The Gate

This post is further developed in a sermon called Whistleblowing at the sheepgate (2014) and the thinking continues in Life and Being in 2020.

Week of Sunday May 11 - Easter 4
Gospel: John 10: 1-21

9:35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’* 36He answered, ‘And who is he, sir?* Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. 39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

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.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.

7 So 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.

11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes* it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

19 Again the Jews were divided because of these words. 20Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ 21Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’

By "taking us back" to John 10 so soon after Easter, the lectionary reminds us that much of John is a teaching on the consequences of that combined event we know as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. John 10 is true because of that event.

The view from the farm
Sheep work is dirty, unromantic, and requires a certain hardness of heart. You'd only ever put a lamb around your shoulders if you were already filthy, and didn't mind getting a rash from the prickles, or getting trickles down your back. We have sheep for one reason only—  to eat. Wool, yes; even milk. But in the end a sheep is meat, unless it dies up in the back paddock. Sheep are a commodity.

Sheep are sacrificed to our needs, and anyone who thinks the cruelty problem with sheep lies in live exports should take a trip to their local abattoir, or even pay attention to the manner in which they get to harvest.

Those Sunday School pictures of Jesus in his Persil white robes with that immaculate little lamb around his neck are about as far from the truth as we can get. They trivialise everything in John's image of the sheep and shepherd.

There is great comfort in the notion of the Good Shepherd who provides a table in the presence of our enemies, yet we must first face the harshness of overgrazed mountain passes, and the atrocities of the slaughterhouse. Otherwise we risk being lambs among wolves. Expecting the easy comfort of Sunday School imagery we may be led astray by the false shepherds of prosperity, of certainty, of privilege, and of blood sacrifice. We can remain blind to the reality in which we live, and to the saving gift being offered us which promises to free us from that reality.

We are called to walk into the valley of the shadow of death; the text of Psalm 23 means not if  but,  (even) though I (do) walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

so I begin with an unvarnished look at sheep, shepherds, and life.

Who are the sheep?
In John,

"sheep" are a metaphor for the people of God, and not a particularly flattering one either, as anyone familiar with sheep knows. 

How much of the view from the farm do we carry into this metaphor? Does our fleeting Australian affluence blind us to the fact that we too are part of a violent exploitative world, only we are, if you like, grain fed? Is that a privilege, or a temptation to blindness?

Psychologically, "sheep" also refers to a primitive aspect of one's own personality, the instinctual ability to try to discern and recognize the "true voice" and distinguish it from false ones. (John Petty)

John is perhaps too kind in his second point. Like sheep we seem to prefer many instincts and voices to the true one! Our sheepishness needs healing. We are contrary creatures.

I reckon we’re mostly like Aussie sheep. I am.  We’re inclined to keep as far away from the farmer as we can. If the farmer tries to drive us through a gate to good feed, we won’t go through. Or we’ll be like the mob of sheep my Dad and I had once. They ignored the open gate and the whole 200 hit the fence next to it, flat out, and got themselves tangled up and mangled in the wire, and brought down a hundred and fifty yards of fence. Not one of them went through the open gate!

Who are the Shepherds?
In the biblical metaphor sheep need a shepherd. The only real difference between our Australian sheep practices and the time of Jesus is one of scale and its consequences. In Israel a shepherd was likely to pen his small mob of sheep overnight with several other flocks, and would lead them out to pasture each day. Sheep knew the voice of their shepherd and would follow him, and him only—  although having had a lot to do with sheep, I can't help feeling this last claim is a rather idyllic view of the reality! Nonetheless, you can see YouTube videos of shepherds leading their sheep through heavy city traffic in the Middle East today.

In Australia mobs of sheep range from hundreds to thousands. The shepherds are mostly absent about other tasks, and individual sheep, if they could, would feel pretty much ignored, insignificant, expendable, and taken for granted. Our shepherding reflects our enormous cities and impersonal political culture, which is appropriate...

... because John 10 is inescapably a political text. Loader says of the term shepherd:

Originally it was most common as a metaphor for rulers, as far back as the Pharaohs. It was a way of describing royal responsibilities which included caring for subjects, the flock. It was apt symbolism when David became the shepherd king and the model for messianic hope.

