On my first year in Australia during my study leave in 2008, I adventurously drove alone from Melbourne to my cousin’s place in Ipswich, QLD, a distance of about 1,628 km. I drove it for three days taking stops, of course, at Redemptorist houses in Galong, NSW and Newcastle, NSW for a rest and sleep for the night. I was quite confident that I won’t get lost equipped with a GPS on my car. On my way to Galong, however, the GPS directed me to dirt roads passing through many ranches and farms. I have to get on and off the car in order to open the gates of the many farms I passed through. Someone in Galong told me that I could get shot opening those gates for trespassing.
In the gospel of today’s 4th Sunday of Easter, Jesus talks about gates,
“I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life
and have it more abundantly.””
When I think of gate, the first thing that comes to my mind is that of exclusion. Talk of exclusive subdivision in Makati or gated mansions in Ayala-Alabang or high walls in New Manila. Gates are meant to prevent outsiders and those who don’t belong from coming inside the house or building or a village. Anyone who doesn’t pass through the gate can be suspected of robbers, outlaws or persons with evil intention. But gate can also be an image of captivity and repression so that those inside cannot get out and can easily be controlled by those who have power. Think about the gates of prisons, refugee detention centers and rehabilitation centers.
Do these images apply to Jesus when he said, “I am the gate”?
First of all, the context of in which Jesus spoke those words is in the context of sheep and shepherding. The image of sheep and shepherd is not an image we are familiar in the Philippines. But in Israel where Jesus lived and grew, sheep is an important part of life, providing the people with wool, milk, and meat. In the Bible, the main symbol of God’s relationship with the people of Israel is compared to a shepherd and his sheep.
When Jesus spoke about himself as Gate, he was referring to the Gate of the sheepfold, meaning—a sheep pen, while the shepherds who come in and out are pastors who are faithful to Jesus. Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, is “a thief and a brigand” who comes to steal and do harm to the sheep.
Of all domesticated animals, sheep are the most vulnerable. Sheep will spend their entire day grazing, wandering from place to place, and never looking up. As a result, they often become lost. Unfortunately, sheep have no “homing instinct” as other animals do. They are totally incapable of finding their way to their sheepfold even when it is in plain sight. By nature, sheep are followers. If the lead sheep steps off a cliff, the others will follow. Sheep are also utterly dependent upon their shepherd to lead them to pastures, provide them with water, and protect them from danger.
Jesus as gate of the sheepfold, therefore, is where those who are vulnerable, weak, and helpless can get in. Jesus as gate is not about exclusion but welcoming all especially the least and the lost, the poor, deprived and oppressed. Jesus as gate is to give protection and comfort to the sheep who wish to belong and follow him.
Jesus as gate is not a gate for control and enslavement. We need not fear entering into this gate; we won’t get shot. Jesus is the gate where the sheep—we, the church—come in and go out and find pasture. The gospel passage ends with one of Jesus’ most beautiful statements: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” Entering into the gate of Jesus is to live life to the full.
In order to enter into the gate who is Jesus, we need to embrace a relationship and bond where we are all sheep and Jesus is our shepherd. We need to live out this relationship as one of the hallmarks of our being an Easter people.
As a sheep, we are weak, helpless, and vulnerable and dependent on God and one another. Many times we wander off and get lost. Like sheep, we get easily frightened and become easily confused and we plunge blindly off a cliff following one after another. Like sheep, we, too, need a shepherd, we need someone to follow who will guide us to the true path towards fullness of life not someone who will lead us astray. Jesus is the true shepherd who has come that we may have life and have it to the full. He is the good shepherd who lay down His life for His sheep.
Being in the sheepfold of Jesus, however, does not mean that we become a passive sheep. It also calls us to participate in the ‘shepherdness’ of Jesus. We are called to shepherd one another, to search for the lost and the lonely, to care for the most abandoned, to protect the vulnerable and to defend the poor and the oppressed.
Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, calls out the religious and clergy to go out of the comforts of their convents and stay close to the marginalized and become “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” The call to be a shepherd, however, is not just a call for the ordained and religious. It is a call for all the flock—we, the church, lay and ordained—are called to shepherd one another and have the smell of each other’s ‘sheepness’.
Come, let us enter into the gate to fullness of life!