Friday, May 1, 2020

It’s ok if you don’t understand: Jesus the gate is open - Reflecting on John 10:1-10

At a time, when the world is locked down due to the virus, how do we understand Jesus’ words to his disciples, “I am the gate” (9v).  Or to put it in other words, what is it for us today, when the people across the globe are longing to come out of their locked down experiences, and the text that comes to us this week is Jesus as the gate, the door.

1.     Opening the text:
Jesus in opening this text (1-5v) explains to his disciples in a figure of speech using sheep, shepherd, gatekeeper and thieves, analogy to explain about the life of those early followers of the first century. Jesus, picks these agrarian pastoral figures of speech because those were the images of the then public sphere that Jesus and his followers knew. Jesus never missed the opportunity to be publicly sensitive, and always preferred to explain things in the language, images and paradigms of their public space, which they were all familiar with. Perhaps that would be a learning for us today, to be publicly sensitive to the public sphere we live in, and communicate the gospel of Jesus in a relevant language and images that the public can relate with. The message here is that the shepherd comes in all confidence through the gate, whereas the thief comes in means and ways that look fishy and fussy, which includes robbing the sheep. The shepherd leads the sheep outside and the sheep recognises his/her voice and follows, for the shepherd is life-saving and life-assuring. The sheep not only resists to follow the voice of the thief that has come to rob and kill them, but also runs away from this thief to stay with their life-giving shepherd. If I am allowed to open this figure of speech for us today, it would go this way. The shepherd is Jesus Christ, the sheep are the followers, gatekeeper is God, thieves are the intruders who come in the name of consumerism, secularism, oppression, discrimination, patriarchy etc. to steal, to deviate, and to trap the disciples. It is also interesting to note that the shepherd and the gatekeeper are one and the same, but taking two different roles. Not to forget, Jesus is the lamb of God, one among the sheep in that sheepfold.

2.     Opening our understandings:
Verse 6, serves as a junction between the first five verses and the last four verses in this text. It reads, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Firstly, on the very face of this verse, yes many of us on many occasions did not understand what Jesus has said, in the Word or elsewhere. When Jesus said things figuratively, we have taken it literally, when Jesus said things analogically, we have taken it historically, when Jesus said things contextually, we have taken it universally, when Jesus said things universally, we have taken it alternatively. When we have not understood many things Jesus said, we pretended to have known it all and triumphantly eulogised our words as his words. This verse today calls us to humility to say in the presence of the Lord, yes Lord we have not understood your word as you want us to be understood. This verse also calls us to repentance for we have not understood the words of Jesus as he meant them to be and, in a way, misunderstood his words and excluded several people across histories based on the prejudices of a literal reading of the text. For us as readers today, it is absolutely ok to say that we don’t understand what everything is written in the Word. Jesus does not condemn us for not understanding but appreciates our honesty and works with us to understand things better. This verse also calls us to prayer, asking God in Jesus, the logos to help us understand the words of Jesus and the words in the scripture relevant for our time and context. Secondly, some of the public theological language that is used today may not be understandable to those that consider to be custodians of faith, for they might prefer to listen to the gospel only in their known categories and perspectives. Any attempt of conveying the message differently, different from their convention, tradition, perspective, then they immediately feel threatened, puzzled and insecure. This verse calls us to more honesty to say to Jesus we have not understood your words, and this was what happened in the given text, for they did not understand what he was saying to them.

3.     Opening Jesus the gate in its context:
It is in that context when his disciples did not understand what Jesus said, that Jesus speaks again to them with much more public theological clarity and said, “I am the gate”, which is mentioned twice in 7 and 9 verses. To put it into perspective into the context of the text, Jesus in order to open up his figurative speech about shepherd, which was ambiguous to his disciples, picks another image in this case ‘the gate’ as a public faith image to explain about his being and becoming a human shepherd. One public faith image supplements another public faith image to understand it holistically. Jesus as the gate is used here to open the understanding of a shepherd, sheep, gatekeeper and the thief.

Shepherds in the ancient world of first century often built temporary pens for their sheep to sleep in at night. And those pens would have a small opening where the shepherds laid down in front of their sleep. They blocked the entrance with their bodies, so no sheep could go out during the night. Literally, the shepherd becomes the gate, or door, and no predator can get in without first killing the shepherd. This is the image that Jesus is drawing upon when he says in verse 11, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus as the gate explains his being as a gate and also his function as a gate to the sheep. In Jesus as the gate, he explains three functions, one there is safety for his sheep for as he said, “whoever enters by me (Jesus the gate) will be saved,” (9a) and secondly there is freedom for his sheep, “and will come in and go out and find pasture” (9b). Thirdly, Jesus as a gate has come to give life, life in all its fullness to its sheep (10v), in other words to see life is assured to all its sheep. In this entire text we see Jesus taking on the roles of shepherd, gatekeeper, lamb and now as a gate to his sheep. You can imagine the kind of care, support and freedom that this sheepfold was getting from Jesus, who at least plays four roles, including the lamb in that sheepfold.   

