Thought for the day
What is distinctive about our faith as Christians? We do not believe in a system of ideas or even in a higher ethics: we believe in a person, who gives life “a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Benedict XVI). John’s Gospel makes this clear with its great I am sentences, one of which we hear today: “I am the gate.”
Naturally, we think the gate to what? The gate to life to the full. The risk today is to set our expectations low, to be happy with less. But the Gospel calls not to be half alive, but to be fully alive. Let us enter by the gate himself, because the gate to life is always open.
Often, loving Lord, we find ourselves astray and defenceless. Let us recognise your voice, calling us one by one as you call us to follow you.
Jesus the Good Shepherd
John 10:1 “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. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.* 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
John 10:7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
The Good Shepherd discourse or meditation is found only in John 10:1-21. It is the nearest thing to a parable in this Gospel. Today we hear the first part of this speech, which portrays Jesus as the point of entry, the shepherd and the door. In the first presentation, it is offered in the third person, while in the second, the writer uses the first person. This is Vocations Sunday.
Kind of writing
Our text is part of John’s Gospel, which means that the words placed on the lips of Jesus are the fruit of profound meditation and spiritual insight. The writer proceeds often in a spiral so to speak, stating a theme, bringing it forward, restating the theme with the new “freight” and so on. The writing is poetic, contemplative, apparently simple, powerful.
Old Testament background
(i) In the nomadic world of the ancient Middle East, the shepherd had a different role in relation to his flock than would have been typical in our own country. The sheep were never left alone on a hillside and the shepherd, as is well-known, led rather than drove his sheep. Furthermore, it was his task to find water and pasture and to ensure safety. Because of these roles, the figure of the shepherd was used to express the duties of a ruler, as pastor of his people. The king, just like the shepherd, has to ensure safety and nourishment. In the wider Middle East, a further step was taken: just as God was called a king, likewise, even outside the bible, shepherd was used for (the) God(s).
(ii) It is not accidental that the model king in the Old Testament, David, had been a shepherd before king. As regards rulers, there are tremendous passages in the OT, especially in Ezekiel, where the metaphor of shepherding is used to challenge the political and religious leaders for their gross failures (Jer 23:2, 4; Ezek 34:8; Zech 13:7).
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:7–10)
(iii) Finally, God is both king and shepherd for the ancient Israelites, as we see from today’s responsorial psalm. See for an early example Genesis 48:15. Also, Num 27:17; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:15; Zech 11:4; Sir 18:13.
(iv) Most notable for us is this passage from Ezekiel: I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 34:15)
New Testament foreground
i) Broadly, there is the language of shepherding, especially as found in the parable of the lost sheep (Matt 18:12-14; Lk 15:3-7).
What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. (Matthew 18:12–14)
The Johannine reflection explores this metaphor in a way personal to Jesus. Such a personal development is entirely appropriate in the following way. Jesus preached the Kingdom and so the parable of the lost sheep is a parable of the Kingdom. The early church proclaimed Jesus, as king—especially in the Fourth Gospel—and therefore also as Shepherd. Very noticeably in this Gospel, the Christian proclamation is not a system of doctrine or a code of ethics but a person, the person of Jesus, king and shepherd (with many other metaphors such as light, the vine, bread etc.). The language allows for a certain paradox, because this shepherd lays down his life for the flock, surely not something an ordinary shepherd would be expected to do literally.
(ii) Across this Gospel, the expression “I am” has a special meaning (bread of life, light of the world, the shepherd, the gatekeeper, the gate, the resurrection, the way the truth and the life, the true vine). The background is the central revelation of God’s name in Ex 3:14, I am who I am. “I am” is used a few times in the Greek OT simply as God’s name. Using this language, the Gospel writer makes his theology of Jesus’ identity very deep indeed.
(iii) Following to failure the convince (v. 6), Jesus makes his meaning clear by a more startling image, “I am the door” (the image recurs only once, perhaps significantly, at 18:6). This mirrors an important phrase in the Gospel: John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
(iv) The imagery of knowing the voice is resumed dramatically at the resurrection scene with Mary Magdalene. The Risen Lord addresses her directly and she immediately recognises him.
(iv) Life in abundance—perhaps this is the key text?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. (1Thessalonians 2:1–8)
Verse 1 Very truly = Amen, amen. The warning here is against false leaders, who don’t come in by the gate, the authentic point of entry, i.e. through faith in Jesus.
Verse 2 The authentic shepherd does not enter by other means.
Verses 3-4 These are images of trust—he is recognised by the gatekeeper and by the sheep. Cf. Numbers 27:17. Cf. “Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”” (John 18:37)
Verse 5 The believers will not entrust themselves to unknown leaders. But cf. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11) Cf. also, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,” (John 10:14); “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1)
Verse 6 Not for the first time in this Gospel, Jesus is not understood. In reality, the writer makes use of such misunderstanding to emphasise and deepen his teaching.
Verse 7 The metaphorical language has taken an unexpected twist. The identification of Jesus as the point of entry in his person is entirely in harmony with this Gospel.
Verse 8 Perhaps there is an allusion to nationalist leaders (bandits to the Romans) who sometimes used the language of “messiah” to lend authority to their revolts.
Verse 9 The pastoral imagery is most fully developed here.
Verse 10 Tremendous contrast, leading to one of the great sentences of this Gospel. “Life” is an omnipresent theme: John 1:4; 3:15-17, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:21-29, 39-40; 6:27, 33, 35, 40, 47-48, 51, 53-54, 63, 68; 8:12; 10:10-11, 15, 17, 28; 11:25-26; 12:25, 50; 13:37-38; 14:6; 15:13; 17:2-3; 20:31.
Pointers for prayer
1. “Care” seems the fundamental image here. It invites a reflection on our own experience of being cared for, in all sorts of ways. It opens us to the experience of being cared for by God in Jesus. Prayer of being loved.
2. Guidance is part of the metaphor. In what ways have I found myself lost in the labyrinth life and in need of direction? Where did I find guidance? Does the word of God guide me today? Prayer of being accompanied.
3. In looking for meaning, when did I realise the Gospel is really not a teaching but a person? Prayer of relationship.
4. We all want to live and be alive, to have life in abundance. How am I at this point in my life? Where does faith in the Jesus as the gate come in? Prayer of being alive.
O God, you never cease to call even those far away, for it is your will that all be drawn into one fold.
Attune our ears to the voice of the Good Shepherd, who leads us always to you, that we may find under your tender protection life in all its fullness.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen