I think it’s the weather and the return of green grass, but for some reason, at this time of the year I always start getting two very specific idyllic daydreams. One is of having a breakfast or two with a Hobbit in a Hobbit-hole (I have no teaching point from this one, but doesn’t that sound nice?), the other is only slightly more probable to ever occur and that is one of roaming the hills of Ireland with a trusty sheepdog rounding up my flock of sheep. I know that to many of you that sounds like a really strange daydream (or possibly a nightmare) but five of you get me. At any rate, I’d venture to guess that the majority of you when asked to picture a shepherd with his flock, imagine something similar to what I described.
In what has become Chapter 10 of the gospel of John in our modern Bibles, we read a passage where Jesus likens himself to a shepherd in order to answer the question that has been asked in Chapter 9, “Who is this Jesus and did he in fact come from God?”. He begins with a parable in which he contrasts the true shepherd of the flock to thieves. He says that the true shepherd enters through the gate or door and calls to his sheep who in turn follow him. In contrast, a thief enters by another way and when he calls to the sheep, they flee from him. Jesus’ listeners didn’t understand the parable and likely some of the meaning is lost on us because of the unfamiliar context. So let’s step back for a second.
Many of you are probably familiar with the idea of Jesus as shepherd either due to a number of biblical references to exactly that or to an oil painting you once saw. As such, when reading the parable our minds immediately jump to the picture of King Jesus as the shepherd. That’s not wrong; and Jesus eventually gets there, but first he does a rather peculiar thing and says “I am the door of the sheep.” It’s a little odd right? Even in our Western context we get the idea of the shepherd as a leader, but a door or gate?
At the time Jesus spoke, people would have had a different picture of shepherding than we do. In that time it was common for several shepherds to place all of their sheep together in one sheepfold at night. This would typically have been a walled area with only one door or gate. When a shepherd would return the next morning, he would call out to his sheep and, recognizing his voice, the sheep would come out of the door and follow him. If another person called to the sheep they would not follow. At night, a gatekeeper or under-shepherd would often act himself as the gate, lying across the entrance to keep the sheep in and predators out.
By referring to himself as the door, Jesus does a couple of things. First he claims that he is the true way and that all other ways are ultimately lies. If a sheep were to go out of a sheepfold through any way other than the gate it would be because a thief has taken him. Jesus says later that, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” He is affirming the truth that only through himself, can we have the abundant life to which he has called us. All of the other paths will eventually lead to death. There is also a promise here though as well. As the door, Jesus is evoking imagery of safety. Remember it is the shepherd, or under-shepherd, himself that provides the actual security of the door. Jesus is emphasizing here the peace and fulfillment of a life lived in him. As we go into the world, living the lives he calls us to, he assures us that it is he himself that is watching over us. This echos the promises God makes to his people in the Old Testament on several occasions (e.g. see Psalm 121). This likely would have been provocative at the time and even now should bring us pause. Here Jesus is assuring us that when we follow his call, it is the very Creator and Sustainer of the Universe whose eye is upon us.
As our culture attempts to lure us into a life of materialism and self-importance, Christ calls us to a life of sacrificial love. To be clear, when pass through the door, the paths on which we follow our Lord will often be rocky and will frequently require us to listen intently for his lead. But while the call of the World leaves us with empty promises, the life to which Christ calls us is one that is truly abundant and always abounding with the deep assurance of his love.
Written by Andrew White