[Jesus said:] “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.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 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. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
So, we’re all a bunch of sheep! Today, those words are hardly a compliment. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, political tensions, and anxiety about war and climate change, the insult of “sheeple” is hurled against pretty much every group, no matter their position or party. The accusation is that in failing to think critically for ourselves, we mindlessly follow the crowd around us like a herd animal.
Sheep are hardwired to follow each other, even if that leads to dangerous situations like proximity to a cliff’s edge or away from protection against predators. This insult is not new. Even in ancient Roman writings, the comparison to sheep was a taunt to imply one was easily fooled. Being called a sheep was not a great thing. So why would Jesus compare God’s people to sheep?
Our gospel lesson can sometimes feel like both your favorite episodes of that sitcom, and also the one you know by heart and don’t often pay attention to. But tonight’s/today’s illustrations using shepherds and sheep are pretty prominent in both the text and within church.
But what about a gate?
Jesus identifies himself as a gate today, a passageway from one way of being to another. And while some may interpret this text to be problematically exclusive, as if it’s talking about people, Jesus is really talking about the ways of life verses the ways of destruction when he’s talking about “thieves and bandits.”
What are the gates to abundant life that this world offers today?
A fat bank account? It’s not uncommon to believe that having a lot of money will provide you with what your heart desires. So often, though, a fat bank account just leads to more of what our bodies desire and our egos desire. The heart…doesn’t know what a dollar sign is.
Fame? Being a social influencer seems like a pretty cushy job these days, but the number one sell that a social influencer pushes on the world is that the viewer can be like them…which is just not true for the vast majority of the world. It is a thief, stealing away hours of time. It is a bandit, stealing our joy, as it has been shown that time spent on social media actually leaves us more depressed than inspired.
What about the perfect job? Climbing the work ladder promises raised salaries and raised prestige, but it all to often becomes more competitive than collaborative, leaving us thinking that life is a pie and we need our piece to be cut bigger. God does not operate on merit, but so many of us live like our work will provide us with ultimate fulfillment.
Today, Jesus says that he is the gate to abundant life. His life, his death, his resurrection, and his sacrificial way of loving in the world provides a key not only to unlock our own hearts and longings, but also moves us to use that love to unlock other hearts captive to all those other thief gates, bandit doorways, and plain dead-end saviors in this world like money, prestige, and idealized living that the world pushes on us.
Jesus is the gate that resurrection love has unlocked, allowing us to live free from feeble attachments to all those other self-proclaimed doorways in this world.
Some interpreters and scholars (and some pastors) try to do away with the comparison to animals. I believe a reason these passages and the metaphor of people as sheep spans from the Psalms through the prophets of the Hebrew Bible to the Gospels to the epistles is because the scriptures understand a fundamental and timeless truth about humans whether we like it or not…humans are deeply social creatures.
To be human is to be a social creature, like sheep:
- Humans can be led astray.
- Humans like to follow others.
- Humans can also learn to recognize leaders.
These are not inherently bad qualities. They are human qualities. To embrace being human, we must embrace the limitations and tendencies that come with being a social creature.
- We cannot know everything.
- We have to trust others at some point.
- And we have to trust that God is the good shepherd.
Where does that leave us then? If we are to embrace our limitations, does that mean that we are to do away with critical thinking and blindly follow those around us?
No. On the contrary.
There are two ways that today’s readings teach us about living into our identity as sheep.
- The first is that sheep exist in relationship to the shepherd. The Bible calls us to recognize that God is the shepherd and that God shepherds the flock.
- The other is, and this one is not easy for many of us to accept, God is the gate, not us. While there is the human impulse to gate-keep who is in and who is out of our communities and heaven, that is not the role of the sheep. Jesus is clear: “I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.”
Christians over the centuries have argued and even spilled blood on the “right” ways of thinking, believing, and behaving. And those who did not align with that “right” way were cast from the community. But if Jesus is the gate and the shepherd, we are freed from that task of gatekeeping who is in and who is out.
The gate and shepherd work together to protect and guide the flock so that it might flourish. The role of the sheep is to trust in God and trust that God will bring abundant life. Our problems usually that abundant life does not always look the way we might imagine it.
Sometimes, the way of God seems like a path only “sheeple” would follow. The author of 1 Peter writes that following God is not always comfortable or easy. Sometimes, following God’s radical path of love and justice can bring discomfort, pain, and even unjust suffering. The passage from Acts 2 also shows that following God does not always make sense in the eyes of the world.
Selling everything you have definitely does not seem to make rational sense. And yet, perhaps this is the greatest example of positive human social life. Spurred on by God’s love as demonstrated by those around them, the early followers of Christ couldn’t help but be caught up in a contagious generosity. Inspired by the actions of those around them, tethered to one another, and aware of the needs of their community, they acted out their radical love by entering a life of mutual dependence on one another. They were all in this together…and we have lost that mentality in our communities and world today. Never in any time of history has there been information available that tells us the struggles of people all around the world, and yet most people seem less concerned as ever because it doesn’t affect them personally.
Activist and author Craig Greenfield tells a story of living in an impoverished Cambodian community during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the national lockdown, when people were unable to go out and earn wages, some people in his community put out a table with a sign that said “Those who have extra please add to the table, and those who need, help yourself.” Being the 21st century, they then took a photo with a hashtag and tagged their friends on Facebook with a community table challenge.
And before long, hundreds of community tables were popping up to serve the needs of communities all over the country.
In this time of uncertainty and scarcity, a spirit of sharing and generosity moved through these communities. Craig described this in an interview, “When we speak of community spirit, I like to think of that as the Holy Spirit’s stirring.”
No matter where we are in the world or who our community is, it is good to share. It is good to look after each other. It is good to belong to a flock. Here at Good Shepherd sometimes that’s serving meals at First Lutheran downtown; sometimes it’s being a collection place for quilts, school kits, and bathing supplies for people all over the world; and sometimes it looks like this weekend raising money at the Craft Show and using that money to support local organizations and ministries. There are so many ways for us to listen to the shepherd calling us to care for others, all we have to do is follow that voice.
The label of sheep has become so offensive in today’s culture because of our high esteem for independence and critical, rational thought. But the Bible shows us that there are other values than independence and cleverness. In an age where every school or institution markets itself as creating leaders, the Bible offers a different lesson. Sometimes, to be a good leader it is good to follow. Sometimes, to be a good example it is good to be caught up in the contagious fervor of love in a community. Sometimes, it is good to share, especially when things are scarce…who remembers the toilet paper shortage of 2020?
Embracing the strange world of the scriptures can mean embracing uncomfortable metaphors. But when we do open ourselves in humility to these images, we find that they can shine an uncomfortable truth on what it means to be human. The Bible teaches that humans are social creatures. We have creaturely limits. We depend on each other. We follow each other. Again, these are not inherently bad things.
In fact, being social means that we can find abundant life by recognizing that God is present in love and generosity and gladness in and through each other. We can spur each other on to love and good deeds. We can inspire and be inspired by living out a life of trust that God will provide.
I pray we all can follow where God the Good Shepherd leads, learning to recognize where God is calling us, especially when abundant life does not conform to worldly standards of wisdom. Maybe being sheeple isn’t so bad.