To follow Jesus is not to be inducted into an ideology but rather to be invited into a relationship
Liz Stuart, 3 May 2020
Acts 2: 42–47; John 10: 1–10
The subject of our gospel passage today is sheep. Like the old sheepdog who stopped listening to the jokes that the sheep told him because he had herd them all before (boom boom), we are so familiar with the image of Jesus as the shepherd that I think we can easily miss the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching in the passage we have just heard.
I think there are three keys to understanding this passage. The first is that in the north side of the Temple at Jerusalem there was a gate called the Sheep Gate – and we think it was called that because it is the gate through which sheep were driven on their way to being sacrificed in the Temple. Second is that the word that is translated ‘bandit’ in the gospel is the same word used to describe Barabbas in the Passion narrative, and it means ‘zealot’ – that is, someone who was committed to opposing the Romans through force, through violence. And third, I think this passage has to be understood in its context: it comes after the story of the man born blind who was driven out of the synagogue by the Pharisees and whose healing prompts a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, of which this passage is a part.
Now before Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd (actually that’s better translated as the ‘noble shepherd’), he declares himself to be the sheep gate. But, in complete contrast to the gate in Jerusalem that led sheep to slaughter, to enter through Jesus is to be led out to find pasture and abundant life. This is because he lays down his life for his sheep rather than driving the sheep to slaughter. Jesus is the gateway to abundant life.
This contrasts with the thieves and the brigands. The way Jesus describes those people acting – climbing into the sheep fold by another way – is exactly the way the zealots entered the Temple during the siege of Jerusalem, which began in AD 68 as an inter-Jewish struggle, the zealots against the High Priesthood. And the zealots got into the Temple through the drainage system rather than through the gates. The High Priest at the time denounced the zealots as robbers. The zealots eventually slaughtered the High Priest’s forces and many ordinary people, before the Romans intervened in AD 70 and razed the Temple to the ground.
So, one way of understanding this passage is to see the thieves and the brigands as representatives of ideology. Ideology is always dangerous because it attempts to deprive us of our ability to think and act for ourselves. Ideology says, ‘If you follow me, you must believe X and you must do Y’, and ‘If you believe X you must also believe Y and Z’, and if you don’t you are not a true follower and must be expelled, or worse. A good test to see whether something, someone, some system is ideological is to see whether it expels people who do not agree.
This is exactly how the Pharisees have treated the man born blind. He dared to think and act for himself and to challenge their thinking, and they just cannot tolerate him for this. It’s so easy for politics to become ideological; it’s even easier for religion to become so. The result is always violence – physical, mental or spiritual. Ideology steals our freedom.
Jesus offers an alternative to ideology, which is relationship. He knows our names. He knows who we are and we know his voice. That is not the voice of ideology; it is the voice of love and perfect freedom. Note that the sheep are able to go in and out of his sheep fold. To follow Jesus is not to be inducted into an ideology but rather to be invited into a relationship in which we work out how to live based upon how we relate; nothing is prescribed except love. This is the way of openness, peace and life, in contrast to the way of ideology, which only offers a closed system of thought, and violence to keep people in it or to punish those who dare to question.
Nothing is prescribed except love. This is the way of openness, peace and life.
I wonder how you’re doing. At the moment we might well feel a bit like sheep penned in, waiting to be driven to slaughter. Over the Easter weekend I found myself watching The Ten Commandments, the film. I vividly remember my mother taking me to see it in the cinema, and how terrified I was by the angel of death, which is represented in the film as a sort of spooky mist that travels through the streets, entering some houses, passing by others. I think the virus feels a bit like that, doesn’t it?
We have to hold on to the fact that no matter what happens to us or to those we love, Jesus will lead us into abundant life, a life that he holds open for us and holds open to everyone. He is the gate and that gate never shuts. Every day we listen to people reduced to statistics. Hold on to the fact that Jesus knows your name; you’ll never be a statistic to God. Listen for Jesus’ voice. He wants you to know that you are precious and loved, and that he opens to you a life richer and deeper than you can imagine. Hold on.