Genesis 7 or Acts 2.42-end; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19-end or Acts 2.42-end; John 10.1-10
Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life: raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
JESUS’s solemn warning that anyone who did not enter the sheepfold by the legitimate route was a thief or a bandit (John 10.1) was intended to make a particular constituency very uncomfortable.
In the sequence of John’s Gospel, he had just had another abrasive exchange with the Pharisees, after the healing of a man born blind (John 9). The Pharisees contended that Jesus was a sinner (John 9.24); the man argued that only by the power of God could the miracle he had experienced have taken place (John 10.32-33).
Jesus turns the wrangling over sight and blindness into a metaphor for the paradox of his ministry: he gives sight to those who cannot see, while those who think they see clearly are blind to the signs of the Kingdom of God (John 9.39). What he is attacking is the blinkered arrogance that protests loyalty to Moses (John 9.28), yet forgets that Moses gave them the law touched by direct encounter with divine glory and power (Exodus 19.9-20).
The next chapter explores a different family of metaphors, well-established in the Psalms and in the prophetic tradition: sheep, sheepfolds, shepherds (for example, Psalms 23, 79, and 80; Ezekiel 34; Isaiah 53.6). The obvious failure of the audience to recognise themselves in what is being said suggests that they deserve the earlier accusation. Their sinful behaviour cannot be excused, when they have been given all the resources to see (John 9.41).
It is admittedly difficult to determine, from Jesus’s opening description of the workings of a well-ordered flock, securely housed and cared for by an honest shepherd, exactly where he locates himself. Is he the shepherd, or the gatekeeper? Our sympathies might rest briefly with those who did not understand this complicated figure of speech (John 10.1-6).
What is unexpected is his explicit identification with the gate of the sheepfold (John 10.7). Matthew and Luke had spoken of the narrow gate and difficult way leading to life, but they had not actually presented Jesus as the way, or the gate (Matthew 7.13-14, Luke 13.23-24).
Gates are not interesting in their own right; their significance comes from the places to which they give entrance, and from the kinds of people they admit and exclude. On the other side of this gate is salvation, and Jesus has harsh criticism to offer those who assume authority without proper care of their people, or who sneak in among them like thieves (John 10.8-10).
The words are a direct hit, Brendan Byrne suggests, on “rulers such as Herod, high priests, and other religious figures” who have, as the Gospel-writer sees it, “plundered and ravaged the community of Israel” (Life Abounding, Liturgical Press, 2014). No wonder these verses were taken up by a later critic of the clergy and church government of his day, the poet John Milton.
Lamenting a friend and fellow student who died in a shipwreck in 1637, before he could take Holy Orders, Milton contrasted him with those who “for their bellies’ sake Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!” Their interest was not in pastoral ministry, and “the hungry sheep look up and are not fed” (Lycidas ll.114-115, 125).
Later, in Paradise Lost (1667), he would describe Satan seeking a way into Eden which avoided passing through the garden’s single gate. He likened the devil to “a prowling wolf”, waiting his chance to leap into the fold when the sheep were safely penned for the night, or to a thief climbing through a window. The description ends devastatingly:
So clomb this first grand thief
into God’s fold;
So since into his church lewd
(Paradise Lost, IV.183-194)
The Church, for its part, has held up the shepherd imagery of John 1 as the highest model for its clergy, and has written it into its rites of ordination. The Book of Common Prayer Ordinal sternly warns new bishops, as they receive the Bible, to “be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, devour them not.”
Candidates for the priesthood hear the people whom they will serve described as a “treasure” that is “entrusted to them”.
The process has also worked in the opposite direction. Both Wycliffe and Tyndale translated 1 Peter 2.25 as commending a Christian community that had strayed like sheep, perhaps because of persecution, for returning “to the shepherd and bishop of your souls”.
The King James Version saw no reason to change this. What this community returned to may not have been safety in worldly terms, any more than the faithful fellowship described in Acts 2.43-47 could ignore the hostility outside the homes where they broke bread. Real safety had become a person rather than a place, the good shepherd, whom John will go on to describe (John 10.11-18).