This Sunday was Good Shepherd Sunday. Here’s what I said.
A question for you.
When is a door not a door?
When it’s ajar!
No – it’s not funny is it? That’s one of those jokes that was around when I was a child. I didn’t understand it and never found it funny in the slightest. As I got older and the penny dropped and I realised why it was supposed to be funny, it still wasn’t funny!
People who heard Jesus’ teaching may well have seen the joke. After all, when he told people not to worry about taking a speck out of someone else’s eye because they had a whopping great plank sticking out of their own eye, and they should sort that out first, people would have seen the joke.
Because that’s what it was – Jesus was using humour to make a point and people would have found the image of someone walking round with a plank in their eye funny.
It kind of gets lost in translation, doesn’t it? We don’t think of it as a joke, and even when it’s pointed out it comes across to us as rather wooden, but back then people would genuinely have seen the funny side as well as taking the point. So perhaps they would have enjoyed a joke about a door being a jar! This is, after all, a society with no television, no sitcoms, no stand up comedians – but a society that all the same very much had a sense of humour and would have responded to Jesus’ humorous use of visual imagery. Well, today we have another wooden joke. Jesus talks about being a gate. And yet this is no joke at all. Like jokes about doors being jars, this is not funny at all. In fact, it’s deadly serious as we shall see.
Every year on this 4th Sunday of Easter we keep what has become known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Which brings me to another question. What do you get when you cross a sheep with a goat? This isn’t a joke either. This is actually quite serious! Apparently you get a geep.
The BBC reported in April that a geep was born on a farm in the Irish Republic. They are, apparently, very rare. And this particular geep was born on Paddy Murphy’s farm in County Kildare – thought to be the result of an unwanted mating between a goat and one of the sheep farmer’s Cheviot ewes. Mr Murphy, it is reported, described the event as, “a pure shock to the system,” and added, “I’ve never seen anything like it before!”
Good Shepherd Sunday! And I’m afraid I can’t get out of my mind the picture of Jesus, the good shepherd, and the parable he told about dividing the sheep from the goats at the judgement. Saint Matthew gives us this particular story of how Jesus taught that at the judgement he would sit on his throne and divide people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats – putting the sheep on his right hand and the goats on the left. What is he going to do with a geep? Which side does he put the geep on?
Which brings me back to Jesus being a gate or a door. The version of the Bible that we use, the New Revised Standard Version, has Jesus calling himself a gate. But other versions, and particularly older versions you may be familiar with – the Authorised Version or the Revised Standard Version – translate this as ‘door’. “I am the door to the sheepfold!” And unlike his story about someone with a plank in their eye this isn’t meant to by funny at all. This is deadly serious stuff.
“I am the door of the sheep,” says Jesus, “I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10.7,9 RSV)
Now, it helps to understand what Jesus is saying by knowing that a sheepfold actually didn’t have a real door or gate. There was just a gap in the wall. And when the sheep were safely in the fold at night the shepherd would lay down and sleep across the entrance, thus acting as a gate to protect the sheep and also preventing anyone getting in that way. Hence Jesus talking about thieves and robbers who come in by another way – thieves and robbers would need to climb over the wall so that they wouldn’t disturb the shepherd. Jesus is saying very clearly that he is the way to salvation – no-one else. In a 21st century society that seems to say that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere the message that we get from Jesus in this part of John’s gospel is – yes, it does matter what you believe. Jesus says that he is the gate, the door, and that we go through him. It is the only way in. And only if we enter the sheepfold through him will we be saved: “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”
This teaching that we must go through Jesus is picked up on again next week when we will hear those famous words of Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life – no-one comes to the Father except through me.” We may well find this exclusivity difficult to cope with, but this really is no joke. This is deadly serious stuff. Jesus, in our gospel reading today from John, makes it as clear as clear can be. He is the gate, the door, through which we must pass. There is no other way. He alone is the way through which we find our salvation. And as part of this teaching Jesus – somewhat confusingly to modern ears until you remember that the shepherd lay down and acted as the gate to the sheepfold – also says that he is the shepherd of the sheep. Both shepherd and the door through which the shepherd passes and through which the sheep pass.
In Biblical times the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep was a much more intimate one that it would be today. Every sheep in a flock had a name by which only the shepherd called it. If a robber attempted to lure the sheep away they would not follow him because he wouldn’t know their name and they simply wouldn’t follow unless their name was used. They knew their name and would come when the shepherd called them. And Jesus used the image of knowing the sheep, of knowing them individually by name, of leading them, to stress the intimacy in the relationship between himself and us, to encourage us to recognise his voice and strive to follow him. For only the shepherd knows each sheep and cares for them. And we can be confident that he knows our name, that he cares for and understands our individual personalities and situations.
“I am the door,” says Jesus to us. We find our salvation by entering the sheepfold through Jesus or not at all. And having found our way into the sheepfold we follow Jesus our shepherd who knows us intimately and call us by name, for there is no-one else, nothing else, that can lead us to the life, the abundant life, that he promises in today’s gospel reading. Let us pray.
Jesus, you’re my Good Shepherd
You know and call me by name.
I hear your voice and know you are near.
Care for me.
Be my guide.
Stay by my side.
Lord, your love holds me close
And leads me day by day.
Let me always hear your voice
And follow it, I pray.
Prayer from York Catholic District School