Posts Tagged ‘gate’

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.



Not just sheep

May 10, 2014

(Please remember in prayer the 180 Nigerian girls who remain in captivity, their families and all women and girls who are trafficked or who are victims of violence.)

Easter 4 2014

John 10:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us by name and who trusts us to know the shepherd from the thief. Amen.

I wonder just how much you absorb when you hear the gospel read on a Sunday morning? How well do you think you would go if I threw a good old-fashioned comprehension test at you today? My suspicion is that none of us would achieve a particularly good result – myself included. Today’s gospel is full of confusing and inconsistent metaphors and allusions. There are gatekeepers, thieves, bandits shepherds and gates and the difficult question is – what represents whom? Presumably, the thieves and bandits are the Pharisees, but is Jesus the gate, the gatekeeper or the shepherd or all three? Who are the strangers – are they the same as the thieves and bandits or do they represent someone else? One problem is that the text seems to jump from one idea to another – gate keeping, following, listening, destroying, giving life. It is difficult to work out just what Jesus is trying to get across. No wonder even Jesus’ listeners were confused (10:6).

If you were in my New Testament class and we were examining today’s gospel, the first thing I would suggest is that you read and reread the text, preferably in Greek.

Once you were familiar with these ten verses, I would suggest that you read them in context, that you investigate what comes before and after the text and whether those passages shed light on what you have just read. In this instance it is obvious that what comes after is important for our understanding of the passage. The theme of shepherd continues in some way or another until the end of chapter 10. However the connection with Chapter 9 is less evident. Only if we take a closer look does it become clear that what we know as chapter 10 is in fact a continuation of Chapter 9. The first sentence of chapter ten continues Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees and the connection between the two chapters is strengthened when we see that 10:21 refers to the discussion about the healing of the blind man.

What all this means is that if we really want to understand the ten verses set down as the gospel for today, we have to read from the beginning of Chapter 9 to the end of Chapter 10 and to try to make sense of the relationship between an account of healing and a discussion about shepherding.

A number of things are going on here, but the key to the relationship between the two chapters is the controversy about Jesus’ identity and the argument between the man who was blind and the Pharisees. The blind man whose sight has been restored is convinced that Jesus is a prophet sent from God. He holds firm to this view in spite of the Pharisees trying to convince him otherwise. Not only that, he identifies Jesus as God – in response to Jesus’ question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” he acknowledges Jesus as Lord and falls down and worships him. The Pharisees however, refuse to accept that Jesus can have been sent by God let alone be God. They prefer to believe that Jesus is a sinner (9:16, 24,31) or worse still that he is possessed by a demon (10:20,21). Jesus threatens their position and what they believe about God and God’s way of relating to the people.

At the heart of the discussion then, is an issue about leadership and authority. Who can be trusted to lead the people of God – the priests and the Pharisees or this itinerant teacher/healer – and who decides between the two? The eyes of the blind man have been opened. He can see that the true leader, the true shepherd is the one who is trusted by and who cares for and respects the people. The Pharisees demonstrate their blindness, because they cannot see Jesus for who he is.

Contrary to expectation it is not the Pharisees who have the authority to determine who is or is not from God – that authority belongs to the people. The fact that the man born blind identified Jesus has demonstrated that the “ordinary” people, those of no status in the Jewish worldview, are able to make up their own minds about God and about God’s representatives. No matter how hard the Pharisees try, the blind man refuses to be cowed, or to change his opinion about Jesus. He does not need to be told who to follow. Whatever arguments the Pharisees use, he knows that Jesus cannot be a sinner because God does not listen to sinners – only to those who know and obey him. He knows (despite the Pharisees’ statements to the contrary) that if Jesus was not from God he would not be able to do anything (9:33) let alone give sight to the blind.

The question of true authority, true leadership is decided by the people. They (the sheep) will not follow a stranger nor will they listen to thieves and bandits (the Pharisees). It is the people, the sheep, who recognise where true authority lies. They know instinctively who it is who will lead them “in right paths” and allow them “to go in and go out and find pasture”. Their eyes have been opened to the true nature of their religious leaders. They are thieves and bandits, strangers whom they will not follow.

Jesus (the good shepherd) is not a benign, harmless figure in the world of first century Palestine. Quite the contrary – he is a revolutionary who turns everything upside down. Not only does he undermine the authority of the Pharisees he also makes the radical claim that the sheep – the ordinary, uneducated people – are able to make up their own minds as to whom they should follow. It is they, not the religious leaders who are able to recognise the true nature of the Pharisees and of Jesus and to decide between them.

Jesus – the gate, the shepherd – has made it possible for us to have a relationship with God that is not mediated by Temple rituals, a priestly caste or by the observance of the law. It doesn’t matter whether we are ordained or lay, well-educated or poorly educated, professional or manual laborer each of us through Jesus can have direct access to God. The gate is open, the shepherd is calling us by name. All it takes is for us to respond.

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