that “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a bandit,” and that only the one who goes through the gate is the true shepherd of the sheep.
Now it’s also true, according to Jesus, that one can tell the real shepherd (in distinction from the false ones who are actually bandits and thieves) by seeing that the sheep follow the genuine article, because the sheep recognize his voice and because the true shepherd calls his (or her) own sheep by name. The sheep follow where the authentic shepherd leads them. They don’t follow the “strangers” (presumably the bandits and thieves) because they run away from voices they don’t recognize.
One can sympathize with the listening Pharisees at this point, since Jesus has seemingly strayed from his central point about being the gate and seems to be concentrating more on the shepherd.
Jesus, sensing this confusion, comes back around to that central point and tells his hearers: “The truth is, I am the gate” through which both the sheep and the shepherd pass in order to find pasture. “I am the gate” through which the shepherd and the sheep pass in order to be saved from being stolen, and then slaughtered, and then destroyed. “I am the gate through which the shepherd and the sheep pass in order to have fullness of life.”
With this clarification by Jesus, the hearers ought to be able to comprehend that Jesus as the “gate” has set an enduring criterion for determining who, in fact, are good shepherds, true guides, model leaders.
For that matter, Jesus is also providing an enduring criterion for being a good sheep, a model parishioner, and true citizen.
According to his straightforward standard, the shepherd is the leader who guides her or his flock to fertile pastures and flourishing life – as opposed to the thieves and bandits who lead the sheep to the bloody halls of the slaughterhouse and heaping piles of dead bodies.
Similarly, according to the straightforward standard, the good sheep, the true disciple, the model citizen is the one who recognizes the voice of the shepherd headed toward verdant pastures and fullness of life, and who flees from those strangers – the thieves and the bandits – who, serving only themselves, lead the ones they snatch to death and destruction.
Not a bad criterion for assessing clergy and lay leaders now! Is it self-service, or service on behalf of others? Is it taking advantage of children for one’s own pleasure and satisfaction, or is it giving of one’s self for the nourishing of the young? Is it attracting crowds for self-aggrandizement and adulation, or is it self-sacrifice for the flowering of the parish, its families, and its neighborhood?
And a pretty good standard for assessing civic and political leaders today! Does that leader act for the benefit of the few or the many? For that small group that already has much – opportunity, wealth, health, power – or those multitudes who have little chance, limited resources, poor health, and no influence? For the common good or just the good of the uncommonly privileged?
Something comparable applies in the present for the sheep: whether they are distinguishing between the authentic shepherds over against the thieves and bandits, so they can make the right decision about following or fleeing. Or if they have forgotten the voice of the genuine shepherds and are now finding themselves in the arms of death and destruction.
Whether in the parish or in the public square, it makes one wonder, today, about who is using the gate, doesn’t it?