10:1 Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.
10:2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
10:3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
10:4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
10:5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
10:6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
10:7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.
10:8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.
10:9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.
10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
So, I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about sheep and shepherds. I don’t own sheep, I don’t know what they eat, how they spend their days, or what they like. I think they are kind of cute from afar, with their fluffy coats and their “baaing”, but that’s about it.
I don’t even really like wool sweaters, because they make me itch.
And I also don’t know much about being a shepherd, I wouldn’t know how to take care of actual sheep. I think you have to sheer them, and feed them, and keep them safe from wolves, but that’s about it. I’d make a lousy shepherd.
So, all this sheep language in the Bible is over my head sometimes. Even though I love the beauty of the 23rd Psalm – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want – I can’t really relate to it from my 21st century context. And that’s true even though I am a pastor, and the literal meaning of “pastor” is shepherd, or keeper of the flock. And, truth be told, you might not like being called sheep all that much either.
But today’s is a sheep-heavy Scripture reading. Jesus is teaching his disciples about these sheep who are penned up behind a gate. And he’s talking about the shepherd, who comes in through the gate and takes care of them. But he’s also talking about others who are not the shepherd. He calls these people “thieves” and “robbers” and talks about how they sneak in to destroy the sheep.
Jesus finishes by telling them that he is the real shepherd, the one who not only comes through the front gate, but who is the front gate. And he says that because they know the shepherd’s voice, the sheep will follow him, and not the voices of the thieves and robbers, and they will have abundant life.
So, I did not major in sheep studies in college. But I did major in English. And if my English major taught me anything, it was that sometimes a sheep is not just a sheep.
The reality of the Bible is that it is a deeply metaphorical book. Jesus taught the people using examples from the life they knew. They understood the metaphor of a shepherd and sheep. But had Jesus lived today, my guess is he would have told this story using completely different metaphors, ones that we could relate to better.
So hear this story not as one in which Jesus is a literal shepherd and we are literal sheep, but as metaphor. Hear it as Jesus, who loves us so much that he wants to keep us from being destroyed. And hear it as one about the forces of destruction in this world, which too often come to us as wolves dressed in shepherds’ clothing.
Jesus tells us that he comes through the front gate of the sheepfold, which is where the sheep are gathered. He does not sneak in under the railing. He doesn’t pretend to be what he is not. Instead he is authentically and fully who he is. And because of this, we learn his voice, and when he leads us out of the gate, out of our safe places, and into the world, we follow.
But there are others who want us to follow them too. Jesus calls these the thieves and robbers. And I at first though these were the same thing, but I learned that they are not. It’s not important to remember the details here, but I found this interesting. In the original text thieves is κλέπτης (kleptes) which is where we get the word “kleptomaniac”. These are the stealthy ones who take by deceiving us. And then the robbers are λῃστής (lacetase). These are the ones who take by force through overt, violence.
And here is where I believe we 21st century people might understand this metaphor a little better. Because the reality is that we live in a world of modern-day thieves and robbers. Some do come like robbers, trained in violence and trying to steal away our peace through overt threats. But too often they come as thieves, the wolves in shepherds’ clothing, luring us away from what is good and using us for their own ends.
Too often we live in a kleptomaniacal world. Anything that can be used for good – our hearts and minds, our time and money, our love and health, our understanding and compassion – are stolen away by those forces that enter our lives not through the front gates, but by crawling under fences, and blending in, until we think they are supposed to be here.
Jesus calls these things “the strangers”, or ἀλλοτρίων (allotpeon). And I want to be sure to emphasize that he doesn’t call them this because they are unknown or different from us. Jesus always told us to welcome the stranger in Scripture, but when he did that he used the word ξένος (xenos), or other. It is the rejection of these people that he warned us against. We call that xenophobia, or fear of the other.
That’s not the kind of stranger Jesus was talking about here. This is about the other kind of stranger, not the one who is unknown to us, but the one to whom the values Jesus taught us are unknown. Things like goodness, love, mercy, and grace. Things all the major faiths of this world teach. Instead, the strangers to these values – including some who would even call themselves Christian – serve not the forces of life, but the forces of destruction. They wish us harm.
Jesus says, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Jesus wants us to have abundant life. He wants us to thrive. But in a world where we are promised everything if we just pay enough money, or cast the right vote, or sell out for just long enough, the thieves and robbers have somehow convinced us they want that abundant life for us too.
They don’t. They don’t love us and they don’t want abundant life for us. And, truth be told, even if they did, they wouldn’t know the first thing about how to deliver it, even if they did.
Instead, it is our shepherd who can bring us to the place of abundant life. And here is where we have to think with 21st century minds. Because while we may not have had literal shepherds in our lives who have guarded us from evil, and guided us to green pastures, we have had both protectors and encouragers. Maybe they were parents or teachers, coaches or mentors, friends or good neighbors. Whatever they were, they loved you enough to keep you safe, and lead you on.
And so, the Lord is my shepherd. But the Lord is also my parent, my teacher, my coach, my guide, my protector, my encourager.
And I need all of those in this world. And my guess is you may too.
We need those because, as Jesus says, the sheep will not follow a stranger because they do not know their voice. But my fear is that these days the thieves and robbers are so familiar that we just might mistake their voices for that of God. And I’m afraid that we just might unwittingly follow them out of the sheepfold, and into destruction.
And so that’s why I want to learn to know my shepherd’s voice when I hear it. And I want to know when I’m hearing a bad imitation, and I want to stay away, and reject the powers of destruction.
I want to learn my shepherd’s voice because I want to follow that shepherd when I hear it. I want to follow because Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples that he is going to keep them there in the safety of the sheepfold forever. Instead, he wants them to follow him out into the world. He wants to become the gate through which they walk, and he wants to lead them into the places that the world needs them.
And yes, sometimes that will even mean that we will “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” but even in those places we “shall fear no evil” for the Good Shepherd is with us.
This world needs people who will follow the shepherd and be shepherds for the world. We live in a time with more than its fair share of thieves and robbers. And we live in a time that requires deep moral courage.
Now more than ever, we are called out of our places of safety, and into the world. And so now more than ever, we must reject the voices of the wolves in shepherds’ clothing, and learn to listen together to the voice of the only shepherd who truly wants us to have abundant life.