To the people who heard him, sometimes Jesus seemed to speak in riddles they just didn’t understand. But even if Jesus’ listeners were metaphor-challenged, we don’t have to be. We can figure out the message of grace, love and abundant life that Jesus wants us to grasp.
Jesus lived in an agrarian society. Most people lived off the land — tending crops, orchards, sheep, goats and chickens. In Judaea, where Jesus did some of his teaching and preaching in and around Jerusalem, the land was rocky and rough, not particularly suitable for crops. But sheep could be raised on such land if shepherds were willing to live nomadically and to take great care that their sheep didn’t wander into danger.
In such a setting, it’s no surprise that when Jesus wanted to explain a complicated theological idea, he used agrarian language, specifically metaphors about sheep and goats and sometimes fig trees.
If, by contrast, his task was to make sense while speaking in person to 21st-century Americans, he’d no doubt ditch the sheep language and talk instead about high-tech stuff. Instead of telling us that he’s the gate for the sheep, he might say, “I am the portal” or “I am the home page” or “I am the universal remote control” — though, given our addiction to technology, he still might be tempted to add “for the sheep.”
Today’s scripture passage from the Gospel of John provides an excellent reminder of why it’s important to know some of the historical and cultural background of the time that’s being written about in the Bible.
For instance, when Jesus says that “all who came before me are thieves and bandits,” it might sound as if he’s denouncing all of Judaism’s previous prophets and leaders. But the late biblical scholar William Barclay is quite emphatic that Jesus “was of course not referring to the great succession of the prophets and the heroes” of the Jewish tradition. Rather, Barclay insists that Jesus was pointing to what Barclay calls “adventurers who were continually arising in Palestine and promising that, if people would follow them, they would bring in the golden age.” Such false prophets and spiritual entrepreneurs, Barclay says, “were insurrectionists. They believed that men would have to wade through blood to the golden age.”1
And that, of course, was far from the message of Jesus. Rather, in his metaphorical use of sheep imagery, Jesus was acknowledging that actual shepherds of the time faced the twin dangers of thieves who might try to steal sheep, which were a valuable commodity, and wild animals, who sought to kill sheep to make a nice rack-of-lamb dinner, though probably minus the mint jelly.
Don’t let such thieves into your spiritual lives, Jesus is saying. Instead, he says that he is the good shepherd who has come so that people “may have life and have it abundantly.” In other words, Jesus is acknowledging that we live in a sinful and dangerous world, but he wants listeners to know that he has been sent to show them — and us — how to flourish in a relationship with God, who loves us.
Such metaphorical language is rich and deep. But sometimes it seems a little confusing and hard to follow. For instance, Jesus says he’s both the good shepherd and “the gate for the sheep.” What can that mean? Well, at night, shepherds back then, having gathered the sheep into an enclosure, or pen, would lie down at the pen’s opening so that no sheep could escape without waking the shepherd. Jesus’ listeners would have understood that image of him being the gate for the sheep. It’s one more way of him saying that he wants to protect us and ensure that we have a chance for abundant life.
And who is this speaking? The good shepherd. The gate for the sheep. The one we call the Lamb of God. As I say, sometimes we find seemingly conflicting metaphors, though each one seeks to reveal something about how and why God loves us.
We should expect this kind of interpretive language in the Gospel of John. It is manifestly different from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which, as you may know, are called the synoptic gospels, a term meaning “seen with the same eyes.” They often contain stories and quotes found in each other, meaning it’s likely they drew from the same sources, including each other.
But even though John contains some versions of stories also found in the other gospels, it nevertheless has a different style, a different feel. For one thing, it was written later than the other gospels, probably close to the year 100, well after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple in the year 70. John also tends to be more interpretive than just a straightforward biographical account of Jesus would be. And you certainly see that in the lofty and poetic prologue at the start of the gospel, the one that begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
So, in chapter 10, when Jesus is speaking to some Pharisees who’ve been challenging him in various ways, we find him using interpretive language to try to help his listeners to open up their minds and hearts to get a sense of what God is doing in their very midst. By the way, in our time the Pharisees have gotten a bad, simplistic reputation as hypocritical sticklers for meaningless rules. But let’s remember that they were the committed religious people of their day. They were the ones attending worship each week. They were the ones studying the scriptures. They were the ones who took religion seriously. In some ways, they were us.
And if they didn’t quite understand what Jesus was saying, it should raise the question of whether we today have grasped what Jesus was about.
Think again about the passage we read today. Is Jesus talking about how to get into heaven? Is he threatening sinners with an eternal hell, a lake of fire? Is he outlining dozens of religious laws we should follow if we’re going to claim to be his disciples?
None of the above.
Rather, he says he has come so that people may have life and have it more abundantly. He wants us to know, as he said when he started his ministry, that the kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, we can live in that kingdom today. We can get a foretaste today of what God’s reign will be like when it eventually comes in full flower.
How? By acting with love, with justice, with mercy and with compassion. Though his message has to do with eternal matters, it focuses over and over on how we are to live today, tonight and tomorrow morning. One way to think about it is that he’s telling people, in effect, not to be so focused on heaven that they are of no earthly good.
Of course, we are somewhat like sheep. Left alone, sheep wander, lose their sense of place and eventually lose themselves. Like sheep, we may begin the day by tasting the good life we have right in front of us — the beauty and wonder of children and grandchildren, the stimulus of great books and art or the awesomeness of nature. But then the phone rings or the TV announces it has more breaking news or we see an ad for some hot high-tech device we think we need, and soon we’ve lost sight of the gifts of God all around us and have even lost ourselves. There’s a Jewish prayer book that puts the problem this way: “We walk sightless among miracles.”
Maybe we’re like the people to whom Jesus was talking in our scripture lesson for today. Do you remember what it said about the words Jesus spoke? “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
We should not miss what he was saying, which was this: Pay attention to my words and my life. Follow me. Be my disciple. I will show you how to live a flourishing, abundant life that brings the goodness of life to others. I will be your shepherd. Learn my voice so that you don’t get distracted by other voices, voices that will mislead you and cause you to live somewhere other than in the kingdom of God, which can be yours this very day.
Friends let’s listen to this life-giving Jesus. He really does know what’s best for us.
1 The Gospel of John: Volume 2, Revised Edition, translated with an introduction and interpretation by William Barclay, 1975, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 59.