“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them. Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” John X:1-11
We are continuing our study of the Gospel of John. The contrast between the Pharisees who are blind and the blind man who sees, as well as contrast between the Rulers of Israel who hound and abuse the blind man and Jesus who healed him — all that provides the immediate context for the Parable of the Good Shepherd. And that immediate context is made red hot when we take into consideration the history of Israel’s symbolic use of shepherds, sheep, and flocks in the Old Testament narrative:
“And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them: Thus saith the Lord GOD… Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.” Ezekiel 34:2-4
“For thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock… so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered… I will feed my flock, and I will cause them to lie down, saith the Lord God… I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but I will destroy the fat and the strong; I will feed them with judgment… Therefore will I save my flock… And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd.” Ezekiel 34:11,12,15,16,23
So the immediate context for the parable of the Good Shepherd is chapter 9 and the wider context of the Old Testament brings into play Israel’s past failures and God’s response to those failures and we get the sense of the finality of the whole matter with Jesus now identifying himself as the Good Shepherd. Now when Jesus first told the parable, the text reports that his audience did not understand what he was driving at. So he spelled it out, placing his interpretation before them, and true to form, the crowd was sharply divided between those who believed in Jesus and those who did not believe in him.
I will make a few preliminary points to keep in mind. First of all as deep and necessary as is the Old Testament background of the parables of shepherds and sheep, it cannot give an adequate account of the supreme truth of the Christian revelation. In the Old Testament, Israel is God’s flock. Furthermore in the Old Testament emphasis is laid upon the difference between the true shepherds and false shepherds of God’s flock. False shepherds use and misuse the sheep, they feed themselves and let the sheep go hungry; they are not true shepherds at all. Who could not see an immediate parallel between the bad shepherds of the Old Testament and the Rulers of Israel who excommunicated the blind man?
But in the Old Testament God promised Israel a true shepherd. Furthermore, the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob declared to Israel that he would one day in some manner take upon himself the tasks of the Good Shepherd, he himself would in some manner come and seek for the lost sheep, and he would set one final Shepherd over them who will spring from the House of David. But here is the thing: What makes the Good Shepherd good? Jesus added one detail to his narrative. And this one detail, I submit to you, would have confused Jews. What makes the Good Shepherd good is that he will “lay down his life for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd’s destiny, Jesus’s destiny, is to die and that destiny moves him, obsesses him, drives him through out his ministry. Jesus intends for us to linger upon the behavior of the Good Shepherd, his relation to the sheep, and especially his resolve to die on their behalf. Not his resolve to die if it became necessary, not to die as David risked when he stood between his flock and a lion or a bear; but to die certainly, unavoidably, as the holy, blameless, Shepherd of Israel in Jerusalem — though it his chosen destiny, that is of his own free will.
Secondly, the sheep are his sheep — all of them. “He calleth his own sheep by name,” should not be taken to mean that the Shepherd is gathering up only those sheep which belong to him as though there are sheep that do not belong to him. Notice that there are no other shepherds in Jesus’ narrative; all the rest are bandits, desecrators, vandals, there is no plurality of shepherds. There is only one Shepherd and the sheep — every single one of them belong to him. Not only are they his sheep, but he alone has the rightful authority to approach them. He calls them by name. Not only do they know his voice, but he calls them out, he leads them into real life and the sheep follow him and by so doing they walk in the light, they have eternal life, abundant life, the life God intends for each one. This is the mission that God the Father has given to his only begotten Son.
“Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.”
Thirdly, Jesus is the door to the sheep fold and Jesus is the Good Shepherd. The others are thieves, liars, self-interested men who have not entered in by the door but have entered into the fold by stealth, power, violence and cruelty. In its immediate context, the Parable of the Good Shepherd is a commentary upon chapter 9 in which the Masters of Israel and Jesus the Messiah reveal their identities by their actions toward the man born blind. The Rulers of Israel treat the blind man as filth, as one already excluded from the Abrahamic promise as evidenced by his congenital blindness. They expel him from the Temple. Note their behavior toward Jesus. Again we see that the flesh of Jesus is the place of judgment: The Rulers of Israel want him dead and they tried to stone him at the end of chapter 8 and once again at the end of this chapter, chapter 10, they will try to stone him again. The flesh is Jesus is the place of their judgment. The man who was born blind ends up falling upon his knees before Jesus and worshipping him. The sheep know his voice and they will follow him anywhere he leads. The Rulers of Israel — bandits, desecrators, vandals — are completely blind. The man who was born blind has perfect vision because he sees Jesus and worships him. Jesus’ flesh is the place of judgment: the rulers tried to destroy his body of flesh with stones, the man born blind fell upon his knees before Jesus, worshipping Jesus, kneeling at his feet of flesh and probably kissing them.
One last point: The Rulers of Israel, whose behavior and purposes constitute the immediate context of the parable of the Good Shepherd, clearly are to be identified with the thieves and robbers but they should have been counted on to shepherded Israel to their Messiah. They are blasphemous men, usurpers, abusers, deaf, dumb and blind. But such blasphemy and robbery for the Beloved Disciple is not exhausted by the historical event he narrates for us in chapter 10. At the time of his writing the Gospel as well as the epistles that bare his name, there were anti-Christ who denied the authority of the fleshly Jesus, the Jesus of history. John even names them by name: in 3 John he cites Diotrephes, “who love to have the pre-eminence,” and those other anti-Christ, who were of the world and already in the Church, denying that Jesus had come in the flesh. But John’s concerns do not end with the urgencies for the Church in his own day because there is no time in all human history that will be beyond the horizon of the thieves and robbers of the parable. “Whenever men have claimed to announce the gift of life, or shall claim to announce it, apart from faith in Jesus, they proclaim themselves as thieves and robbers and their activity has been, is, and always will be as destructive activity.” Jesus is the Door. Jesus the only Door through which men and women may pass to the Father. He is the only door through which Christian priests may have access to Jesus’ sheep and perform their ministry. Faith in Jesus the Messiah who has come in the flesh controls the whole life of the Church and the whole life of any Catholic parish. The door of an Anglican parish church is painted red to remind us that our Good Shepherd has shed out his life’s blood for our salvation and for the life of the world. Thus Jesus’ parable is a vigorous and exclusive insistence that he is the only Door and the only Shepherd: