"We Are Not The Gate" – John 10:1-10
Three keys to the effective use of metaphors in language is to keep them simple, not read too much into them, and not layer metaphors on top of one another. Or else you end up with sayings like these:
“He’s not the sharpest bulb in the box”
“She’s a wolf in cheap clothing”
“You could have knocked me over with a fender”
“I can read him like the back of my book”
or my favorite, “These hemorrhoids are a real pain in the neck”
The metaphors found in the Gospel of John are not quite as funny as these, but they are every bit as confusing. In the span of just a few verses an elaborate picture is painted involving sheep, a shepherd, a gatekeeper, a gate, and thieves and bandits. Unfortunately, it’s not immediately clear just what exactly this illustration is trying to convey.
There are some epic metaphorical “I am” statements in John’s gospel, such as:
“I am the bread of life”
“I am the light of the world”
“I am the resurrection and the life”
“I am the way, the truth, and the life”
“I am the true vine”
and, “I am the good shepherd”
Most of us are probably familiar with the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The image of a shepherd was common to that time and its repeated use throughout the Hebrew Scriptures almost always referred to a king. We can wrap our minds around the idea of Jesus as a shepherd – someone who guides us, leads us, battles enemies on our behalf, keeps us from running off (or goes after us when we do run off, picking us up in his strong arms and carrying us back to the flock). A preacher can do a lot with the image of Jesus as a shepherd. Unfortunately, in the verses before us today, Jesus doesn’t identify himself as the shepherd (that comes a few verses later). Instead, we hear of one of Jesus’ lesser known “I am” statements – “I am the gate.”
At first glance, this metaphor is the least impressive of the other options. Surely Jesus would not have chosen to include this moniker on his business cards. Not only is it odd-sounding, but it’s confusing. Jesus identifies as both the shepherd and the gate. So we return to verse 2, which reads as follows, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” So its apparent meaning is, “I enter by myself and I am me.” Or, in the immortal words of Popeye, “I yam who I yam.”
Clear as mud, right?
This metaphor only started making sense to me when I looked at it from a different angle. If Jesus is the gate, that means that we are not the gate. This, I think, is the heart of Jesus’ argument especially in light of the context of the story. His awkward metaphor is directed to the Pharisees, immediately after the episode where Jesus restored the sight of a blind man. Upholding the religious understanding of the time, the Pharisees had argued that the man was blind because of some great sin and that he did not deserve to be healed. If it were up to the Pharisees they would have shut the gate on the blind man. The Pharisees also argued that Jesus had no right to heal the blind man because it was a sabbath day. If it were up to the Pharisees they would have shut the gate on Jesus.
For the Pharisees, seeing a man born blind (which they believed was a punishment for some sin) have his sight restored was inconceivable and against every religious impulse in their body. For the Pharisees, seeing a miraculous event take place on a religiously-mandated day of rest was inconceivable and against every religious impulse in their body. But, as Jesus points out, the reason they thought such miracles inconceivable and against every religious impulse in their body was because they, in fact, were the ones who were blind. Jesus not only accuses them of being blind, but also refers to them as thieves and bandits.
I don’t mean to portray the Pharisees as irrational and unsympathetic villains. Their impulse to shut the gate when they felt threatened is a common impulse we share. If we were to witness an event that went against every religious impulse we had, we would close ranks, become hostile, make sharp distinctions between “us” and “them” and shut the gate in an effort for self-preservation. Unfortunately, this is not a hypothetical situation. In fact, many of you are here today because you experienced this closing of the ranks and gate-shutting in other churches when they felt that their religious or political sensibilities were being threatened. And, truth be told, many of us are the ones who have shut the gates on others.
Into such an environment as this, Jesus boldly declares, “I am the gate.”
We are not the gate. Remember this next time you are tempted to hold someone at arm’s length, next time you are tempted to label someone as unworthy, hopeless, lost, or sinful. We are not the gate. Remember this next time someone holds you at arm’s length, next time someone labels you as unworthy, hopeless, lost, or sinful. We are not the gate.
Is this an excuse to not take a stand on any issue? Are you going to go home and say that your new pastor is advocating for complete tolerance of all behavior, no matter how vile, and that there is never an appropriate time to keep someone or something out? Absolutely not. As the saying goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
But the next time your religious or political or emotional sensibilities feel threatened, listen to the voices vying for your attention. The voice telling you to shut the gate will sound remarkably like your own because it will be the sound of your own fear echoing back at you. But if you manage to stay calm and keep listening you will hear a voice remarkably different from your own; a voice cutting through the clatter like a clarion call. It will be the voice of Jesus, a voice you will know because you are his sheep. And the voice of Jesus will invite you to participate in the abundant life Jesus alone can provide.