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Abundant Life in the Sheepfold: John 10:1-10 and the Gates We Live Behind in this Time of COVID-19

The Politics of Scripture

For those who are most vulnerable today—those at risk of infection due to socio-economic injustices that put them in greater harm’s way and/or age and immune-deficiencies that leave their bodies more compromised to the most severe effects of the COVID-19 virus, particularly in the United States, the disproportionate numbers of people of color whose communities are being ravaged by this disease—John’s text speaks a word of encouragement and hope.

“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. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

John 10:1-10 (NRSV)

On this fourth Sunday of Easter, churches following the revised common lectionary commemorate what has come to be known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” In all three years of the lectionary cycle, a reading from Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd in John 10 is paired with Psalm 23, with both texts lending themselves to this theme.

This year, however, in the first of these three installments from the Johannine parable, our assigned reading actually ends just before Jesus declares himself to be the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11). Where we might expect Jesus to identify himself as the “Good Shepherd” in verse 7, or at least a shepherd, in opposition to the thieves and bandits whose voices the sheep do not know, Jesus instead equates himself to the gate through which the good Shepherd enters (John 10:7).

Some scholars have suggested that John 10:7-10 may not have been original to John’s gospel, but rather an early gloss intended to make sense of Jesus’ saying in John 1:1.[1] Yet, the best and earliest manuscripts attest not only to these verses, but also to reference Jesus as “the gate” (ἡ θύρα) throughout. Indeed, many preachers and Christian educators simply omit these three verses when treating teaching on this parable. However, the strongest textual evidence suggests that where a minority of early manuscripts do read “I am the shepherd” in verse 7, this is the later gloss. The correction from “gate” to “shepherd” attempts to reconcile the two “I am” statements associated with John’s parable into one. Consequently, this attempt is suspect not only because of its later and less prevalent attestation, but also on account of the corrective function it may have served. In any case, whatever John’s earliest documents intended, the canonical text of John 10 with which we are now left preserves two “I am” statements in relation to the sheepfold and the one with which we are assigned to wrestle in this lectionary is the former: “Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7).

So, today, as many Christians across the globe sit behind closed gates and doors, waiting as their states and countries continue to re-open to public gatherings, work, and business in the midst of the global outbreak of COVID-19, many Christians find ourselves presented with a text that speaks primarily of Jesus not as a great leader or caregiver, not as the shepherd of us lost sheep, but rather as a gate, a door.

Much has been written about the metaphor of Jesus as the way or the door in terms of the path to salvation. To that I wish only to echo Ernst Haenchen in noting that “the ‘I am’ sayings do not run ‘I am and no one else is.’”[2] Rather, in the days of pandemic that have been starkly marked by who is “inside” and who is “outside” of the safety of walls and doors, I want to consider the implications of reading Jesus not only as shepherd, but also as gate.

In this sense, I understand the gate (ἡ θύρα) to be that protective barrier through which one must pass between the safety of the sheepfold and the concomitant promise and danger of the outside world. The gate is the source of food, water, wolves and thieves. Jerome Neyrey helpfully describes this function as one of “broker,” such that Jesus as gate mediates between both the sheep and God and the sheep and the outside world.[3] As the gate for the sheepfold Jesus both protects the sheep from the dangers of the outside world and enables them, under the right conditions, to safely engage that world when Jesus leads them out as their good shepherd. In terms of today’s political environs, perhaps we might say that the gate is, for the sheep, their personal protective equipment (PPE).

What then might it mean to think of Jesus in this sort of a mediating role?

Both science and experience make clear that it does not mean that when one enters the world with faith in Jesus one need not protect oneself from wolves or viruses. The threats of the world around us are real, particularly for the most vulnerable among us as, in an agricultural world, Jesus’ disciples would have readily understood a flock of sheep to be. The sheer need for a sheepfold signals the need of sheep for protection from external threats such as thieves, bandits, and wolves. Nor does Jesus as Good Shepherd brashly negate this need, knocking down the barriers and leading his flock into the world protected by the strength of their faith in him alone. The good shepherd, rather, merits this designation precisely because they have earned the trust of the sheep to not lead them into danger’s way.

However, neither does the Good Shepherd promise his flock a carefree existence. While it might be possible, with extreme effort, to deliver water in jugs and fresh hay or grains to nourish the sheep within the protective walls of their fold, the good shepherd calls them out when it is right for them and the world around them. In this way, Jesus as the gate mediates between his flock both the safety of their fold under the protection of the divine Shepherd and their participation in the world that surrounds them.

For those who are most vulnerable today—those at risk of infection due to socio-economic injustices that put them in greater harm’s way and/or age and immune-deficiencies that leave their bodies more compromised to the most severe effects of the COVID-19 virus, particularly in the United States, the disproportionate numbers of people of color whose communities are being ravaged by this disease—John’s text speaks a word of encouragement and hope. In the midst of the harsh and dangerous realities of this world, God recognizes the injustices; God recognizes the hurt, the suffering, and the death. And God wants nothing more than for these most vulnerable and beloved to be safe. It is to this end that God sent God’s own Son, Jesus, into the world to be their gate, to affirm their need of and right to personal protection and care.

For those, myself included, who find ourselves already within the safe confines of a comfortable home turned shelter, turned sheep fold, God also sent Jesus to mediate between us, the world, and the divine. God sent Jesus to be the gate that both keeps us well and sends us out when the time and the needs are aligned, just as sheep, following their shepherd, leave the safety of their folds, not for the economic benefit of the few (the thief and the bandit) or to satisfy the libertine appetites of the wolf, but to participate in the broader eco-system of wellness and well-being that their Shepherd desires both for them and for their world. Jesus the Good Shepherd / Gate models for those of us privileged enough to be able to shelter-in-place, the responsibility of walking through our gates with intention, for the sake of the well-being of those on either side.

As Christians, however, we find ourselves, in this text Jesus calls us to move throughout our world, in and out of whatever gates before which we find ourselves, for one reason and one reason alone: “That they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).


[1] Walter Bauer, Das Johannesevangelium (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1933), 139.

[2] Ernst Haenchen, John 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 7-21 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984) Accordance edition.

[3] Jerome H. Neyrey, “‘I Am the Door’ (John 10:7, 9): Jesus the Broker in the Fourth Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69:2 (2007) 271-291.

2 thoughts on “Abundant Life in the Sheepfold: John 10:1-10 and the Gates We Live Behind in this Time of COVID-19

  1. Beautifully explored, thank you. A timely meditation at this time of danger.
    I hope many hear again Christ’s call to the fold.

    1. Fantastic post! Insightful connections between the text and this challenging time we’re facing. I will never forget the image of the gate as personal protective equipment. There are many profound implications here. SO well done!

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