Posts Tagged ‘abundant life’

Gates – openings or barriers?

May 6, 2017

Easter 4 – 2017

John 10:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who desires only what is best for us. Amen.

The first ten verses in chapter 10 of John’s gospel are rather puzzling. Is Jesus the gate, the door or the shepherd? Is Jesus both the gate and the shepherd? How does Jesus’ being the gate relate to having life in abundance? Who are the thieves and robbers? Part of the difficulty in understanding this passage is that the lectionary gives us only a small portion of the picture. Properly speaking, today’s gospel belongs in a section of John that begins at 9:39 and that concludes at 10:21. This becomes clear when we see that the passage begins and ends with a commentary on blindness and a reference to the division among the Jews as to the identity of Jesus. The Pharisees and their supporters claim that Jesus is an imposter, but those who can see clearly, recognise Jesus as the one sent by God.

In the previous chapter, Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath. This caused the Pharisees to be incensed not only because Jesus had broken the Sabbath law but because they were in danger of losing their place in society and the influence that they exerted over the people. In order shore up their position they tried to discredit both the blind man and Jesus. Jesus cannot have come from God because they know nothing about him! From their point of view Jesus (and the man who was healed) are making claims that cannot possibly be substantiated. Even so, there is something about Jesus that represents a threat to their authority and to their role. This is why it is so important that they convince the blind man that Jesus is an imposter.

Despite their best efforts the man born blind refuses to be swayed by their bullying and their insults. It is clear to him that Jesus must be from God – otherwise he could do nothing. He declares that Jesus is God and worships him.

It is in this context of conflict and division that Jesus uses the imagery of shepherding to describe the difference between himself and the Pharisees. Indirectly, Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of deceiving the people and of trying to manipulate them into believing what they, the Pharisees, want them to believe. The Pharisees are not true shepherds but are thieves and robbers who seek, not to benefit, but harm them. They are standing in the way of the fullness of life that belongs people of God. They are stifling and confining them, instead of nurturing and freeing them.

Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with the image of a shepherd. In the Old Testament the bad shepherds are those thoughtless, uncaring leaders who abandon their flock to the wolves. In contrast to them, God is the Good Shepherd, and God will establish over the people of Israel “one shepherd, my servant David, who shall feed them and be their shepherd”(Ezek 34:23-24). By claiming for himself the title of Good Shepherd, Jesus is identifying himself as the “one shepherd” sent by God.

When the Pharisees fail to recognise Jesus as the one sent by God and try to persuade others to their point of view the people they reveal their blindness and their self-centredness. They are devious and untrustworthy, but the sheep are not so easily deceived. As the man born blind has demonstrated, the people, despite the intimidation of the Pharisees, recognise Jesus and willingly follow him. It is this – the fact that the people respond to Jesus – that demonstrates that he, not the Pharisees is the shepherd of the sheep.

Just as they did not understand that they were blind, so now the Pharisees do not understand that Jesus is accusing them of being thieves and robbers. Jesus tries another image. He is, he says, the gate. it is through him that the sheep enter the security of salvation, and through him that they go out again to find pasture. Unlike the Pharisees who try to restrict and control the people by putting barriers in their way, Jesus opens the gate to free them to come and go as they please – to make up their own minds as to whom to follow.

Jesus continues this discourse by describing himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. At the conclusion of this section we return to where we began with the division between the people over the identity of Jesus. There are still those who believe that he has a demon and is out of his mind, but there are others who say: “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

When we have the whole picture, Jesus as both gate and shepherd makes sense. In the context of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus uses the familiar imagery of the shepherd and the sheepfold to make two points. He exposes the dishonesty and deviousness of the Pharisees – false shepherds who don’t use the gate, but who try to get to the sheep by stealth and who constrain others to their narrow views. Jesus is the true shepherd and he is the gate. As the gate, Jesus does not confine or restrict, but provides access both in and out – not only admitting the sheep into the security of the sheepfold but also freeing them to go out to seek nourishing and sustaining pasture.

The Good Shepherd can easily be distinguished from the false shepherd, because the Good Shepherd does not seek to benefit himself or to dominate or control in the name of God. The Good Shepherd knows us by name and has our best interests at heart. Jesus the Good Shepherd who is also the gate, does not seek to manipulate or to constrain but frees us to live life the full, to have life and to have it abundantly.

 

Our life to live

April 25, 2015

Easter 4 – 2015

John 10:(1-10) 11-18

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, Shepherd, protector, liberator. Amen.

