Entering the Gate to Find Life (John 10:1-10)
4th Sunday of Easter: Good Shepherd Sunday 60th World Day of Prayer for Vocations
Undoubtedly, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most well-loved portraits in Christianity. Often, it is depicted in many churches’ artistic embellishments. What makes it stand out? Of course, one has to give credit to the iconic illustration found in Psalm 23, a veritable inspiration to many moving hymns written. The commitment of the shepherd, an allusion to divine providence and nurturance, moves people to contemplate this heavenly attribute. The shepherd’s tender glimpse and serene face could lead to a moving experience for anyone who finds time to contemplate.
Applied to Jesus, it has never changed for a long time and remains a valid appreciation of who He is. There is a caveat, however. In John 10, the portrayal of Jesus as the Good Shepherd goes hand in hand with his teaching “I am the gate.” Both of these appear to be an outcome of a not-so-fortunate event. It results from his vehement controversy with the Pharisees (John 9:1-40). In effect, this situation serves as the vantage point for reading the intense but beautiful teaching about Jesus, the Gate, and the Good Shepherd.
In the Old Testament, the figure of a “shepherd” was applied to kings and rulers, with David as the ideal shepherd king. After the fabled Davidic reign, as the Old Testament excruciatingly recounts, the succeeding monarchs seemed disinclined to follow in his footsteps. Therefore, God solemnly promised to become the shepherd of His people (Ezk. 34:15).
The catastrophe sadly wrought by the chosen leaders merited divine compassion for the sake of the people God has chosen to be his own. Throughout the voluminous oracles of the prophets, this prophecy unceasingly resounds. In the same vein, Jesus condemned the avowed spiritual leaders of the Jews during his time for their incapacity to see God's work clearly (Jn. 9:41). The saying “blind leaders guiding the people” should be an apt label. To such wanton disregard, the Lord Jesus echoes the prophetic proclamation by assuring the people, “I am the good shepherd.”
But were the Pharisees the leaders? The answer depends on the timing of the story. Simply put, the narrative time (Jesus’) appears distinct from the time of the narration (evangelist’s). In other words, the Jesus event was recounted to a community which existed years after the occurrence. It was meant not only to inform but to use the same account to teach the believers who were already at odds with the Jewish authorities years after Jesus’ resurrection.
It may be conjectured that by the time of the writing of John’s gospel, the Pharisees were perceived as the de facto leaders of the people after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. With the Sanhedrin disbanding and the priests becoming irrelevant with the temple’s destruction, the Jews looked up to them for guidance. This explains the polemical stance the gospel took against this group.
They were not singled out randomly out of revenge. On the contrary, they were judged negatively because they did not function as they ought to. They should have made a difference, but they failed miserably. Jesus’ discourse about the Gate and Good Shepherd is emphatically presented in this context of want and lack. In the failure of the leaders to point to God, Jesus spoke of himself as the only effective way to the Father.
The solemn declaration “Amen, amen” (Jn. 10:1) betrays the urgency of the teaching. Unlike other important assertions, there appears to be a lack of introductory statements. It stresses an exigent pronouncement demanding a listening ear. The content of the statement is crucial: I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture (Jn. 10:9). Jesus is the gate through which both the leaders and the people must enter. In a word, one does not encounter the Father except through Jesus.
This is precisely why Pharisees were incapacitated to truly lead the people to God. They rejected Jesus Christ (Jn. 9:16.22.28). They closed their hearts to him. They did not recognize him. Thus, they grew devoid of knowledge concerning the Father. The gospel later on firmly warns its readers; only in knowing the true God and the one whom he sent, Jesus Christ, does eternal life become possible (Jn. 17:3). Due to this failure, Jesus opens a new possibility to whoever comes to him. Entering through Jesus, the gate signifies hearing his voice and maturing into a recognition of the one who calls. This is the path to eternal life. The Pharisees could probably have served as conduits of God’s purpose if only they were willing to enter through the gate (Jn. 10:2). Unfortunately, this section closes tragically: Although Jesus used this figure of speech, they did not realize what he was trying to tell them (Jn. 10:6).
The situation appears unfortunate, that is, having leaders who do not recognize the mediatorship of Jesus. For this reason, Jesus directly relates to the sheep: Amen, amen, I say to you I am the gate for the sheep (Jn. 10:7). All those alleged to be shepherds but not accepting Jesus Christ are thieves and robbers. He invites them to see him as the gate (Jn. 10:7.9).
Jesus’ scathing remarks about the other “shepherds” as slaughtering and destroying are rooted in the simple reason that there is no life outside Him. He gives life abundantly (Jn. 10:10). According to this optic, one reads the proclamation of Jesus: I am the good shepherd (Jn. 10:11). He gives life to the full by losing his own for the sake of the sheep.
Another fundamental consideration needs to be mentioned at this juncture. The authentic shepherd allows his voice to be heard so the sheep may follow. The recognition of the voice is a non-negotiable element in taking care of the people (Jn. 10:3-5.8). In the context of Palestine, a sudden gathering fog and the possibility of hazy roads along the way were not unknown to the shepherds. Such a situation was their staple food. Hence, in this confusing and cloudy condition, the sheep’s survival depends on the intensity and clarity of the pastor’s voice. Applying the metaphor to Jesus simply means that God's flock must hear His voice. This is the way to salvation.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, the Good Shepherd Sunday, is also known as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. It is a time to ask God to send shepherds willing to “enter into Jesus” and learn the voice of the Good Shepherd. If the Church does not pray for holy labourers, there will be no zealous pastors to lead the people to Jesus, the gate, and the good shepherd. On these hang the salvation of God’s people. Thus, declared by Pope St. Paul VI sixty years ago, it has become a yearly celebration highlighting the need to pray for more holy workers in the Church. St. Hannibal Mary Di Francia, the apostle of prayer for vocations, worked tirelessly so that this prayer become universal.