10“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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
What I Am Learning:
Shepherds in Jesus day were very low on the honor scale. They smelled. They stole grass they didn't have the right to. Sometimes they were known to sell some of the sheep they were paid to care for. They were often equated with thieves. When the
Yet, shepherds were a common and respected metaphor for leadership. In first Chronicles 11, the Elders of the people of Israel came and spoke to David and made a covenant with him to be their king:
1 Chronicles 11.2 For some time now, even while Saul was king, it was you who commanded the army of Israel. The Lord your God said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over my people Israel.’
In Ezekiel 34, the prophet speaks for God with a critique of the leaders of Israel. Instead of looking out for the interests of all the people they instead looked to their own interests:
Ezekiel 34.2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?
In this Gospel reading, Jesus made a critique of the leaders of the People of Israel for how they were leading in the real world. Jesus was concerned about how the leadership of Israel was impacting the every day lives of his people. They were looking after their own interests, feeding themselves, while the people were starving. According to Marcus Borg, 85% of the population were struggling to find work so they could feed their families. Meanwhile, the leaders who collaborated with the Romans were among the wealthiest: the Chief Priests and Sadducees were among the top 5% of income and wealth.
Jesus included a critique of violent revolutionaries. The word "bandit" here is the word "lestai" which means "insurrectionist": someone who fosters or leads a violent revolt.
Jesus also included a subtle critique of the Romans, however. They were the ones who did not come in by the gate - but climbed over the wall to kill, steal and destroy.
The People of Israel were subject to threats from many sides:
- The Roman Empire who came over the walls
- Collaborating leaders who did not protect the sheep
- Violent revolutionaries who lived and died by the sword and took many with them
These are often the only options offered to us in a domination culture.
Jesus was offering a different kind of leadership and a different set of options and the people of his day were responding to it.
This is a photo of a sheep fold. In this case it is a small cave which has been improved with stones to make a protective wall. A good shepherd would sleep in the gate area, to ensure that the sheep would be protected from predators.
More than one flock might use the same sheepfold, so a shepherd would call his sheep and they would follow his voice and go out to find pasture. Jesus seems to be referring to the fact that many of the People of Israel followed Jesus, despite the fact that he did not have the social status to give him the right to lead.
What does it mean when Jesus says, "Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly"?
First, let's remember what "saved" means. We tend to have some post-fundamentalist stress disorder about this word! The word "saved" means to be healed or be made whole. It does not mean getting in good with God so when we die we go to heaven. It means to be made whole as individuals and as a people and as a planet - and to live a life with that wholeness on the horizon.
Jesus was saying that his way of nonviolent resistance and trust in God's way of mutuality is the way to life. Jesus' way of loving his neighbor and addressing the issues of his day without either violence or the despair of passivity is the way of salvation and healing. Jesus invited his disciples into an abundant life that does not need to wait for the external situation to be perfect to live an abundant life. This abundant life happens in the midst of thieves (Romans and their collaborators) and bandits (violent revolutionaries). This salvation begins in the midst of all we experience as we become reoriented to God's horizon of wholeness.
Today we are experiencing another time in which the leaders of our nation, on many levels, have been working for their own benefit instead of the welfare of everyday people. People of both political parties have participated in this. People who lead corporations have sought only their own profit, often only short term. We are in a time of deep and wide change. Many of the social and economic structures that have served us are breaking down and our leaders are often failing to name the issues, instead taking advantage of the anger and anxiety for their own benefit.
The Good Shepherd offers his leadership to us, offering a middle way between passivity and violence, despair and extremism. He invites us to see God's never ending love and life, and continue the wonderful disorientation begun in our baptism: being daily disoriented from the bad choices offered by domination culture to God's way of mutuality that is among all of us.