Today we’ve had the reading from St John’s gospel which shows us an image of Jesus as a shepherd. It is a popular and lovely image and a frequent theme in Christian art. We often see pictures of Jesus carrying home a sheep which had obviously strayed a weary way from its flock, or Jesus leaning precariously over a steep mountainside to catch hold of a sheep before it finally loses its footing and falls into the abyss below. These are images of nurturing and caring which reassure and comfort us. No wonder that they appeal.
Our reading today focuses on the shepherd and his role. The next passage in the gospel develops the idea of the Good Shepherd whose care extends to laying down his life for his sheep, foreshadowing the sacrifice of the Cross. But at this point St John is looking at the role of shepherd as leader of his flock, not at this point as their ultimate saviour. And of course it goes almost without saying that St John is not simply speaking about animal husbandry when he speaks of sheep and shepherd. He is using sheep as an image for God’s people and shepherd as an image of the one who takes care of every need of God’s people, including leading them safely to his Father God.
Just before today’s reading begins, St John gives us an example of what Jesus’ care and leadership can do. Jesus cures a man who has been blind from birth. Because of this disability the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the Israelites, had thrown the man out of the community. Now the man can see and so lead a normal life as one of the community, or we could say, one of the flock. The man turns to Jesus and worships him. His eyes have been opened in two senses: he can literally see again, and he can now recognise Jesus as the leader, the shepherd, whom he wishes to follow.
So when we come to the thieves and robbers or bandits in our set passage we can see that St John is really referring to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees, who were not true leaders at all. They failed the blind man in his distress and they failed to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. They misled the people into thinking he was a criminal who should be put to death and that his followers should be hounded and persecuted. In this sense they were thieves and robbers: they were robbing the Israelites of the truth and of God’s promise of salvation. But then of course failure to understand who Jesus was, and is, is not confined to ancient history. It is a reality of our present times too.
Then, in contrast, in verses 7-10, we have the image of Jesus as ‘the door (or gate) of the sheep’. The image of the door is perhaps less appealing than that of the shepherd. But if we imagine that the door stands open and those inside are no longer confined, or imprisoned, then the door provides an image of hope and of access. In the Book of Revelation, St John the Divine speaks of his vision “After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open” (Rev. 4:1). Perhaps he too saw Jesus as the open door, the gate, which gives entry to heaven. Jesus purpose is not to exclude anyone from this community. It is to fulfil his role as leader, as shepherd and to ensure that all his sheep, his people “may have life and have it abundantly” (10:10). By following him, his people will have the safety, the freedom and support which Christian life can bring. But what does ‘abundant life mean’ in v. 10? Life by itself is not all that there is. There is more. Life needs to be sustained, to be strengthened and to be continued. We can’t do it by ourselves. It is Jesus who can bring this abundance for us. It is he who sustains us, strengthens us and extends our life into eternity. We have only to go through his open door, and life will not be taken from us.