Photo credit: Elke Vermeersch
Readings: Psalm 23, John 10:1-10, Secrets of Heaven 2356 (see below)
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One of the things that I find fascinating about his passage is that it is very open about the idea that Jesus was using a metaphor to communicate something to the Pharisees about the relationship between God and people. Jesus certainly did this all the time, but I think it is worth taking a moment to consider what this means theologically.
The point of a metaphor is to take something that we know something about, and use that to teach us something about something else. So, an example from poetry, from Emily Dickinson in particular: Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul. We are using the common notion of a bird (something with feathers) and what we already know about them: that they can fly, that they sing every morning, that they are untamed, and use those ideas to tell us something about the more ineffable notion of hope…in this case, that hope is something that is wild and free and yet beautiful and constant. We understand something of which the poet is trying to say because we use metaphor as a kind of intellectual stepping stone from one thing to another. The greek word itself--paroimia— that is used in our bible passage reflects this idea, as it is an amalgam of the words para, meaning alongside and oiomai, meaning to suppose or think. We use one idea to “think alongside” another idea, and learn something about the second thing that we couldn’t learn directly.
A common biblical example is the use of the shepherd metaphor. We take the qualities of a shepherd with which we are familiar (or at least that the people in biblical times were familiar): that a shepherd is careful, alert, dedicated, protective, caring— and we are told in Psalm 23 that the Lord is our shepherd…and so we understand that God has those qualities too, in relationship to us.
So this this in mind, let’s explore the John text to see what this particular metaphor might be trying to teach us.
The first is familiar, already mentioned, the shepherd. The second is less so: Jesus as gate, or door, and more specifically, the gate to a sheep pen.
What is this idea of the gate communicating? An open door often speaks to us of welcome. A little further on in 10:16 Jesus will say: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.” An open door speaks to us of community and of possibility. It speaks of groundedness, of belonging, of invitation. Who hasn’t had the experience of walking around a building trying to find the door, trying to find a way in? And what a relief when you finally find it! It feels great to find a way into a place that you wish to enter.
But a gate can also be closed…
And so, we see the other side of the metaphor, the notion of protection. What do we already know about sheep and why they might have a pen at all? It is so they might be kept safe…first, that they might not wander away, and second so that they might not fall prey to a predator. So, from this part of the metaphor we are learning that the presence of God with us might provide a useful boundary, something that keeps us within a community or within a set of useful behaviors or habits, something that provides guidance and safety and consistency.
So, with this metaphor of the gate, we see a balance between welcome and protection. Now, here is a good time to mention the inherent limitation of metaphors. By their nature, they are always incomplete in some way. They can describe some aspects about something we do not know, but they can’t say everything about that thing we do not know, for then the two things we are comparing would be exactly the same. Metaphors describe likeness but not sameness. We know that God is not actually a gate. We are using the idea of a gate to tell us something about God, but it can’t tell us everything. Sometimes, when we are very familiar with a particular metaphor, we might forget about this inherent incompleteness. For example in a theological context, we are super familiar with the metaphor of God as Father. This metaphor is useful in communicating certain ideas about God, ideas like love, intimacy, encouragement, protection. But we know that God is not literally our father, and neither is God male. The metaphor of Father obscures some of God’s other characteristics that we might associate with mothering for example, or platonic companionship. And further, our use of this metaphor relies on what we understand a Father to be in this day and age. As that cultural idea changes, so too will the group of characteristics that the metaphor expresses.
Metaphors can never be perfect. They might be missing some essential characteristics, or they might suggest characteristics that don’t quite fit. The latter principle applies to our idea of the gate. Not everything about a gate should be applied to God. A gate can close, and a sheep pen can be locked. It will literally prevent the sheep from leaving, regardless of their will. God doesn’t do that, God doesn’t compel. Neither does God wish to separate us, as sheep, from other sheep in other folds, or from the world. One problem here, is that the notion of a helpful boundary, or of gentle protection, can be twisted to justify exclusion or superiority or insularity. The idea of Jesus as the gate, the only safe gate, the preferred gate, can be pressed into the service of “othering” groups of people. Because if there is a pen, there must be a threat…and then we feel free to define for ourselves that threat, and it often turns out to be whatever is convenient to our own sense of self or our own desire for domination and control.
We need to be careful with metaphors, because sometimes we can lean them in a direction that takes us away from knowing more about God, about who God is and what God wants.
So, we must embrace metaphors with a balance of curiosity and caution, just as this particular metaphor of the gate balances a tension between welcome and protection. If we listen to the sentence from v.9 “They will come in and go out, and find pasture,” it sounds like neither one, either welcome or protection, is supposed to dominate. The sheep come and go, finding protection when it is required, but not in a way that limits finding pasture.
To really settle into that sweet spot that it sounds like this metaphor is going for, I think it might be helpful to ask the question, what is it all for? Our text ends with the statement “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The point is not that the sheep should be penned but that they should have life. This is what Jesus was trying to communicate via this metaphor. God is always working so that we might have abundant, thriving, nourishing life. For a sheep to have a good life, they sometimes need to be protected, and sometimes need to be able to roam for pasture. I think it is somewhat the same with us. Those of us who are parents can certainly relate with trying to find a balance between boundaries and freedom for our children as they grow into their own personalities and their own judgment.
But this begs the question: what about the thief or the robber that “climbs in by some other way.” What is it about circumventing the gate that is bad? We heard in our Swedenborg reading:
'A door' in the Word means that which introduces or leads the way either towards truth, or towards good, or towards the Lord. Consequently 'a door' in addition means truth itself, also good itself, as well as the Lord Himself, for truth leads to good, and good leads to the Lord.
There isn’t any other way to abundant life, as in a thriving life that is connected and engaged with spirit and growth, there isn’t any other way to that life except by what is true or what is good. We often times might try to circumvent this process and find belonging, guidance, or fulfillment from other things like control, accumulation, blame, or deception. We might try to skip over the difficult process of figuring out what is true, of figuring out how to do what is right and good in our own complicated lives, and try to get to safety, peace and contentment without doing any of that work. We might wish we could get belonging without vulnerability, community without sacrifice, success without discipline, meaning without struggle.
But the gate is the only way into these things: the gate is truth itself, also good itself, as well as the Lord Himself, for truth leads to good and good leads to the Lord. There is no other way. But of course, that doesn’t mean there is only *one* way. There are a million different individual ways of discovering truth and doing what is good. A million different iterations of the only way. But still, there is only one *kind* of way, only one gate that leads to relationship with God: a desire for truth, and a desire to translate that truth into goodness in our daily lives. We can’t skip over it. We can’t jump the fence. It is not about exclusivity; this gate is as wide as the whole world. But there just isn’t any other way into abundant life, into alignment with the reality of a loving God, than by loving truth and doing good. And So God will try to herd us in though that gate by hook or by crook. And we will bleat and moan and fall over and try to run away, but ultimately, we will listen to the voice of the shepherd we know, and who knows us. The one who calls us by name.
1 A Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.
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. 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.
Secrets of Heaven 2356
…’A door' in the Word means that which introduces or leads the way either towards truth, or towards good, or towards the Lord. Consequently 'a door' in addition means truth itself, also good itself, as well as the Lord Himself, for truth leads to good, and good leads to the Lord.