I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.
So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life — indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.
A lot of people will quote verse 10 and claim that the “thief” is the “devil.” That’s not who Jesus is referring to. To understand whom he means, we have to remember the previous chapter. There, the main question was, “Who is Jesus? Is he from G‑d? Is he a prophet? Is he the Messiah? Is he the ‘Human One’? Just who is he?” Chapter 10 is his own response to this question.
For the ancient Hebrews, a shepherd and his sheep were a great picture of how they viewed the king and his people. While most of us today wouldn’t have such an image, perhaps it’s one we should embrace and use when thinking about good leadership.
A shepherd could walk into a herd of sheep — from many different folds — and just start speaking to them, calling to his own sheep. They, in turn, would follow him out of that herd. Jesus is saying, “If you want to know who I am, see the people (particularly the person born blind from chapter 9) who listen to my voice and follow me. I am the true leader of Israel.”
While many people want to quickly jump to verse 11 and Jesus’ claim about being the “true shepherd,” these verses are important. Jesus claims to be the “gate.” What shepherds used to do (and I don’t know if they still do this or not) is, after the sheep would put into an area, the shepherd would lie down in the mouth of the entrance and be the “gate.” That is, he would let the sheep in and out and would be able to protect them from predators. If anyone or anything wanted access to the sheep, they would have to go through the shepherd. Jesus is saying then, the “true shepherd,” the true leader of Israel, is more concerned about the lives of the people than his own. The “true shepherd” lays down his life for the sheep. (A Johannine glance at what’s coming in the story.)
And why is that important? The last part tells us. The true shepherd’s concern is that the sheep live a full life. The choices that the shepherd makes are what’s best for the sheep — not himself. He may not want to go that extra few miles because his feet are sore or his back is stiff from being the gate. He may want to sleep a little longer because he was up all night fighting the monsters that wanted to get to the sheep.
But he gets up. He presses on. He knows that, just over that next horizon, the fields are green and plentiful and the water’s cool clear. His sheep should get that. That’s why he’s a shepherd. He loves his sheep more than his own self.
Therefore, the “thief” that Jesus refers to is not the devil but those leaders who came before Jesus, most notably the then current Jewish hierarchy and Herod himself. They were much more concerned about lining their pockets, of making the “right” political choices, of scratching the “right” backs and kissing the “right” backside than the lives of the people. They live in wealth and riches by lying, cheating, and stealing from those living in poverty. Those “leaders” are the thieves and outlaws Jesus was referring to.
So, what does that say about our leaders today — whether they’re spiritual, political, economical, etc.? True leaders lead by serving. They don’t stand over us shouting down rules and laws blind by their own power. True leaders lead by example, by getting in the trenches with the rest of us. True leaders have grit and grime on their hands from doing the work right alongside the rest of us. It’s those people who should get our admiration and support. I see too many of the other kind right now. We need more shepherds in our communities and public office.
And, being that it’s Mother’s Day, I can’t help but think about how Mother’s fit the title of shepherd very nicely. How many of us have had Mother’s who were there in the midst of it all with us? Who had finger paint on their hands? Who stayed up late taking care of the needs of her family? Who got up earlier than the rest of us to make sure we all made it to our destinations on time? Who among us know in our bones that our Mother’s who bravely step between us and the monsters to protect us. And what was her reason? Love. She wanted us to have a full life. She would give every last bit of strength she had just to make sure we had what we needed.
That sounds a lot like the “true shepherd” to me.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC