“So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.’”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that when most of us think of a gate, we think of something very different from what Jesus is talking about with the people of his time, whether they happen to be eager followers or fearsome detractors, who in this case happen to be the Pharisees. When people in our day and age (and in our socio-economic context) think of a gate, I imagine we think of something large and imposing—something with big iron bars or maybe a long wooden arm painted with orange and yellow reflecting paint. We think of something that excludes and denies admittance. That is to say, to most of us a gate is a stopping point, an awkward place where you either need to know the correct code so you can punch it in on the keypad or—better yet—someone on the inside who can wave you in. Regardless of the good kinds protection they offer, gates are essentially barriers that differentiate between those who are in and those who are out or those who have paid the proper parking fee and those who are still trying to figure out how much they owe. A gate is, after all, the defining feature of a gated community. So, when Jesus is talking to the Pharisees who are disagreeing with him and the disciples who are interested in him, is he saying those who follow him are members of a gated community?
Granted, there were plenty of gates and even gated communities in Jesus’ day, maybe even the kinds with large, imposing iron bars, but those are not the kinds of gates to which he is referring when he compares himself to being a gate. Jesus is not trying to say that he is primarily something that excludes or denies admittance or that he is the friend on the inside who has the power to wave people in or leave them out. Rather, the particular gate he is talking about is the gate to a sheepfold, a gate that was not very formidable and probably didn’t even have a lock on it. All it had to do was stay shut during the night or when the shepherd was busy doing something else so that the sheep wouldn’t wander aimlessly around and fall into danger. The gate that Jesus compares himself to was more a doorway than it was a barrier, a doorway that actually remained open most of the time and was shut only when—and here’s maybe the most important thing—all the sheep were inside.
In fact, we know that in the shepherding traditions of Jesus time different flocks were often kept together inside the same fold. That may seem strange to us, but it worked for them and conserved space and resources. Villages and communities housed their sheep together overnight and then often let them graze separately. Each morning when it was time for the sheep to be taken out to pasture, the gate would be opened and the various shepherds would stand out back from the fold a ways and call to their flock. Sheep could recognize their own shepherd’s voice and run away from ones they didn’t know. Eventually, the sheep would assemble around their correct shepherd for a day of grazing and resting among the open countryside. At night, the process would repeat itself in reverse, the sheep somewhat instinctively returning back to their fold, and the shepherd closing the gate after them. That was the pastoral image that Jesus listeners would have had when he told this parable.
Depending on which part of the teaching you focus on, Jesus sees himself as either the shepherd who opens that gate to let the sheep out to graze or the gate itself. Either way, it is this action of opening, releasing and gathering that Jesus relates to himself and his ministry. He sets himself in contrast, then, to the trapping, stealing, and scattering that others might try to do. Thieves and bandits are those who ignore the gate altogether and climb in over the side of the fold to grab or harm the sheep or perhaps strange shepherds whose voice the sheep don’t recognize. These harmful people pay no attention to the relationship between the shepherds and the sheep or the well-being of the sheep themselves. They do what they do out of a sense of their own gain.
Although Jesus never explicitly names them as such, he certainly insinuates that the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his time are the thieves and the bandits. These are the ones who fail to recognize that God is calling his people together through the ministry of Jesus, the Son. For whatever reason, they refuse to believe the signs that he performs and the lessons he teaches. Furthermore, they corrupt this tender relationship between shepherd and sheep and pillage the flock. Sadly, this was a real danger for the people of Israel. It is a real danger for God’s people at any time. They had known many shepherds throughout their history, and most of them had fallen into the thief and bandit category. Jesus sets himself up as a contrast to those previous leaders, and clearly as a contrast to those who are trying to silence that shepherd voice in his own age.
The bottom line of all this opening, releasing and gathering that Jesus, gate, leads to is the flourishing of the sheep—the flourishing of God’s people—and the way they flourish is to go through the gate into the hills and valleys where the shepherd leads them. God wants them to have an abundant life, and a gate that functions properly as a doorway and not a big, imposing barrier will do this.
It makes me think of how I learned to relate to my bawwab when I lived in Cairo. Every building, public and private, in Cairo has a bawwab, an Arabic word that roughly translates as “doorman.” Bawwabs are typically Muslim peasant men from the surrounding countryside who come and live at the door of the building they watch in the city. These posts are usually hereditary—they’ve been passed down from father to son for decades—and wholly unregulated by the government. They receive some cut of the rent and receive a place to sleep for free, usually a small bed right at the door.
|Omr, my building's bawwab|
In order to live somewhere and work somewhere one must develop a relationship with the building’s bawwab. My bawwab’s name was Omr, and it dawned on me about halfway through the year that I was only using Omr for about half of his bawwab’s function. You see, I thought he was there chiefly as a bouncer and nightwatchman. The apartment building had no security system other than him, and so I thought he was there to keep the wrong people from coming and doing harm. Little did I realize that Omr was actually my gate to the rest of the community on the street! As it turns out, bawwabs were also the ones who went out and created connections for you between the cleaners, the greengrocers, the handymen, if you needed one.
There was an intricate system of relationships along our corridor in downtown Cairo, and the key to knowing how to flourish there was using the bawwab as more than a barrier. It was using him as an open gate.
How often do we, as God’s flock, form Jesus as a barrier that walls us off from the world, keeping the undesirables out unless they can be waved in or as if we speak a certain code they need to know in order to belong? How often do we fall into the trap of viewing our own church buildings as fortresses designed to keep the flock safe and secure so that the only ministry can be done on the inside? Can we learn to see Jesus as a true bawwab who does protect and nourish us, who stands ready to offer his life for our eternal protection, but who also opens us up to form relationships with those in the world around us? For true security does not consist in being locked in the fold behind the gate. True security is being with the shepherd.
Jesus’ whole ministry and life, after all, can be summed up in those basic functions of a gate and shepherd: opening, releasing, and gathering. And it is all done so that we may have life abundantly. I was just fine when Omr was nothing but my door guard, throwing the latch each morning and checking guests’ credentials when they tried to come see me. However, I really began to live abundantly when I let Omr show me what he could do.
The same goes for Jesus, our gate. And he wants to show us what he can do. In fact, he is dying show us what he can do…opening, releasing, and gathering us to the shepherd. Jesus wants to throw open his arms in love on the cross and, in so doing, open the way to God, open the way to salvation, open the way to new life.
He wants to release us—release us from the sin and worry and anxieties that come from living as sheep in a terrifying world. He wants to release us from the fear of that which would do us harm, release us from the desire to lead ourselves or listen to any other voices that would lead us astray.
Foremost, he wants us to be gathered. Jesus wants us to be gathered us with all the flock that the Shepherd has called and is still calling. He wants to let us out into the abundant life where Jesus leads us, for that is precisely where we belong: together and with the Shepherd whose rod and staff will comfort us even in the darkest valley.
So, today, claim your membership in this gated community. There is no secret code you’ll need to know, no moving orange arm that only lifts when you pay the correct fee. In fact, there is no fee at all. This gate is no stopping point, but a going point…a friendly, determined bawwab….a simple door that our loving shepherd opens to lead us out…to lead us with others…to lead us in safety with the sound of his voice to a great and abundant life now and forever.
Thanks be to God!