Jesus is posing his listeners a riddle when he talks of himself in the language of the sheep pen. We only get part of the passage today; we don’t hear Jesus, today, call himself the Good Shepherd. That comes immediately after we stop reading. Today, Jesus calls himself the Gate. It is not an image that has received nearly as much attention as the Shepherd, or the Light of the World, or the True Vine. It has similarities, I suppose, with “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” but that is nicely abstract and at least lends itself to poetry and music. A Gate is not exactly abstract, not exactly romantic, not exactly what we expect Jesus to call himself when he is talking about sheep and shepherds.
It doesn’t entirely help that Jesus also says that the Shepherd, whom he also is, will enter through the Gate, which he has just said he is; it is a puzzle.
We might find an easier way into the puzzle through the thieves and the bandits that Jesus warns against. These sayings come right after the man who was born blind is healed, and the Pharisees argue with him about Jesus and about his healing, and they expel him from the synagogue. The Pharisees, as religious leaders, are supposed to be shepherds to the people of Israel; they are supposed to look out for them and guide and protect them, but instead they closed the Gate against the man who was formerly blind, against the possibility of God working through Jesus and bringing light to the world; and so they failed their flock, and became like thieves or bandits. They tried at once both to break and to lock up the Gate – you can taste their desperate confusion. They put themselves before Jesus, before God. They put their own power before the works of God made manifest in the healing of a blind man. They put their ability to eject the man from the synagogue before the ability of Jesus to draw all people to himself. They put their talent for misery before the man’s gift of joy.
Whenever I thought about that phrase this week, I couldn’t help thinking, though, not of the Pharisees but of some other religious fanatics, those thieves and heartless bandits that stole hundreds of girls from their schools and their homes in Nigeria. Those thieves and bandits who have stolen the children of hundreds of mothers and fathers; who have stolen the innocent lives of those young women; who have stolen the joy of a nation. I am glad that it is not Mothers’ Day in Nigeria today. I cannot imagine the salt that such a celebration would rub into the wounds of those hundreds of mothers, grandmothers, godmothers on a day such as this, when those with a talent for misery have stolen a generation’s worth of joy.
A year ago this week, three Cleveland women were redeemed from another thief, another bandit, one who had stolen from them a decade each of their lives. We do not have to look far, unfortunately, to find the thieves and bandits who put their own misery before others’ joy, and who would close the Gate of life against their neighbours.
I read an interview with Michelle Knight yesterday, via the Guardian news website. What happened to her should not exist in this world, but listen to the triumph of hope over despair that she articulates. Her interviewer asked her,
Has she ever thought what would have become of her if she hadn’t been kidnapped? “I’d probably be living on a street or dead by now. It probably would have been drugs or drink.” So the hell she lived through might have saved her? She smiles. “Yes. Because it gave me street smarts. It made me see the other side of the road that no one else gets to see. Even though it was painful and horrible, I survived it.”
Jesus said, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
They know his voice. We know when we hear the voice of Jesus; we recognize it because we are his sheep. The thieves and bandits try to lead us astray – the ones who speak weaselly words to draw us into captivity, to misery, to addiction, to petty sinfulness and meannesses. The ones who tell us that they have the power, the ability, the talents to undermine the work of God, to undo the saving work of Jesus, to outdo the glory of God.
No one, no thief, no bandit, no disease or disappointment can undo or outdo the glory of God.
We know the voice of the Shepherd.
He speaks in the voice of those who preach peace. You know, I am sure, that Mother’s Day in the United States began not as a day to celebrate maternity but as a day for women to gather in their outrage against war, against the violence that stole their husbands and fathers from them, their sons, their nephews, their joy. It was a day to speak out against death-dealing, and to stand up for peace.
The shepherd speaks in the voice of those who preach peace. He speaks in the words of those who prescribe healing. He speaks in the words of those who love to see us laugh more than cry, who raise us up when we fall, who release joy from the many prisons of misery that the thieves and the bandits build up around us.
I can’t help feeling that the true test of the authenticity of the Shepherd’s voice is, simply put, joy. Thieves and bandits fool us through fakery. They offer false joy, or they falsely promise us that there is no more joy, that all hope has been destroyed. They are wrong.
The Shepherd calls us, his voice reaching even down into the valley of the shadow of death; he calls us out of the shadows into the light, into real and enduring joy.
I notice that we are back on the Shepherd rather than the Gate, but it is not my fault that Jesus mixes his metaphors. “Very truly,” he says, “I am the Gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.
It doesn’t make perfect sense. It is a word game disguised as a riddle.
Jesus spoke to them in figures of speech because the thing that he describes is bigger than our language can bear. The joy that he offers, that we hear in his voice, is broader than the biggest words we have to describe space. It is more infinite in its variations than a Bach fugue. It is more detailed and beautiful in its brush strokes than a Renoir painting reworked by Picasso by way of Monet. It defies description.
That is how we will know it. The thieves and the bandits lay out their logical schemes for their own salvation, but the love of God moves in mysterious ways. Pay attention, then, to the voices that we hear, and the voice that we use when we speak. If its words are beyond our imagining, if it hopes beyond reason, loves beyond measure, promises joy in the most impossible of places – then it is almost certainly the voice of the Shepherd, or perhaps the Gate creaking gently on its hinges, calling us poor woolly sheep home.