Sheep Gate in 1st Century Israel

I know it wont come as a surprise to you, but some Christians have no sense of joy whatsoever! It’s almost as if the moment they were baptized God placed a slice of lemon on their tongues and they’ve been sucking on it ever since! These “sour puss” Christians certainly know how to ruin a party! They give us the impression that Satan is lurking around ever corner, waiting to drag our souls to hell for the slightest of transgressions. They tend to be overly judgmental, a tad bit hateful, and have a fondness for bullhorns!

Case in point…the Cher and Cyndi Lauper concert I attended several years ago in Charlotte. Everyone was in a festive mood. Some people were dressed in elaborate costumes. Smiles were everywhere as we awaited the opportunity to hear two indestructible divas do what they do best!

When I arrived for the concert, I parked my car in a garage two blocks away and headed for the Time Warner Cable Arena. Everything was going smoothly, without incident. As I walked toward the arena, I was humming to myself the quintessential Cher tune “Do you believe in life after love.”

I rounded the corner of the Arena. And then…I saw them. Yep, you guessed it! “Sour puss” Christians who were determined to share the love of Jesus by yelling at the crowd and telling us we were going to hell. As I approached them, I even heard one poor misguided soul yelling through his bullhorn: “Trade your ticket in for eternal salvation.”

Seriously? Did I miss something? Is Cher the anti-Christ and I didn’t get the memo Are her dancers demonic entities who are bent on destroying the world through joyous movement? How is spending an evening with two iconic entertainers even remotely demonic? How is their message of love and acceptance of all people going to destroy my soul? I just don’t get it! Is it any wonder people don’t want to follow Jesus when “sour puss” Christians are their only example of what he is all about?

Believe it or not, this brings us to our gospel lesson which has NOTHING to do with Cher but EVERYTHING to do with “sour puss” Christians. These ten verses are part of a larger reading that includes lots of imagery about sheep and shepherding. A portion of this larger reading is always used as the gospel lesson for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Many people call this particular day Good Shepherd Sunday. In today’s portion of the text Jesus uses a mixed metaphor to talk about himself. Jesus says that he is the shepherd who leads his sheep in and out of the sheep gate. He says he knows them by name and they follow him because they know his voice. Furthermore, those who are bandits and thieves are those who try to sneak over the wall and steal the sheep.

Now, all of this seems pretty clear. Most of us have at least some idea of what Jesus is talking about. However, John tells us that “Those who heard Jesus use this illustration didn’t understand what he meant, so he explained it to them.” [NLT] The “them” in this verse refers to the Pharisees. Apparently, this teaching is more difficult to understand than first meets the eye.

Jesus then offered the confused Pharisees a clarification which is the second metaphor in our gospel lesson: “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” [NLT]

So, Jesus is not only the shepherd, he is also the gate. He also equates the Pharisees with thieves who try to steal the sheep. [Ouch! You know that had to hurt!] This leaves us as the sheep who will be saved and find pasture if we follow Jesus’ voice.

The interesting part of this second metaphor for me has to do with the image of Jesus as the Gate. The way we we understand the purpose of the sheep gate, determines whether we will become “Sour puss” Christians or joy-filled, “abundant life” believers. Let’s start with the “sour puss” Christians who understand our gospel reading in a very specific way. Jesus is the Gate who acts more like a Bouncer than a Shepherd. A simple job description of a Bouncer is to let good people in, and keep bad people out.

When “sour puss” Christians read this passage, they understand it in a very specific way. Jesus is the GATEWAY to heaven, where the sheep pen is a metaphor for heaven. The moral of the story is “Don”t listen to other voices. Jesus is watching you! He will determine who will be saved.”

So the image we are left with is all “good” sheep go to heaven. They are are fenced in and guarded by Bouncer Jesus. Not surprisingly, “sour puss” Christians equate the good sheep with everyone who thinks like them! We know where the rest of us sheep end up: Sacrificial lambs at Satan’s eternal BBQ! This is ONE way to read our gospel lesson! But it is not the ONLY way to read the text! To those who understand Jesus’ beautiful metaphor this way, I can only respond with the same words John used to describe the Pharisees: “Those who heard Jesus use this illustration didn’t understand what he meant.”

Fortunately, there is another way to understand the purpose of the sheep gate. Jesus is the Gate who acts more like a Lifeguard than a Shepherd. A simple job description of a Life Guard is to keep everyone safe from harm. When we read this passage with a Lifeguard in mind, it takes the text in a COMPLETELY different direction Jesus is the GATEKEEPER who protects us from harm. He leads us safely to green pastures, so we may “have life, and have it abundantly.”

Seen in this light, Jesus is our guardian, Our protector and our Savior in the deepest sense of the word. This is a TOALLY DIFFERENT WAY to understand our gospel lesson, than the “sour puss,” “you’re gonna burn in hell” approach.

In case, you think I’m stretching the text in a direction it shouldn’t go, let me take you on a journey through my thought process so you can see how I arrived at this very different interpretation. We start with what a sheep pen looked like in the time of Jesus. Most sheep pens were square or rectangular. they were built out of stacked stones which were abundant in the area. Sometimes shepherds would build two or three pens side by side in order to take advantage of adjacent walls. Some of these sheep pens had gates. But most of the time the shepherd served as a human gate. He would keep watch over the sheep from the entrance of the pen.

This gives us some appreciation for Jesus’ mixed metaphor in our gospel lesson, because the shepherd and the gate are literally one and the same thing. From this visual for what a sheep pen looked like, we can see that the shepherd is more of a Lifeguard than a Bouncer. He functions as a protector and guardian instead of a bully and judge.

The purpose of the Jesus Gate is further underscored by the Greek word for “saved” that appears in the text. Jesus said, “Those who come in through me will be saved.” The Greek word used here can also be translated as “to keep safe, to protect, to heal, to preserve or to make whole.” Again, we can see that the function of the shepherd gate is more about nurture and protection than it is about judgment and punishment.

The final piece that seals the deal for me is Jesus’ description of the function of the Sheep Gate. Jesus says “those who come in through me…will come and go freely and will find good pastures…My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” Again, I see no sense of judgment here. There is no mention of good sheep and bad sheep. We are all simply sheep and Jesus is the Shepherd Door who promises us safety, protection and abundant life if we follow his voice.

So let’s go back to Cher! The way I see it is that we have two choices. We have two ways of being a witness for Christ. We can tell others that Jesus is angry and judgmental, or we can tells others that Jesus is loving and forgiving. We can take on the role of the Bouncer and try to separate the good sheep from the bad sheep. Or we can take on the role of a Lifeguard who helps to bring all sheep into a loving relationship with Jesus, our Good Shepherd. The choice is ours.

Friends in Christ, I refuse to be a “sour puss” Christian. I refuse to treat my neighbor with a judgmental or hateful spirit because this is NOT a true representation of who Jesus is. It’s not the kind of Gate he said he would be to those who follow his voice. Instead, I hope to be the compassionate servant Jesus showed us how to be the night be took a towel and basin and washed his disciples’ feet. I want to be the Good Samaritan who saw the injured man on the road, and did not pass him by. I want to be a representative of the Good Shepherd, the Lifeguard who gently cradles the lost sheep in his arms, instead of telling them they are all going to burn in hell!

People are watching what we say or do. It has a profound effect on the way they understand who Jesus is. What will our witness look like as we leave church this morning and go out into the world as disciples of the Good Shepherd? Will we be Bouncers or Lifeguards? That is a question we all need to ponder! AMEN

Copyright ©2017 David Eck