Jesus the Good Shepherd
10 ‘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. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 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. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 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.
I recently watched a Telugu film named Balagam, which means ‘company.’ The film is about life struggles of people living in a rural Indian village with raw emotion depicted through an honest storytelling. In explaining the beauty of the village life, there is a song titled Ooru Palleturu, singing praises of the rural life in the village. The song has some intense lyrics about the bonding of people in the village, but the words that caught my attention in that song were:
Mandha naa palle,
Goda kattani goodu
The English meaning of this lyric is: “My village is a flock of hundred households, and it is a shelter where walls are never built.” The lyricist is explaining that in a village, people live in harmony with no requirement for walls and gates to each individual household.
Life in urban cities contrasts life in rural villages, for there are walls for security, gates for protection and CCTV cameras for safety of the households. ‘Gated communities’ in the cities assure people of more safety and security today with controlled access. The higher the walls and bigger the gates, the safer the houses are is the norm today.
To put things into perspective, walls and gates have been accentuated by the episteme of coloniality, for it has been the powerful who have drawn boundaries, built walls and gates assuring a sense of safety, security and protection. The colonial ploy of establishing gates conveniently does not address why the need for protection comes up. Walls and gates have served as tools of domination and power all in the name of safety and protection. The present wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is a case in point. What is safety and from whom is the threat? Coloniality only offers walls and gates as an affordable solution, posing the ‘outsider’ as a threat to ‘insiders.’ These walls and gates divide people, communities and families and have only served to be walls of exclusion and gates of apartheid. On the other hand, decoloniality calls us to embrace life from the settings of a rural village as mentioned in the lyric above, which is not bound by gates and walls but with sheer love and trust for one another.
John, the gospel writer in John 10:1-10, introduces to his audience, the fourth “I am” sayings of Jesus, where Jesus says “I am the gate” (John 10:9). It is in the context of the sheep, thieves, robbers, that Jesus explains his good shepherd(y) characteristic by informing the sheep and the readers that he is ‘the gate’ and “anyone enters by him will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” The political theology of Jesus’ saying “I am the gate” from a decolonial positionality is that Jesus is not offering to construct a wall, or put a barbed wire fence across, rather he is saying that he will be with the sheep as a person offering love and care, building trust with one another and embracing everyone with joy, for whoever goes through him will live in freedom and with food. When Jesus says, “I am the gate” he is offering his care and friendship to the sheep by being the ‘gate (hu)man’ and not a ‘gate wall.’
Jesus in this text (John 10:1-5) figuratively uses sheep, shepherd, gatekeeper and thieves, to explain about life to his early followers in the first century. Jesus picks these agrarian pastoral metaphors because those were the images of the then public sphere that Jesus and his followers knew. Jesus never missed an 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. The message here is that the shepherd comes confidently through the gate, whereas the thief comes in ways that look suspicious, which includes robbing the sheep. The shepherd leads the sheep and the sheep recognises his/her voice and follows, for the shepherd is life-saving and life-assuring. The sheep not only resists following 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.
In the context of the politics of Jesus the gate, in this figure of speech I recognise the shepherd, the gate, the gate keeper and the ‘lamb of God’ is Jesus Christ. Perhaps one person with diverse roles. This very well explains the politics of the divine, for God is at work as a participant with God’s subjects, always identifying as one of the subjects, offering trust, confidence and love to one another. This metaphor grounds the divine in the public sphere as an open gate driving away all exclusions and discriminations, with love and freedom for all, and all means all.
John 10:6 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.” Jesus the gate is such a complex metaphor that tends to be understood, but is not fully understood, and yet times even misunderstood. The heights of misrepresenting Jesus the gate today is seen when walls and gates are built using the language of faith, and the worst of all is using this metaphor to exclude people who are different to the powerful. Perhaps, this verse calls us to humility to say, “we have not understood God’s word as God wants us to be understood”. “Faith seeking understanding” calls for a theological interrogation, for faith is not seeking to understand the colonial episteme, rather faith is seeking liberation and transformation of people and creation in the understanding of Jesus the open gate. This verse also calls for repentance for misinterpreting the words of Jesus and in the process excluding people across history based on the prejudices of a literal reading of the text. Reading the text today, it is absolutely fine to say that we don’t understand everything. Jesus does not condemn us for not understanding, rather appreciates our honesty and works with us to understand things better. Some of the public theological language that is used today may not be of popular understanding. The modern-day Pharisees who read their texts literally consider themselves to be the custodians of faith, prefer to listen to the gospel only in categories and perspectives that they have always read and agree with. These literal readers of the texts feel threatened and puzzled by a message different from their convention, tradition, and perspective.
It is in the above-mentioned context when Jesus’ disciples did not understand what he said, Jesus speaks again to them with much more public theological clarity and says, “I am the gate”, which is mentioned twice in John 10:7 and John 10:9. Shepherds in first century Judea 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 John 10:11, “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. First, there is trust & love for his sheep for as he said, “whoever enters by me (Jesus the gate) will be saved” (John 10:9). Second, there is freedom for his sheep, “and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9). Third, Jesus as a gate has come to give life, life in all its fullness to its sheep (John 10:10), in which Jesus the gate assures life 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.
What is the relevance of ‘Jesus the gate’ for us today? First, ‘Jesus the gate’ as an open gate gives confidence to his followers to ensure freedom of movement for people. Particularly in the light of the proposed ‘Illegal Immigration Bill’ in the UK, the gospel of ‘Jesus the gate’ challenges readers to contest and oppose this bill and strengthen their resolve to offer sanctuary to those fleeing from war, violence, poverty and hunger. Churches’ opposition to this Bill was communicated through the statement by Joint Public Issues Team in the UK.
Jesus the gate stays with his sheep as a lamb, opens the gates as a gatekeeper, and leads the sheep as a shepherd in caring for the world. As followers of Jesus the gate, Christians are called to be a source of sanctuary, open to all people, particularly those seeking refuge(e), by offering care, trust, freedom and love. It is through such action ‘Jesus the gate’ comes alive today.
Like the disciples sometimes we do not understand the relevance of the image of the gate at a time like this, but Jesus the gate helps us 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 crisis, and in breaking down the dividing walls.
The call of Jesus the open gate today is to break down the walls of separation that exist between Jerusalem and Bethlehem today. Jesus the gate is also inviting us to break down the invisible gates built on the caste structures, where exclusion is a reality for Dalits in India. Jesus the open gate is a liberating God inviting us to work for the liberation of people who are marginalised and oppressed in our contexts. Jesus the open gate calls us to break down the walls, and build bridges of love among people, communities and creation. Subscribing or affirming any wall of hatred today is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus the open gate.
The final words of the lyric Ooru Palleturu which I mentioned in the introduction, concludes with these words about the life of the people in the village.
Maava attha bava
Mulle naa palle
The meaning of these lyrics goes this way: “In my village we call everyone not by names, but by the way we are related to each other, some as father-in-law, some as mother-in-law, some as brother-in-law, some as fathers and some as mothers etc. for we are all relatives in our village, for we exist in relation to one another.” Therefore, the decoloniality of ‘Jesus the gate’, exists in building communities of love and trust today, emphasising “I am because we are” and in celebrating our relatedness with one another, transcending all barriers of identity.
2 thoughts on “The Politics of Jesus the Gate”
Wonderful read yet again.. Thanks Anna
It strikes me that the difference between colonial expressions of walls and gates and the gate in John’s gospel is mostly a difference between collective safety from real threats and individualized safety from the perceived threat of otherness.
Thanks for provoking me to revisit this text anew.
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