During the first weeks of the Easter season we were blessed with vivid, surprising, and in the end comforting stories of the resurrection and first appearances of Jesus. We could spend weeks more on the same readings.
But now, on this 4th Sunday of Easter (May 3), we find rather unexpectedly the opening verses of John 10:
Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep… (10.1-2)
Why these verses today? On the surface, the choice of this chapter is related to the liturgical custom that this is Good Shepherd Sunday. Yes, but alas, it is only next year, 2021, that the really famous part of the chapter is heard: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…” (10.11) Today we are faced with the more obscure image of the gate where sheep go in and go out.
But why does John even introduce the figure of speech of sheep and shepherds, gates, etc.? A clue (which I picked up from Karoline Lewis’ fine 2014 commentary on John) is that John 10 is not a new start, but is to be read as continuing John 9, which we read in Lent. There, the man born blind was cured, but religious leaders (John’s very unfortunately labeled “the Jews”) cannot believe their eyes, cannot see that the man now sees. That chapter ends on a dark note:
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. (9.40-41)
John 10 follows immediately, simply as if Jesus is continuing to speak to them:
Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers. (10.1-5)
There is intimacy and safety in the work of a reliable gatekeeper – an honest religious leader? – and in the fact that the flock recognizes the voice of their own shepherd. Sheep are, they say, rather stupid, but they are not stupid enough to follow bandits and strangers who will do them only harm. Like the man born blind, the sheep know who is on their side, and instinctively stay with that person: pay attention to what you see, listen for the voice that will guide you.
When (as is often the case in this Gospel) the listeners do not understand what Jesus is talking about, he tries again:
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.
Jesus is now the gate, the doorway into the safe space protected from thieves, bandits, killers, and he is the doorway out from there, into nourishing, safe fields for pasture. This again seems to be pushback against the skeptical leaders we meet in John 9: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy." (10.10) They want those born blind to stay blind for life. But Jesus wants to open eyes and open gates, as today’s Gospel ends:
I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly. (10.10)
Jesus wants us to live life to the full, in safety, at peace. Yet the famed sequel is both beautiful and ominous: “I am the good shepherd… who lays down his life for his sheep” (10.11). Those who do good often pay with their lives, again in conflict with leaders who stifle life and deny flourishing.
Later we learn that Jesus wants more and more people to share in this abundance of life, all those who can recognize and hear his voice:
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they too will listen to my voice. (10.16)
But for now, things end a bit confused, a bit unhappily. Those who refused to accept the cure of the blind man also reject the very idea that leadership is about protection, community, life, inclusion:
Again they were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” Others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (10.19-21)
Does all this shed any light on our current crisis? Perhaps the words of today’s Gospel offer a realistic, unromantic view of leaders, here and around the globe: some are robbers who intend no good, but want to steal life and use it up for their own pleasure; and some are shepherds who know their people, stay with them, protect them, and seek to make possible a return to the greener pastures of safety, nourishment, life in abundance.
When preaching on this Gospel in 2017, Pope Francis put it this way,
"Jesus, Good Shepherd and door of the sheep, is a leader whose authority is expressed in service, a leader who, in order to command, gives his life and does not ask others to sacrifice theirs. One can trust in a leader like this, as the sheep who heed their shepherd’s voice because they know that with him one goes to good and abundant pastures. A signal, a call suffices, and they follow; they obey; they begin to walk, guided by the voice of the One whom they feel as a friendly presence, strong and mild at once, who calls, protects, consoles and soothes."
Leaders worthy of respect do good, not harm; thieves pretend to be leaders, but steal the lives of others to improve their own. We are not sheep, we have brains and we need to use them. But even sheep figure out who to trust! During this pandemic, let’s keep our eyes open and ears tuned, to recognize, both in church and in the wider society, who is actually doing something, who is actually helping people in a time of peril near and far: nurses and doctors; the police and safety officials; the women and men who keep the trains and buses running; the workers near and far who keep the food supply coming; the prudent governors and mayors who with great care and responsibility plan cautiously for the “return to normal;" and the epidemiology experts who keep the hard but honest facts before our eyes. All good shepherds, in their own way, all doing the work of our Good Shepherd.
The 4th Sunday of Easter is also, again by recent Church tradition, a day to pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Here too, the same questions arise: Who in the Church are actually role models in this time of crisis? Which religious leaders are in essence doing nothing? And what kind of church leaders do we want after the pandemic is over?