A few years ago I worked sporadically as a farmhand down the road in Efland. Most days I helped pick vegetables, gather eggs, and pitch in with whatever chores were on hand. Fickle Creek Farm is fairly small, with a wide variety of crops and livestock and a resulting bevy of tasks that change with the whims of the seasons and the weather, the customers and the soils. I never knew week to week what I was getting myself into.
Especially the week we moved the sheep. Up to that point in my life I’d had very little experience with animals other than house pets of a fairly standard variety. For someone who enjoys farms, I am a little cautious about handling animals. And Brian the farm manager knew it.
But I was there to work and the sheep had grazed the north pasture down to scrub. We had enough people on hand that day to make moving them feasible, so Brian (a very good shepherd, in case you are wondering) shrugged and smiled at me. “Just hold your arms out and stand where I tell you.”
But we’ll come back to all that later…
Our gospel passage this week in John is all about sheep and how they move about in the world. Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees again. He healed a man born blind and it raised a terrible row. The Pharisees are furious that Jesus healed on the Sabbath, as usual determined to drain all the awe and wonder out of Jesus’ miraculous, joyous work. The man Jesus healed is resolute, telling his story of healing and freedom under cross-examination despite insults and being thrown out of the Temple.
Jesus finds the man, commends his faith, and turns to the Pharisees to extend a metaphor of blindness to them. “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind” (9:39). Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being the blind sinners in the story. He turns the tables on them.
And then he drops the blindness metaphor entirely and starts talking about sheep.
It is a little jolting, the transition from blindness to sheep. “Truly, truly I say to you…” Jesus tells the crowd as chapter 10 begins, the spot we pick up this week. “Truly, truly,” literally, “amen, amen” (10:1). It is a literary trick designed not to introduce a new idea, but to deliver a punchline. It is a way to sum up the point that comes just before it.
Jesus goes on to describe a scene with sheep that would be incredibly familiar to his listeners. Shepherding, one of the world’s earliest occupations, was also one of the most common in Jesus’ time. Life with sheep was readily understood. Everyone knew a shepherd or was raised by a shepherd or had an uncle who was a shepherd or was a shepherd. Talking to the crowd about sheep was like talking to Southerners about biscuits or toddlers about bubbles or cradle Mennonites about hymns—not everyone is an expert, but most everyone knows the lay of the land.
Jesus talks about sheep moving from pasture through a gate. Their shepherd calls them by name, the sheep listen and follow. Jesus contrasts the familiar shepherd with strangers the sheep don’t recognize. Jesus frames his picture with shots of the “thieves and robbers,” those who don’t come in through the gate and cause the sheep to run away (10:1, 5).
Unsurprisingly, the Pharisees don’t get it. John drops in wry commentary, you can practically hear him sigh or snigger. “Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them” (10:6).
So Jesus explains. He lays things out more clearly. Jesus gets to the point. And his point is a little unexpected.
See, as shepherding was such a common occupation, it was also a common symbol, used for all kinds of leaders. Kings across times and cultures were called shepherds, their crooks signifying power and eminence. Scripture is full of descriptions of God as a shepherd, and not only in Psalm 23. In fact, the Pharisees may have been even quicker to remember the shepherds of Ezekiel 34, a closely studied prophetic passage depicting God as a good shepherd leading the people to safe pasture and condemning evil shepherds who fail to care for their flocks.
So while the move from talking about blindness to sheep may have been abrupt, the crowd would be ready and waiting at this point for Jesus to declare something about God being a good shepherd. Those who were clued into Jesus hints at divinity might even be ready to hear him declare himself to be a good shepherd.
And Jesus is going to get there. Just a few verses further down from here. But not yet.
For now Jesus just says, “I am the gate.”
“Therefore Jesus said again,” explaining himself so that no one misses it, “‘Amen, amen, I say to you: I am the gate for the sheep.’” He repeats it one more time to be sure, “‘I am the gate’” (10:7, 9).
Throughout the book of John, Jesus goes around and makes a series of “I am…” statements, echoing God’s voice in the wilderness to Moses so long ago. God declares to Moses, “Tell them, ‘I am who I am’” (Ex 3:14).
And then Jesus begins to explain that ineffable mystery bit by strange bit. “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11).
“I am the gate” is not the cuddliest image we have of Jesus. It is not the most intimate of his “I am…” declarations. “Life” and “light” and “bread” and “shepherd” all sound a little more warm and inviting. Potentially life giving. “Gate” sounds metallic, mechanical, with the rather concrete potential for exclusion.
And Jesus’ gate metaphor isn’t straightforward either. It gets all gloriously trippy in that way that Scripture and Christian theology tend to do, because Jesus is the gate the sheep move through.
But Jesus is also the shepherd whose voice the sheep hear, and Jesus is also the life the sheep follow Jesus into. Jesus is saying, “I am the one who leads you into myself, through myself. I lead you through the gate, through me, into life in me and with me.” Like a point circling out and twisting back in on itself, in a sort of linguistic criss-cross pattern that looks like it was drawn by a small child.
Jesus paints this beautiful picture of sheep following the shepherd through the gate. The sheep hear the voice of the shepherd calling them by name. The shepherd walks ahead with them through the open gate. The sheep follow the one who has joined them, becoming one of the herd running ahead. When the leader runs, they follow by their instinct to move and remain together.
“I am the gate,” Jesus says. “Whoever enters through me will be saved” (10:9). But they won’t just “be saved.” They won’t just not die. Life through the gate is more than the avoidance of death, more than scraping by, more than survival. The sheep through the gate “will come in and will go out and will find pasture” (10:9). The sheep through the gate will have lives marked by freedom of movement with nourishment all around them. Life through the gate is lush and unrestrained. Full.
I found myself feeling a bit skeptical about Scripture this week, to be honest. Not because I don’t believe in the profound love of God and goodness of God’s shepherding. Not because I don’t believe that God speaks, calling clearly to sheep who can and will joyfully follow the Good Shepherd through the gate of Jesus into new life. It is not because I don’t have faith in Jesus.
It’s because I don’t have that much faith in sheep.
It all takes me back to that day on the farm at Fickle Creek. Working with sheep taught me some things about them. Namely: they don’t readily walk through gates. They don’t generally come when they are called. They do not obediently line up single file and follow directions. This is why it is called herding.
Now there are exceptions. I chatted some this week with Dirk and Judy Tysmans, former CHMF members who raised sheep on their land out in Holy Springs for years. I asked the Tysmans if their sheep recognized them, if they came when they called, if they knew their voices.
The answer was mixed. Dirk and Judy told me that sheep can and do learn to recognize voices and faces. But they have to learn, and it takes a while.
Sheep are naturally suspicious of predators, animals (like humans) who have front focusing eyes. Sheep will begin over time to drop their suspicions if people treat them well, but our faces generally frighten them. Even after years of caring for them from birth, if Judy wore her straw hat out to the pasture and her familiar face was altered or obscured, her sheep would back away from her.
Sheep will also learn to recognize sounds, often a sharp sound associated with food, like banging on a grain bucket, but sometimes voices too. Dirk said if he called his sheep would sometimes look up and even walk closer to him as he approached, but only if they weren’t busy eating, in which case they would just notice his presence and continue grazing. At the end of the day their sheep would usually follow them through a gate into their pen out of habit and trust, responding to some combination of their physical presence and voices, but some days there was more cajoling involved. Judy says she has no idea if sheep in a large flock would come when called, though she doubts it. “They’d feel safe in the mass of sheep, and wouldn’t go off alone no matter who called them.”
The day I moved sheep on the farm there was no idyllic call and follow. We had to go to more elaborate lengths, gathering the flock in the lower pasture, setting up a series of movable gates to create a funnel towards the trailer that would transport the sheep ½ mile down the road to greener pasture.
To get our sheep to follow a narrow passage and walk through the gate we had to gently corral them, slowly narrowing their space, holding out our arms to appear larger than life, helping the sheep choose to walk in the direction we knew to be best for them. All without scaring them.
If you scare sheep, they will bolt in the opposite direction and run away. If you are lucky you might catch them. But sheep are big and strong, and even if you manage to grab them you don’t want to hurt them or break any legs (yours or theirs). And they are quick (especially if you are a good shepherd and they are healthy and well fed).
So mostly you are left to chase them down and resume your savvy, gentle arms-out, heads-up, eyes-soft approach.
After lots of narrowing and moving of gates and patient, gentle, largely suggestive attention, my sheep moving day ended like this—with myself and 3 other able-bodied people physically bracing ourselves against a tide of sheep butts trying to push their way backwards, back out through the gate.
It was hands-on, intimate, incredibly physical labor. Parts were grabbed, bodies were clutched and pressed and held. No legs were broken. Everyone was a bit grumpy about the whole endeavor in the end. But the sheep made it through the gate and we delivered them safely to their fresh pasture where they grazed happily and grew and thrived.