In the giving of the Law Moses says

16‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation 17who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’  (Numbers 27:16)

Petty says "[a]ll Hebrew males... would have been able to connect Jesus' words in chapter 10 of the fourth gospel with those of the Book of Numbers," and we can bet they were familiar with Ezekiel 34 with a scepticism similar to our own cynicism about politicians in Australia. If we claim to live in a society which has some kind of pastoral responsibility to its participants, this chapter remains a devastating critique of our failings.

2Mortal, 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? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8As 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;9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10Thus 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.

11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

John 10 depends on this text for its meaning, and carries a similar promise to the sheep of a glorious future with God.

The role of the King, who is meant to be the shepherd of his people before God, appears to have evolved from sacrificial practices in our early human history.

The Girardian theory about kingship is that it originates in the sacrificial: the king is initially the victim with the suspended sentence who is made to preside over the sacrificial cult in the interim. As long as kings can keep feeding victims to the sacrifice, there's a good chance that their own sacrifice can be indefinitely delayed. Eventually, it becomes an established institution of government. But during sacrificial crises the king will often be the first to be sacrificed.... (Nuechterlein)

Perhaps that's why it was difficult for the Israelite kings (or any conventional king) to rule as good shepherds; the system demanded that they continue feeding sheep to the sacrificial fires in order to avoid becoming one themselves. Yahweh's Messiah, then, would not only need to be a different sort of person, but he would have to do something to change the system. He would need to base human community on something different. According to John 10, Jesus the Messiah was the Good Shepherd precisely by offering himself as one of the sheep. (Paul Nuechterlein)

In another place he quotes Gil Bailie. " The shepherd's [i.e., king's] role, socially and culturally, has always been to choreograph the sacrificial passions of his culture, directing them towards expendable victims." (You can read Nuechterlein's introduction to Christ the King Sunday here, for some expansion on the origins of kingship.)

Let me translate these dense texts into Ostrayan to show why the origin of the King is important to us.

All politicians have a use-by date. Currently the Prime Minister and Treasurer are serving up sacrificial victims, also known as refugees, pensioners, and the poor who depend on Medicare and other social services, to keep the rest of us— the privileged ones—  happy. When they run out of victims they will become the victim at the next election.  We will elect a new "King" who will begin the process over again. If the Prime Minister runs foul of the powerbrokers and should suggest such a foolish thing as a mining tax, he will be strangled on the spot— sorry Kevin. Treasurer Hockey recently hinted in his Budget "softening up" that he might think about reducing or abolishing the Diesel Fuel Rebate. "Big Dirt," ie the mining industry, swung into action, and faced with those outraged barons who suffer the King, the Grand Vizier backtracked this morning.

From an Australian perspective there is a grimly hilarious quotation in Mark Heim's Saved from Sacrifice  pp 48-9, of a hymn from an African kingship investiture.

You are a turd, 
You are a heap of refuse, 
You have come to kill us, 
You have come to save us.

What does it mean to have life in abundance? (Greek: perisson)

The basic meaning of the word perissos is "more of something". (Stoffregen) [He quotes TDNT:]

In the NT perisseuein is almost always used in contexts which speak of a fullness present and proclaimed in the age of salvation as compared with the old aeon, or of a new standard which is required in this age. To this extent perisseuein is an eschatological catchword. [I have added the emphasis.]

Abundant life is not just more of the same!

Setting the scene
We can now see that John 10 is first of all a strongly political text which promises the Good Shepherd's rescuing of us in the most dire circumstances. We are talking about the Shepherd leading us, in some way, into the Kingdom of Heaven, or as John has it, gifting us Eternal Life as all things are made new. (Rev. 2:15)

Sacrificial practice underpins the very foundations of our culture. The scapegoat allowed us to vent all our rage on one individual rather than destroy ourselves. Nuechterlein sums this up with the horrifying statement that "Human community is based on "unanimity minus one"; it is built on the singularity of the victim."

In that statement is the fact we all sin, and that we are all children of The Fall. We all seek not to be the victim or scapegoat, and most of us will shove the others out of the way to make sure we escape. Look at the facial anxiety on any morning bus, or in any school playground. Or the savagery of the workplace. We live in the Fall.

