I grew up in New York City in the ‘50s. We lived in a two–family house in Brooklyn. I recall it as a carefree time of life. It was a time which while doors marked certain boundaries, we were not so afraid of others inappropriately crossing them. It was not always necessary to lock our doors. And when we finally did, my father kept a key in the milk box on the porch or left one with our upstairs neighbor. Our ability to come and go was safe. However, in later years when both my parents worked I, as the oldest of my siblings, was entrusted with that key. Later concerns for safety appeared to be heightened and more attention was paid to doors and security. I know I was older and more aware of the news of the day but times were changing. We were a little less carefree and the world was not as safe as it was before.
While gates and doors provide protection and security, they are the means for going in and out of a home or place. They also serve as boundaries to permit entry and exit. In today’s Gospel (John10:1-10) Jesus, the Good Shepherd, describes himself as a “gate” and not a “gatekeeper.” Our frame of reference for a shepherd does not likely fit with the image of the shepherd in the time of Jesus. Is there any more powerful artistic depiction of Jesus the Good Shepherd in our Christian heritage? For me it is the famous painting of Jesus with the lamb draped over his shoulder that was hung on the wall in one of my grade school classrooms, and was one of the stained glass windows in the church. Yet, when Jesus lived and John writes his Gospel, shepherds were among the most disreputable and mistrusted outcasts of society. We might consider replacing the image of the loving guardian strolling peacefully in the sunshine among his flock, with the marauding motorcycle gangs of our century or cowboy outlaws of the 19th century. They were drifters with no fixed address and because of their occupation, they were perpetually unclean and, by definition, in violation of Jewish law. These outcasts are the very people John’s gospel is talking about.
Needless to say John shocks his audience by comparing Jesus to a shepherd and then later calling this very shepherd “good.” He challenges his listeners to look past their assumptions of where God is located and who God belongs to and who can belong to God. We and the people of John’s time are asked to see God in those who are outsiders, who exist on the fringe of the community, who are despised and even a little feared. The readers of John’s story are told to look for God among the despised.
It is interesting today that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does not describe himself as the gatekeeper, but rather as the gate. Jesus calls himself the gate, because that is the role the shepherd assumed. We are told that there was no actual gate in sheep-folds and that the shepherd would stand, sit or lie down in the opening which allowed entry and exit. In this way the shepherd could serve as protector of his sheep. He knew his sheep and they knew him. John purposely contrasted Jesus, the Good Shepherd, with disreputable religious rulers of his time who exploited their congregations.
Jesus clearly defines his role when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. I am the door. I am the proper way, the right way, the only way into the sheep fold.” He preached the power of love and denounced the love of power.