by Veronica Lawson, RSM
Sheep were domesticated in Palestine some eight thousand years ago. In biblical times, shepherds would lead their sheep out to graze by day and bring them by night to a communal enclosure or sheepfold, the entrance to which was guarded by a gatekeeper. Shepherds knew their sheep and their sheep knew them. Thieves would have to scale the wall of the enclosure and watch for the chance to get away with a few of the sheep. The loss of even a few sheep was a deeply personal loss for the shepherd and the shepherd’s family. Furthermore, the personal relationship between sheep and shepherd made theft a traumatizing experience for the sheep. Little wonder that the biblical tradition is replete with ovine images.
In John 10, Jesus directs a parabolic image of sheep and shepherds and thieves to the religious authorities of the previous chapter. They fail to understand, mainly because they are hostile and choose not to understand. While they claim to shepherd God’s people, they do not even know them and have no capacity to lead them. Jesus is, by contrast, both shepherd and gate for the sheep: such are his identity claims. The former claim becomes explicit later in the chapter when he states, “I am the good shepherd.” It follows his twice repeated claim, “I am the gate”. The “I am” in these claims echoes God’s self-revelation to Moses in the burning bush. Jesus contrasts the access he provides as “the gate” with the unauthorized access gained by others “who have come before” him, namely the religious authorities. They gain access to the sheepfold on false pretences and lead God’s flock into pastures that fail to satisfy.
In Psalm 23, God is the shepherd of Israel who leads the people into nourishing pastures and restores life to the depths of their nephesh or being. Nephesh is the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2 for the life that God breathes into all beings. God leads the people in the way of justice or righteousness. Psalm 118 sings of God’s gate through which the just or righteous will enter and give thanks. As the gate to the little sheepfold, Jesus is the way into safety and the way out to life-restoring pastures. In other words, he is the gate to abundant life. As shepherd, he monitors the movement of the sheep so that they are not tempted to stray along the paths of unrighteousness and destruction.
Finally, Jesus makes a claim about his mission: “I have come that they (the sheep) may have life and have it abundantly”. This has a particular resonance at a time when so many lives are threatened by Coronavirus and when life has changed dramatically for the whole Earth community. Abundant life for all is our deepest desire and we must search to discover what that means in uncharted territory. As usual, the gospel text is multi-layered. The images pulsate with life and energy. They invite to vigilance on the one hand and hope on the other. They offer yet another way of celebrating Easter.