Back in the day, when I lived in a hostel during my college days, I remember that our hostel doors were open all day and but were closed at 11pm. All of us have to get in by that time, and those that did not enter by then were subject to disciplinary action by the authorities. As it was a student run hostel, there were many arguments about the opening and closing of the doors between students and authorities of the college. It even led to a point where the locks of the entrance door were broken by some students, who were not able to cope with these locking of the gates.

4.     Jesus the open gate:
But with Jesus as the gate to his sheep, there is freedom, for the sheep can go out and come in, because Jesus the gate knows his sheep and he has been guarding, caring, nurturing and preparing the sheep as a gate/shepherd/gatekeeper/lamb to face the challenges of the world. This Jesus the gate is not an iron bared gates with high security, allowing sheep only with their ID cards, but a gate with open doors allowing his sheep, whether with documents and no documents, to go out and come in freedom with responsibility, for the sheep follows the voice of the shepherd, wherever they are located in the sheepfold. In that freedom, the sheep enjoyed safety, which John records as ‘they will be saved’. Jesus the gate is a door for the sheep opening to God and to the world, allowing us to live a life in honesty and with responsibility. Jesus the gate is a bridge between sheep, shepherd and gatekeeper, explaining that the shepherd/gate/gatekeeper/lamb finds their meaning in the sheepfold as much as the sheep finds a meaning of their existence in following the voice of their shepherd who plays multiple roles in nurturing and supporting them. Jesus the gate is a shield to the sheep against the wolves and thieves who are trying to attack and deny life for their selfish desires, assuring fullness of life to all people, for that is the reason he has come.

5.     Opening Jesus the gate for us today:
At a time when people are frustrated with the lock down experiences, what is the relevance of Jesus the gate to us today? Firstly, Jesus the gate is an open gate gives confidence to his followers to be responsible and to engage with the world when it is safe to go out. Jesus the gate stays with his sheep as a lamb, opens the gates as a gatekeeper under right conditions, and leads the sheep as a shepherd in caring for the world. As followers of such Jesus the gate, we are called to be open to all people, specially building community spirit among our streets, of course with a social distance now. By waving at our neighbours, by listening to our neighbours’ anxieties and by helping our vulnerable neighbours, Jesus the open gate comes alive today. Secondly, Jesus the open gate mediates safety of its people and their participation in the world under the divine protection of the Good shepherd. Thirdly, Jesus the open gate is an affirmation to protect the vulnerable communities, for God in Jesus recognises the injustices around, disproportionately affecting the marginalised communities and offers hope in keeping them safe. Fourthly, like the disciples sometimes we do not understand the relevance of the image of gate at a time like this, but Jesus the gate helps in struggling with us to understand that he is not a dictatorial God trying to fix things from above, but working with the communities on the ground in overcoming this phase of the crisis, he willing to be a gate and inviting us to be gates for our communities in offering care, freedom and support. Fifthly, I see the relevance of Jesus the gate in all those care and medical workers who are nursing the people with PPE or not, risking their own lives and in saving several people’s lives today. Lastly, as churches we are called to be such open gates like Jesus offering care, nurture, nursing, and supporting our communities, even when we are closed as buildings, towards building new creations where life is lived in all fullness.

When the locks of our hostel doors were broken, the authorities understood the frustrations of the students and eventually left the doors open by trusting in the student’s responsibility and by building in their confidence.

Jesus the gate is always open to all people of God, and may all our sheepfolds reflect such an open Jesus in our welcome and inclusion of all people.  

Rev. Dr. Raj Bharat Patta,
1st May 2020


AndyS said...

Thank you for this reflection, Raj. I really appreciate how you have associated the reading and the current lock down.... the context of the original scripture has valuable echoes in our present experience. Your comments about coming to the reading in humility and in preparation to be re-enlightened is very helpful to me.

raj bharath patta said...

Thank you Andy for your encouragement. Yes, Jesus the gate opens our understandings and uncertainties, and he calls us not only to humility but also to repentance for excluding people based on some prejudiced literal readings of the texts.