A Sermon based on John 10:1-16
In his earliest days, when Jesus was teaching in Galilee, surrounded by fields of grain, he spoke about God in terms of a sower and some seed; he spoke about heaven in terms of wheat and harvesting. That was back in the early days when Jesus walked through the farmlands of upper Galilee.
Alongside the lake -- the Sea of Galilee -- he changed metaphors. Jesus spoke about fishermen and nets. Later, while he was passing through Samaria, speaking to a woman who was drawing water from a well, Jesus spoke about God in terms of a "life-giving spring" of water welling up from within...
Each parable (or metaphor) Jesus used was appropriate to that specific audience and to their daily experience. On a hillside, for example, Jesus spoke about God's Kingdom in terms of "lilies of the field" and "birds of the air." Walking through a vineyard, Jesus told a story of vineyard workers who were disgruntled with their pay, and he offered that wonderful illustration of connectedness to God's Spirit, when he said: "I am the Vine; you are the branches..."
Each of these metaphors (or parables) reflected every-day experiences... accessible to everyone in his audience... appropriate to the business at hand: farming, fishing, daily chores in the home, experiences village people knew well.
In today's Scripture lesson, Jesus speaks about God in terms of a sheep's "door" and he articulates the qualities of a good shepherd.
Now, if his pattern was consistent (as I believe it was) -- speaking in terms most easily understood and immediately relevant to his audience -- we would expect Jesus to use these pastoral images (flocks of sheep) with a group of shepherds out on the hills of Judea (perhaps even among some of those very same shepherds near Bethlehem, who had celebrated his birth at Christmas!).
But, no... This time it seems that Jesus entirely missed his audience. (!) He is not in the countryside, but in the Capitol City: Jerusalem! Here he should be talking about merchants and politicians, about the priests & the Romans occupying the city; or addressing the corrupt dynasty of King Herod's monarchy.
Here in Jerusalem we would expect Jesus to offer some CITY talk… Temple talk, maybe even tax-payer's grievances... here in the Capitol City.
It really looks as though Jesus missed his audience when you read on to what happened as a result of these sayings about the gatekeeper of the sheep, the qualities of a good shepherd, and the failings of the “hireling” who doesn’t really care about the flock. Immediately following these words (in which Jesus refers to himself as the sheep's door and offers himself as the good shepherd) -- words which give us Christians a warm glow of godly acceptance -- the people in the Temple picked up stones to kill him! (!) The authorities tried to arrest him!
What is it about these "shepherd and sheep" stories in John's Gospel that so enrage the civic & religious leaders in the Temple? I would have thought they had nothing to do with herding sheep! They are priests & politicians, after all… not shepherds. (!) The only sheep they ever saw were being brought as sacrifice... or in the market as meat, or for the value of their fleece… their wool.
Even though the religious leaders were not THEMSELVES shepherds, they were certainly familiar with the system of marketing sheep: people out in the villages who owned the flocks and who hired day-laborers to serve as shepherds. Why would Jerusalem’s Civic Leaders get so "bent out of shape" over Jesus’ words about sheep and their shepherds?
Let's hear his words again -- recalling that Jesus said these words in response to the Pharisees' question "Are we also blind?":
Jesus said: The one "who enters by the door is the shepherd
of the sheep. To [this one] the gatekeeper opens.
The sheep hear [this one's] voice, calling each by
name; [this one] leads them out. When all have
been brought out, [this one] goes before them…
… and the sheep follow, for they know [this one's] voice.
A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee;
for they do not know the voice of strangers."
This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand...
What is there not to understand? I think the metaphor is perfectly clear…
If you asked the sheep "whose they were?"... and if they could answer... it would be: "we belong to the shepherd who leads us; the one who knows us by name." If you asked the gatekeeper, again the only right answer would be: "they belong to the shepherd who cares for them." The gatekeeper isn't going to open the sheepfold to a stranger who doesn't care for the sheep! (Like DUH!) And the sheep aren't going to follow some strange voice.
Whose sheep are these? "The shepherd's" -- if you asked the sheep, or if you asked the gatekeeper, or if you asked the shepherd! He or she would say: "These are my sheep. I know them. I care for them. I put my life on the line for them." Anyone else getting ahold of them is a robber or a thief, whose only desire is to destroy them (use ’em, consume ’em, sell ’em, or slaughter ’em).
Seems simple enough. What is there to mis-understand? I mean, what other answer is even possible? The sheep belong to the shepherd who cares for them! (Right? OK?!)
Well, no... City Folk see it differently. The Pharisees would say: "The sheep belong to whoever owns them." And "ownership" is determined in the marketplace. You buy and sell "title" to property. (Right?) And whoever has "the right to sell" is (ultimately) the owner.
Therefore, most likely, it is not the shepherd who cares for the sheep, but the "landlord" who owns the sheep. And property, with all its derivative power, can be bought, sold, and even inherited... regardless whether the sheep know it, or the shepherd knows it, or the gatekeeper knows it.
David, for example (who wrote the 23rd Psalm that we spoke about last Sunday), long ago -- before he was the King of Israel -- had been a shepherd. David cared for sheep. He fought off bears and lions to protect them; he sang to soothe them, and he never let even one of his little ones become lost. David was a shepherd, yes; but he didn't own the sheep. They "belonged to" his father, Jesse, who could do with them as it pleased him. David was just the shepherd who cared for the flock… he was not the "owner".
Similarly, Moses, when he encountered the burning bush, was serving as a shepherd. But the flocks he led through the Sinai were not his; they belonged to his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian.
Landlords and merchants could make the case that sheep don't belong to the shepherds who care for them; the shepherds (and their flocks) belong to THEM! The shepherd is only a hired worker, and the sheep are cash crops -- "property" -- to be traded in the market for maximum profit. The Market is their game, so they can make the rules; they can define the terms of "ownership."
(In today’s world we might say: “That’s Wall Street for you.” They write the rules that run the economy; we just have to live with it. They make the big bucks!)
When sheep were brought into Jerusalem, they were headed for Market. They were not coming in to find pasture. The best lambs would be taken to the Temple Trading Post, to be sold as "spotless sacrifice" for the high priest's altar. Less-than-perfect sheep would stay in the general market, to be sold for milk and for wool, sold for breeding purposes, and for slaughter and human consumption.
Whether it was a shepherd who had brought a select few from his flock, or a thief who had stolen some in hopes of a quick sale, in the Jerusalem Market it didn’t really matter -- sheep were "property" with no value apart from the price which could be gotten for them. It didn't matter what their names were; it didn't matter whose voice they recognized! "Owner-ship" was simply a question of WHO GOT THE MONEY for them?!
Can you imagine, now, when Jesus saw flocks of living sheep -- and their shepherds as well! -- become DE-VALUED in the name of the Almighty Dollar (and even worse, in the name of Almighty God!), that he became angry!? (!) Do you recall how he grabbed a whip, and drove the merchants, and their sacrificial lambs, out from the Temple in Jerusalem, saying: "This house is to be a house of Prayer for all the nations, but you have made it into a den of thieves!" (Robbers!)
Yes, these are the same Pharisees, the same Temple priests, the same political rulers, who had already been offended by Jesus for disrupting their trade 'way back in Chapter Two! And now -- eight chapters later -- when these priests and Pharisees question him, Jesus tells them point-blank: the sheep are NOT THEIRS to do with as they please. They belong to the shepherd who cares for them, who tends them, and whose voice they recognize. THAT is the only claim of "title" recognized by God: Who CARES for you?
And if the intent of the Temple priests is only to KILL sheep (in God's name, no less), then they are robbers, not shepherds. Even if they presume to call themselves "pastors" of the flock -- "shepherds of the people" (which they did!) -- so long as their intent was to "fleece" the sheep and to "devour," then they are not God's chosen servants! Even if they have the power, and they wear the long robes, and they receive the civic acclaim… They are in reality "wolves in sheep’s clothing". They are bad shepherds!
They are the very same kind of leaders who had been condemned by Ezekiel five hundred years earlier! Shepherds who didn’t care for the sheep.
Hear again the complaints from this morning’s Old Testament lesson as Jay Kettler read for us from the Prophet Ezekiel: "Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat portions; you clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings… but you do not feed the sheep! The weak you have not strengthened; the sick you have not healed; the crippled you have not bound up; the strayed you have not brought back; the lost you have not sought; and with force and harshness you have ruled them! So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they became prey for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them."
Thus says the Lord God (Ezekiel told the priests and rulers in Jerusalem in his day). And even though we stopped reading the chapter at that point, here’s what Ezekiel went on to say to the civic leaders and religious rulers:
"Behold, I am against the shepherds of my people! No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I – I, myself! – will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have scattered, so will I seek out my sheep. And I will rescue them… and I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. … I will feed them with good pasture. There they shall lie down in good grazing land. … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, says the Lord God! I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the cripples, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat & the strong I will watch over. I will feed them with justice!"
When Jesus told the story of the one lost lamb from a flock of 100 sheep – about how a diligent shepherd would leave the 99 who were safe in the pen, and go out into the night, into the storm, into potential danger – until it was found… and then, taking that little lamb in his arms (as we see every Sunday in the Good Shepherd window at the front and center of our worship space) – would rejoice with his neighbors that it was returned safely to the fold… Jesus was using precisely the same image of God that the prophet Ezekiel had used five-or-six hundred years earlier! God, the Good Shepherd, cares for the flock better than any of the "hirelings" who present themselves as "shepherds" of the people.
It’s the same metaphor that David used in his 23rd Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall want for nothing! He makes me to lie down in green pastures."
Jesus has suggested that he, in fact, is a better shepherd than the publicly credentialed priests and Pharisees of the Jewish Biblical Religion.
Despite what their culture had taught them to believe, God did not look upon the world with the eyes of a merchant. God saw the story from the perspective of the sheep, of the shepherd who cared for them, and as a keeper-of-the-gate, who had to judge: which of these strangers is truly the "owner"?
The Scripture says: "The Pharisees did not understand him." (Do you get the feeling that they were resisting his clear teaching?) They don't get it!
So, Jesus again said to them: "Verily, Verily -- Truly, Truly -- I say to you: I AM the Door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the Door; if any enter by me, they will be saved, and will go in and out to find pasture."
Quite frankly, his explanation -- this thing about being "the door of the sheep" -- only made things worse for Jesus! While the image may be confusing to us, it was very clear in Hebrew, and especially so in Jerusalem!
It relates directly back to what we talked about on Monday night at our Fellowship Dinner: the story of the healing of the invalid at the Bethesda pool.
You see, in Jesus day, the Capitol City (Jerusalem) was entirely surrounded by a fortress wall, upon which the Roman Legionnaires marched as a show of their military security. That great wall had three large openings (not counting the small "Dung Gate" which was used only for sanitation removal): first, the KING'S gate (immediately behind the Temple-Palace complex) used for soldiers, royalty, judges, and priests (high-falutin’ politicians & commanders); second, the CITY gates, where the general population (wagons, horses, cattle, camels of the hoi-polloi...) could pass; and third, the SHEEP gate (in the North-East wall) consisting of 5 narrow archways through which flocks of sheep would be led into the city market, alongside the pool of Bethesda.
The 25 of us who were here on Monday night heard it described in John, Chapter 5: "There is in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, a pool (in Hebrew called "Bethesda") which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed..."
To enter at the Sheep Gate, and to hang out at the pool of Bethesda, was one of the least pleasant places in Jerusalem. No grand entrance, or triumphal parade, would come through these lowly porticoes! No... Never! Nothing but sheep, being brought to market … and to slaughter.
And yet, JESUS comes -- not thru the City gate, nor thru the King's gate -- walking through the Sheep gate on a Sabbath day. No one would have imagined that the Messiah would enter where the sheep dwelt -- where the poorest and most invalid persons were left to rot away! But…that's where Jesus chose to come into town.
And when Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees, he draws their attention directly back to the Sheep Gate controversy. He says: "I am the Door of the Sheep!" I am Bethesda. Not any old door: Jesus says that he is the "Sheep's door." Actually it's a lousy translation: it should be GATE! Not secure and sanitized like our solid wooden doors, but a gateway that’s raw and dangerous!
"I am the sheep gate" -- Bethesa, (literally) the "place of pasture." I am among the sheep and the invalids, says Jesus. I am among the helpless and the forgotten. Those creatures who have no value to you, have great value to me; for I see them as God sees them: not as the market place "de-values" them.
"I am the Sheep gate! If anyone enters by me..." -- which no self-respecting person would do, because it's mucky and unclean down there! You might get your holy hands dirty! It might raise a few eyebrows among your cleaner (kosher) colleagues, to be seen in the company of the likes of THEM!
You know, it doesn't surprise me to think that the first of the martyrs (Saint Stephen) had been caught preaching and healing down by the Sheep-Gate -- because that's where the church got started! It was among the people of the Sheep-Gate, not in the Temple, where God was seen to be at work (where Christ was "incarnate" in the flesh and Jesus was called "Emmanuel" God-with-us).
Come to God through MY DOOR, says Jesus -- through the Sheep Gate -- and you will be saved. It is no longer the last stop on the road to Market and to death; but in me, says Jesus, you will find your way to pasture (to "zada") -- coming and going freely, for nurture and for service, for care and for comfort.
No longer are you destined to be sold into the market of sacrifice and slaughter. I have come that you may have LIFE! And have it abundantly!
For this reason, says Jesus, I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me. In the same way that I know God, so, too, God knows me… and loves me. I lay down my life for the sheep. I do so for this flock, who know each other, and for the other flocks whom you do not yet know. We are all one, in God’s eyes. And I am their shepherd, too, as I am of you. Get used to it!
May we come to know God with that same intimacy and assurance of God's favor, as Jesus had -- and, in turn, may we show the same courage as we search out the "Sheep Gates" in our own town, in Jesus’ name, for God’s sake.