Most of us would, I think, agree that the Internet is a marvelous tool. That said, we cannot ignore the darker side of this form of mass communication. Just week I heard about a social media site on which Year 8 girls can post pictures of themselves wearing bikinis. Innocent enough you might think until you learn that the photo only stays on the site if enough other girls vote for it to stay. It makes you wonder what sort of arrogance would lead to someone setting up the site and what sort of insecurities would lead to twelve and thirteen year old girls exposing themselves to the sort of large-scale rejection that might follow. That, of course is only one of many sites. There is, in the United States at least, a site called “Revenge”. Men, who have persuaded girlfriends to send photos of themselves in various stages of undress, upload those photos on to the site when the relationship goes sour. The young women discover that they are recognised wherever they go and are mortified to realise that they whole world has seen them naked. Then there are those who use the internet to prey on young people with promises of love, but whose real intention is to use and abuse them.

The Internet is wonderful, but it can be a minefield for the vulnerable, the inexperienced and the naive. It offers fame and fortune but can be sordid and soul-destroying. It can provide a sense of belonging yet also be the source of the most awful social exclusion. People, like sheep, are not always discerning about whom they follow whether it be fellow teens, an over-bearing boyfriend, an employer who plays fast and loose with the law, a Hitler, or an Idi Amin. The human need for affirmation and approval is sufficiently strong that it is possible for some to ignore the small twinges of disquiet that alert them to the fact that all is not well – that they are being used, bullied or taken advantage of. When people are desperate to fit in, they do not always notice the warning signs. They take risks that may have disastrous consequences and they place their trust in those who are only interested in exploiting or taking advantage of them, of using them for their own gain or gratification. They follow people who in the end are not interested in the personal, emotional or social needs of those whom they ensnare but come – as do the thieves in today’s gospel, to steal, kill and destroy.

Sadly, some people are so deafened by the din of the world around them and so anxious to belong to that world that they are either unable or unwilling to listen to their own hearts. Instead of being true to themselves they follow those who offer false hopes and a false sense security. Instead of finding freedom and wholeness they discover that they are constrained and they remain unsatisfied, unfulfilled.

It is in contrast to the thieves, and robbers, (the hired hands, those who exploit), that Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd.’ The good shepherd does not seek followers to use for his own nefarious means and he does not want to exploit those who follow him in order to achieve his own purposes. The good shepherd has no regard for his own needs, In fact, rather than demand anything of those who choose to follow, the good shepherd wants only what is the best for the sheep to the extent that the shepherd would lay down his life to ensure the well-being of the sheep. In the context of the verse that precedes today’s passage, the good shepherd has come so that the sheep may have life and have it abundantly. This is not a half-life in the shadow of the shepherd, but a life that is rich and full, in which every opportunity is provided for the sheep to achieve their own potential. In other words, the good shepherd does not entrap or limit, but liberates and encourages those who follow to be confident in themselves and to live their own lives.

The good shepherd is selfless – the sheep always come first. The good shepherd is also inclusive. No one has to behave or dress in a certain way to belong. To be part of this flock does not require compromise or a willingness to bend the rules in order to fit in. In fact, so far from being selective, the good shepherd is clear that there are other sheep who do not yet belong – those who live in fear, those who are lost and defenseless, those who are trapped in unhealthy ways of perceiving themselves, those who are enslaved to fads and fashions, those who are struggling to fit in and in so doing become what they are not. The good shepherd wants to bring these into the flock so that they too might “have life and have it abundantly”.

Hearing and responding to Jesus’ voice does not mean being bound by rigid rules or being forced to behave in particular ways. It does mean means hearing the shepherd above the cacophony and demands of the world, it means understanding that we can rise above the need or desire to conform to trends and fashions and it means having the courage to be our own selves knowing that we are so precious, that Jesus would rather give up his life than see us put upon or used,or be what we are not.

The good shepherd wants us to hear his voice, to draw us into his fold, not because he wants us to conform to certain ways of behaving, not because he wants full churches, not because he afraid that we will be condemned at the judgement, but purely and simply because he loves us. Jesus loves us unreservedly and unconditionally and longs for us to make decisions that will lead to our wholeness. Jesus wants all people to know that there is no need to conform to external, worldly measures. It doesn’t matter whether a person is beautiful or plain, clever or not so clever in the eyes of the world, in Jesus’ eyes they are unique and valued.

Thirteen year olds who know that they are precious and loved will not need to expose themselves to rejection, young women will know that their bodies are their own will not be coerced to share them in ways that make them uncomfortable, young men will not need to boast of their conquests in order to impress their mates. Those who follow the good shepherd will discover that the world and it values will lose its hold on them and they will know that their life is their own to live. They will know as Jesus knew that their life is theirs to give and to take up and that no one can take it from them.


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