John 10:1-18 may be one of those texts that is best read with two frameworks in mind: 1) Jesus’ context and audience and 2) our context and audience.
So far in John, we have seen Jesus invite disciples and complete works of healing, destruction, and other “signs” that portray his power and authority. Most of these signs and claims are in “public” venues rather than in secret.
This, of course, creates mixed reactions—some love, some confusion, some outright hate. The reactions of those who hear and see Jesus is especially important. The final verses of chapter nine reveal a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. This story is told to the Pharisees to help them understand who Jesus is.
For us, this is our Ash Wednesday text. We are embarking on a 40-day Lenten journey of penitence and contemplation. We begin our walk with Jesus to the cross. This date on our calendar is irrelevant to Jesus, his early community, and his Jewish interlocutors. But Ash Wednesday will affect our reading and application of this narrative.
Two contexts: do we hold them in tension, or might we discover connections?
Each section of this text begins with the phrase “Amen, amen.” (Translated as “very truly” in verses 1 and 7 in the NRSV.) The phrase informs us that what comes next is important and authoritative. We often use “listen” similarly.
Verses 1-7 are in the form of a figure of speech (NRSV). This Greek word only appears in the Gospel of John and might best be understood as a proverb or story told in a way to obscure its meaning to outsiders. The writer of John uses this and similar techniques to obscure information from those outside Jesus’ circle of followers. This enigmatic tale about sheep, a gatekeeper, a thief, a bandit, and a shepherd is important but hard to understand.
The first section ends with clarity: the Pharisees do not at all understand the words coming from Jesus’ mouth. The figure of speech has no meaning to outsiders. Outside the circle of Jesus’ followers, the Pharisees are without the capacity to understand.
The gatekeeper who opens the gate, the shepherd who calls the sheep, and the sheep who follow the shepherd are the insiders. The sheep recognize Jesus by voice, and they go where he leads.
The second section (verses 7-18) immediately repeats the “Amen, amen” prompt of verse 1: “I am the gate/door for the sheep,” reveals Jesus. With these words, Jesus is to begin to provide therapy for the Pharisees’ knowledge gap. Though John does not contain parables, the figure or speech-interpretation model here is akin to the parable-explanation style of the synoptic gospels (for example, The Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8).
The problem with the second section in this text is that it does not offer much clarification. By the end, things are still muddled in the minds of the Pharisees. The word puzzle still seems like a word puzzle for those who are not “in the know.”
We remember Jesus’ saying “I am” to the woman at the well when she asks if he is the Messiah. We remember his endless “I am the bread” claims in chapter 6. (See also: 8:12-20, “light”; 11:23-44, “resurrection life”; 14:1-4, “way, truth, life”; 15:1-17, “vine.”)
One of the characteristics of this Gospel is Jesus’ self-identification through “I am” statements. I doubt, however, that “I am the gate for the sheep” is at the top of our memories of these sayings. Interestingly, the gate statement has much the same meaning as 16:6: “I am the way … no one comes to the Father except through me.”
Figuratively Jesus is the entrance and exit for the sheep. More pointedly, it is through Jesus that one becomes identified as insider or outsider. Verse 9 informs that Jesus’ entryway provides salvation. In the metaphoric language of gate, sheep, and shepherd, Jesus claims to be the door to receive salvation. This is not a claim only for who he is, but it is also an absolute claim for Jesus’ significance.
The remainder of the section is as enigmatic as the first section even as it seeks to reveal. “I am the good shepherd” (verses 11 and 14). The good shepherd contrasts to the thief and the bandit, the hired hand, and the wolf. To none of these do the sheep matter. None has any design for the well-being, shalom, or salvation of the sheep. None of these will give up life to rescue the sheep. Only Jesus will.
Jesus reveals in verses 15-18 more than who he is. Jesus reveals what he is doing, “laying down my life.” Since Jesus is the door for salvation, then he lays down his life for salvation to occur. Jesus knows this because of his relationship to God (verse 15) and does this because he has received the command to do so (verse 18). The word for “lay down” is a common word in Greek that has a variety of meanings. In John’s Gospel, it is used primarily in this context of Jesus’ willingly giving up his life. Jesus willingly dies for his sheep.
Jesus willingly dies for his sheep to save them and to give them an abundant life (verses 9-10). The words that we hear recited as ashes are placed in cruciform on our foreheads remind us of our own destiny of death:
“Remember, you are but dust and to dust you shall return.”
These words are difficult to utter as pastors look into the eyes of their congregations. It is not easy to remind others and ourselves of our mortality. This solemn rite marks Christians as penitent people aware of our mortality. In solemnity, we openly begin the 40-day journey of Lent.
A fingertip dipped in an oily blackened ash made from the previous years’ burned Palm Sunday branches marks the cross on us, at least for one day. As marked members of Christ’s followers on Ash Wednesday, we stake out an obvious “I am.” We are following this shepherd to the cross. We will lay down whatever is necessary to do so.
Your son came, and like a good shepherd, gave his life for your sheep. Receive our humble gratitude for this act of sacrifice and courage. Amen.
Forgive our sins as we forgive ELW 605, H82 674 Abide with me ELW 629, H82 662, UMH 700, NCH 99
Kyrie eleison from Messa a quattro voci, Claudio Monteverdi