Commentary on John 10:1-10
Liturgically sensitive preachers will immediately take note that the 4th Sunday of Easter in the Revised Common Lectionary is always “Good Shepherd Sunday” and perhaps will then let out an audible sigh of despair.
It’s not that we don’t like Jesus as the Good Shepherd. After all, probably half of Christian art would disappear were it not for this popular image of Jesus.
The hint of exasperation arises when we find ourselves asking, what more is there to say about Jesus, the Good Shepherd? How many times can I talk about shepherding practices in ancient Palestine? Do my congregants really want to hear again that they are all a bunch of dimwitted sheep? Please, anything but Jesus as the Shepherd.
Good Shepherd Sunday, Year A, the irritated preacher gets the unexpressed wish. Not until 10:11 will Jesus declare, “I AM the good shepherd” because 10:1-10 is all about Jesus as the gate. Twice, 10:7 and 10:9, Jesus reveals himself to be the gate for the sheep before saying he is the shepherd of the sheep. Perhaps for this year, we might find a way to explore the meaning of this image of Jesus in relationship to Good Shepherd Sunday.
A reminder about the lectionary is necessary before we move into commentary on the verses themselves. Each year of the lectionary assigns different portions of chapter 10 of John for the Fourth Sunday of Easter: Year A, 10:1-10, Year B, 10:11-18, and Year C, 10:22-30. For preaching the first part of chapter 10, it is essential to remember, however, that 10:1-18 is not an isolated passage that pictures Jesus as door and shepherd in some sort of generic way.
John 10:1-18, and even the verses before, 9:40-41, are Jesus’ discourse in response to his healing of the man blind from birth (9:1-41), whose story is read on Lent 4, Year A. Jesus does not stop talking at 9:41 even though the lectionary’s textual delineations are in service to the chapter and verse markings of our modern bibles.
As a result, 9:1-10:21 is all one massive textual unit that follows the structural pattern used elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel of sign — dialogue — discourse. Jesus performs a sign (9:1-7), which is followed by a dialogue as its onlookers try to figure out what it means (9:8-39), and concludes with Jesus’ discourse or interpretation of the sign he has performed (9:40-10:18). What does this mean for preaching? It means that the preacher has to assume and draw on the context of the healing because that is exactly to what Jesus is referring in 10:1-10.
John 10:1 most certainly marks a shift as Jesus moves into his interpretation of the healing and begins to introduce the imagery that will be further unpacked throughout the discourse. John 10:1-5 offers a cast of characters that will receive attention as the chapter unfolds: shepherd, sheep, thieves, bandits, gatekeeper, strangers, and yes, even the gate. Intriguing pictures such as stealth entrance into sheepfolds, knowing the voice of another, being someone’s own, and having your name called are presented. John 10:6 is a brief interruption in the flow to note the lack of understanding of the audience, which includes, by the way, the Pharisees, the disciples, and even the blind man.
Misunderstanding is a frequent reaction to Jesus to which Jesus typically responds with an invitation toward a deeper level of engagement. John 10:7-10 focus on the image of Jesus as gate or door. None of these elements, however, can receive its full measure of meaning without the entirety of 9:1-10:21 in view. Does that seem like a tall order for preaching just these ten verses? Am I asking you to preach the entire passage? Well, yes. And yes. Any element on which the preacher chooses to focus must be filtered through the experience of the blind man and during the course of what Jesus has yet to say in the rest of the discourse. Pick one, choose wisely, and work it. Then, you won’t be preaching the whole passage.
For example, let’s take Jesus as the door, translated “gate” here because that better fits the pastoral scene. Twice Jesus claims, “I AM the door” which will be the same for the good shepherd in 10:11-18. The uniqueness and importance of the “I AM” statements in the Gospel of John should be reviewed at this point, noting also that the beginning of 9:1-10:21 commenced with 9:5, “I AM the light of the world.” The image of the door draws on the notion of inside and outside first articulated in chapter 9 with the blind man being thrown out and then reiterated in the sheep pen of 10:1-5.
The thieves and bandits return as persons, like the stranger, whom the sheep do not know and to whom they will not listen. Each of these set of characters, the thieves, the bandits, and the strangers is the counterpoint to Jesus who is known. Jesus repeats “I AM the gate” in verse 9, giving more specificity to what it means that he is the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters, presumably the sheepfold, through him will be saved, will be able to go in and out and find pasture.
Although easily overlooked, it is Jesus as the gate that first offers salvation. Preaching salvation here demands a radical contextualization of its meaning. Any generalized claim about salvation that erases the specificity of its literary location here dismisses about whom this discourse materialized in the first place. As commentary on the healing of the blind man, what is salvation for him? From what did he need to be saved?
To ask these kinds of questions of this biblical text will prevent the non-descript definitions of salvation that, if we are honest, will not save anybody. The man blind from birth is saved from isolation and marginalization. His healing saves him from everlasting darkness. Never again will he wonder where his next meal will be or who will answer his pleas as he sits begging outside the city. He will know the safety and security of community.
That salvation in John 10:9 is linked to the promise of pasture and protection (in and out of the sheep pen) means that the man born blind will know sustenance and security. For the disciples overhearing Jesus’ words, that which is for the blind man is for every disciple, every believer. The basic needs of life, food, water, shelter, intimacy, Jesus affords, the tangible grace depicted in 1:18, at the bosom of the Father.
The development of the image of Jesus as door or gate concludes, to an extent, in 10:10. The character of the thief returns alone, this time as the one who comes to steal and kill and destroy. In contrast, Jesus comes to provide abundant life. Singling out the thief foreshadows the role of Judas at the arrest of Jesus. The only other time in the Gospel of John that the term “thief” is used describes Judas in 12:6.
Stealing and killing and destroying are all possible outcomes of Judas’s arrival at the garden and may explain Jesus’ words in 18:9 which have no antecedent, “This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.’”
Preaching this portion of the “Shepherd Discourse” on Good Shepherd Sunday in Year A will preach this text on its own terms, as offering a sustained picture of Jesus as door or gate that is every bit as life-giving as that of Jesus as shepherd. This may be challenging on a Sunday labeled Good Shepherd Sunday, with an undeniable dearth of “Jesus as the Door” hymns, but to ignore this portrait of Jesus dismisses the ways in which this image is further developed throughout the Gospel.
Too many readers and hearers of this particular passage will extract its seemingly exclusionary claims of Jesus as the sole source and means of salvation (14:6). To return the pericope to its immediate and narrative context works against such absolute assumptions that are, in fact, counterintuitive to the theological premise of the Fourth Gospel, that God loves the world.