Most of us hate gatekeepers. We don’t like our access controlled, especially by someone or something we don’t like or trust. Or maybe we don’t like our access controlled. Period. We want what we want when we want it. Period.
So a story about a gatekeeper might not be listened to today. And a story about a gatekeeper and sheep, really might not be listened to today. After all, how many of us have ever been near a real, live sheep? Certainly not a flock of sheep. Or a shepherd with the shepherd’s hook wearing long flowing robes in a pastoral setting of meadows and pastures. Many of us didn’t even grow up eating sheep! (I don’t even want to think about eating a lamb.)
Add to that a familiar Bible story about a gatekeeper and sheep and I really hope I haven’t lost you yet because this story has some surprises. Here’s the story:
“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. ~ John 10:1-10
Here are the obvious metaphors: Jesus is the gatekeeper and Jesus is the shepherd. Everyone else are sheep. Every story needs some bad guys. Those are the thieves, bandits, and wolves. They want to steal the sheep or eat the sheep. (Wolves will eat anything, but are licking their chops for a tasty lamb morsel.)
And the assumptions usually made are: Not everyone is in the flock; only those who respond the the shepherd’s voice are in the real flock. Sheep are stupid animals and that’s why they need a shepherd. Only those who come and go through the Jesus gate find the pasture to eternal (abundant) life. Finally, woe to the sheep (oops, people) who get snatched or stray by the wiles of the evil ones.
Now for some [new] thoughts I have on this story. At the very end of the story is what I consider to be Jesus’ mission statement: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. It’s simple, succinct, and doesn’t mention anything about sin or sins. It’s not that Jesus is avoiding sin, but he certainly isn’t emphasizing it either. His emphasis is on life – abundant life – now and always. In contrast to all that would rob us of life and prevent us from having an abundant life, Jesus offers life, not just to survive, but to thrive.
This is hard for us to hear and grasp. It certainly was hard the religious leaders and the blind man whose sight was given to him. For the blind man, it was his sight that was preventing him from having an independent and abundant life. So Jesus gave him sight. The religious leaders, focusing on the man’s blindness, assumed it was his sin or his parent’s sin that contributed to his blindness. Jesus dismissed that notion altogether. The religious leaders would continue to use the sin factor as a way to discredit Jesus and his message. It didn’t work because that’s not Jesus is about.
That brings us back to the gatekeeper. What if the gatekeeper wasn’t trying to control or limit access, but was trying to open up access? What the thieves attempt to rob us of are different for each of us. For the student who is being bullied, it might be acceptance and an advocate. For the orphan, it might be an adoptive family. For the chronically ill, it might encouragement and practical help. For the retiree, it might be involvement in a worthwhile cause. The abundant life Jesus is talking about is a response to anything that threatens to rob us (the sheep) from our God-given inheritance of life, purpose, and joy.
The gatekeeper isn’t trying to control or limit our access to abundant life. The gatekeeper is there to help us live into our abundant life. There will still be thieves and bandits and wolves who want to rob and devour us. Often they look like poverty, oppression, violence, ignorance, and other nastiness. That’s why we need the gatekeeper and why we need the flock to stand up to and against anything that threatens the abundant life available to all of us.
Maybe, then, abundant life isn’t a goal to strive to attain, but a byproduct of following the the one who opened the eyes of the blind, fed the hungry, comforted the distraught, and everywhere and always witnessed to the universal and unending love of God.