And we are all shepherds; friends, parents, mentors, employers, teachers, pastors, elders... Ezekiel and John speak to us all; perpetrator and victim, entitled and scapegoat.

(If you have not met the Griardian theory underlying this section, Laura Truby's sermon here is a brilliant short introduction.)

Where now?
Now that I have dragged us into the abattoir of life (I use this language deliberately, as you will see) what comfort does the good shepherd offer us?

Clearly there is a claim about the authority of Jesus here. I am the Good Shepherd and I am the gate are both claims to being identical with God. They are essentially the same as the famous statement for which people wished to stone him: Before Abraham was, I AM.(John 8:58)

I know the Father and the Father knows me, he claims. The thieves and bandits, the enemies and competitors of John's communities, are put in their place.

There is also assurance. The sheep are called by name, just like the sheep of the small country sheepfolds. In the giant milling mobs of globalised society we are still "called by name." We are chosen! And the real sheep will not be led astray, he says, so be at peace about where you are and who you follow. You have heard the true voice.

Finally, there is the promise of salvation, and good pasture, and abundant life. (John 10:9-11) This is being promised while we are herded and penned close by the place of sacrifice; it is not safe Sunday night rhetoric uttered in the comfort of church carpet and central heating.

All this could lead, and has lead, to claims of exclusivism. This includes the infamous evil scapegoating of Jewish people by those of us who cannot, or will not, see that in John we are all Jews. We are the Jews. Even on our best days we balk at the gate, and go our own way instead of following the Good Shepherd.

Rather than being a warrant for dividing and excluding, John 10 follows the description of the increasing blindness of the Pharisees in John 9 who refuse to accept that an outsider might be from God. The chapter ends as they realise Jesus is criticising them, the "real believers," but the story continues until the end of what we call John 10:20-21 where it says,

 20Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ 21Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’

The chapter divisions we use to help find the pages we want, are imposed upon the stories. We need to take care we get the whole story rather than being blinded by the filing system.

Those who are blind will not understand "chapter ten." Does this mean they will not see; that is, not experience "chapter ten?"

39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

In the story, the man who was once blind was driven out of the Synagogue by the now blind.

The man who was driven out is a pre-echo of Jesus who will be driven out "in the definitive expulsion of the crucifixion." I use the term pre-echo because in John's churches, their experiences of being once blind persons who can now see, echo Jesus' experience. They, too, are being driven out....

When we as a church fall into a life which tries to maintain its coherence and corporate cohesion by excluding, instead of including by being neighbour, when we scapegoat to solve our crises, we are casting out Jesus. We are re-crucifying Christ. And we are blind to our real problems. (Andrew Prior)

By contrast, the Good Shepherd— we know he is good because he is chosen by the Father and comes in by the gate, not over the walls— the good shepherd who also is the gate does not exclude. (John 10:2-7) As James Alison remarks, gates are designed for defining who is in and who is out. But in John 10 the sheep go in and out freely. And "16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice." There is no distinction, no exclusion. Salvation is not for some, the few; it is offered to humanity.

The Gate... what Gate?
Paul Nuechterlein presents a stunning image in one of his sermons.

Why a gatekeeper?? Isn't that a bit formal for the average sheep herd? Marty Aiken mentioned to me last night after the service that he's not a city boy, and he said that the only time he can think of when there might be a gatekeeper for the sheep is when they are brought to the stockyard to be slaughtered. This is the point, in fact, where the shepherd finally leaves his sheep for good -- or for ill, if you're a sheep. The shepherd does not enter the stockyard with his sheep. He abandons them to the slaughter.

He is worse than he hired man, in fact, for he was the one we followed and trusted with our lives!

It was similar in Jesus' day. There wasn't a gatekeeper at the average sheep pen. But I'll bet there was a gatekeeper at the big Sheep Gate in Jerusalem where the sheep would be led to the great Passover slaughter every year. And this is where the average shepherd would leave his sheep off at the gate, abandoning them to the slaughter. But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who walks right in that gate with the sheep and "goes ahead of them," out the other side of the holding pen into the Temple courtyard to be slaughtered. So Jesus isn't just laying down his life out in the field for some dangerous wolf. The most dangerous place for a sheep in Jesus' day was out in the Temple courtyard. The wolves are already a metaphor for the sacrificers who come to slaughter the lambs in the sacrificial machinery. Jesus lays down his life as the Lamb of God on the altar of sacrifice.

I missed something on the first reading, so here it is again, in another place:

Bailie notes that in John 5 "Jesus met the paralytic, whom he cured on the sabbath, at the pool near the Sheep Gate, which is the gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which the sheep were led and then held in a holding area on their way to the altar of sacrifice. It was the entry point for the victims of the sacrificial regime." (My emphasis)

Jesus does not keep us away from the killing floor, but goes before us and with us. His dying sets us free and takes us toward abundant life. We are free from sacrifice. We are free from the constant crippling fear of being chosen as the scapegoat, which means we fight always to be at the top and the front and call the shots. Our paralysed humanity is healed.

Umm... really?
The wheelers and dealers of New South Wales are frantically seeking someone to take the fall as the Independent Commission Against Corruption seeks the truth of what has been going on. The scapegoats are being sacrificed. Nothing has changed!

Well, there is a difference, post resurrection. For one thing, we have an ICAC. Slowly our humanity progresses, even if there is a strong smell of one step forward and three back.

The example of Jesus' death and resurrection allows us to turn a corner, for the Good Shepherd "Jesus does not reign by diverting violence from himself to other people. Nor by instituting a set of inflexible laws. Jesus reigns by orienting society toward sympathy for the victim as the victim." (Truby) We seek to heal with justice rather than by sacrificing a scapegoat.

Alison says

because of Jesus' perfect imitation of the Father, he is able to make present on earth as a real human practice the way in which the Father is the shepherd of Israel. He does this precisely by the creative going to his death which brings about one flock and one shepherd. What he is doing is bringing about the Father's shepherdliness by inaugurating a real human practice of shepherding a real human gathering into one. This is possible because there is no rivalry between him and the Father: they are an entirely interpenetrating reality. So, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) is identical in content with "the Father is in me and I am in the Father" (John 10:38).

I have added the emphasis in that quotation. In it we see that the very care for the weak— the refugees, the pensioners, the sick and the abused— that Abbott and Hockey are hell bent on removing to allow them to pay off the rich and avoid their own demise, is part of the salvation Jesus promises us. That is, on the ground, from the human point of view, scapegoating destroys us. It is THE sin, which began when Adam blamed Eve, who blamed the snake. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer are the wolves; thieves and robbers coming in over the walls.

Simply put, Alison's words say, we know how to live. Jesus has shown us another way to live, a way that is free of the deadly imitative rivalry which threatens to destroy us and profoundly change the nature of our planet.

Giving, loving, helping, forgiving; all these begin to transform us as we wash the feet of those whom society regards as beneath it, and give to those who take from us.

This is not easy, or done cheaply. In reporting on our recent family experience, I wrote of an "open ended, largely uncharted, and potentially life threatening" ministry. But it was radically transforming for me, and despite the consequent costs and ensuing illness, it was one of the best things I have ever done for me!

Cold Comfort?
Jesus has opened our eyes to the way the world is, which may seem cold comfort as we survey the world wide web of violence which the internet pipes into our computers.

The key comfort for me is seeing a humanly possible explanation of how things work in the world and how they can be healed. That is what Alison is trying to tell us in the quotation above. We can begin to experience this.

It is an act of faith that to interpret and trust Jesus as " the outing and undoing of the sacred as a human creation, the sacred as the evolved means whereby human beings create order and meaning and control out of violence," (Scott Cowdell) will set us free.

But it is not the magic that pretends Jesus' death somehow satisfies God, and persuades God, to forgive our sins. It is not more of the same old violence and scapegoating. We have seen the violence can stop.

We may yet destroy the world for ourselves; the odds of this are frighteningly good. It is likely that we ourselves will need to walk through the gate back into the place of sacrifice in far too literal terms for our comfort. And yet there is the hope, and the experience, of being able to live "comparatively immune to being run from the violence," hard as that may be. In this I rejoice.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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