The metaphor obviously breaks down. Animal husbandry at its best involves some amount of coercion and we, after all, had not only the sheep’s best interest in mind. At some point beyond the new green pasture these sheep would be slaughtered, food in our bellies and money in our pockets. I was not volunteering my time that day.
And we were guiding the sheep into a small space—they had no sign or sight of a fresh pasture beyond the gate, just the back of a crowded trailer. We had to take them down the road a piece in relative darkness before they had the assurance of new, promising ground under their feet.
Which got me thinking that maybe the metaphor doesn’t break down so completely after all…
Maybe we are like sheep. Maybe we are capable of recognizing the voice of the shepherd and following through the gate which is itself the shepherd, our pastoral image par excellence.
But maybe we also know the earthier, dirtier reality of other days through the gate. Maybe Jesus did too.
Maybe sometimes the narrow gate of Christ looks like God gently, patiently walking with the herd, arms spread out, trying to appear large and trustworthy so we will listen without getting too spooked. (And maybe God is always willing to chase us down when we do slip away …)
Maybe that gate doesn’t always look like it is leading to pasture. “Whoever wants to save their life will lost it,” Jesus once famously said (Mk 9:35). Maybe sometimes the gate looks like it leads into a trailer. Maybe it looks like it leads into a dark place crammed with other nervous sheep. Maybe sometimes we don’t want to go through that gate. Maybe we aren’t so sure there is anything better—any pasture at all—on the other side.
Now I know my experience with sheep sounds very different from the picture Jesus gives us but he gives it in context. I don’t think he was just painting a nice, idyllic image. That doesn’t really sound like the Jesus I know, who tended to be a bit more brassy.
Jesus knows the context of our lives, knowledge about a lot of days when sheep need help through the gate with more than the sound of a shepherd’s voice. And Jesus knew the context in which he was speaking, casting his beautiful pastoral picture right in the middle of accusing the Pharisees of spiritual blindness—stealing and killing and destruction (10:10).
The Pharisees, you see, are gatekeepers, and they make the gates. They are in the middle of throwing Jesus’ people out on the streets, including those born blind. The Pharisees are the gatekeepers, and Jesus is challenging them directly, supplanting them.
“I am the gate,” he says, staring them down.
We like sheep have good reasons to be suspicious of the gates and the gatekeepers we recognize, thieves and bandits leading people through gates that leave us in places we don’t want to be. Our caution in the face of the voices we hear is well founded. Too often we have been fooled by wolves in shepherds’ clothing, those whose voices sound slick and sweet with their spin on theology and abundance, prayers answered easily and life all going according to plan. Until it doesn’t, and our constructs of God leave us wanting, hungry.
This week I read about the murders of Jordan Edwards, Jack Jones Jr, Marcel Williams, and Ledell Lee, the pending roll back of medical coverage for millions of citizens in need of healing, and the vultures who pick at the bones of immigrants who have died alone crossing the deserts of Texas. This morning I choked on my coffee as I read those words of Ezekiel 34, prophetic pronouncements against the shepherds and gatekeepers of the world who “only take care of themselves” (34:2).
Woe to you who “have ruled harshly and brutally…You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured…[Your sheep] were scattered because there was no shepherd and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wander over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (34:2, 4-6).
We have plenty of reason to be wary of gates and those in power who literally hold the keys to the gates. Gates that keep prisoners locked away from their communities, gates opened only to let them out to be executed. Gates opened on the safeties of cops’ guns that rob us of more young black men for no apparent reason. Gates of access to medical care slammed shut on those in need. Paper gates of immigration status withheld, iron gates closed down along our borders. Too often our gatekeepers and the gates we build are thieves and robbers of life.
Yet as clearly as we recognize the thieves and the robbers, and as well as we know the days when we need herding down narrow passages, here comes Jesus with this other vision of life. We are left to hold them all in tension.
“I am the gate,” Jesus says. Not them. Not their gates, nor their swaggering over locks and fences.
Jesus speaking, as clearly as he can muster, repeating himself to make sure we get it: “I am the gate. I am the gate.”
Jesus, looking and sounding a lot more like Judy Tysmans who, while acknowledging all the times and ways sheep might have a hard time following the sound of a shepherd’s voice, also says this:
“There were some days while we trimming vines away from the fence, I would stop and bend down a tulip poplar branch or two so the sheep could eat the leaves, knowing they would grow back quickly. Poplar leaves for sheep are like candy to a child.
I could call out, ‘Hey sheep!’ to get their attention.
And on those days they would come running.”
 Bruner, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 606.