Sheep are often used as the metaphor for people. Despite our attempts to individuate from everyone else, we are very much a herd animal. Whereas Matthew 18:13 focuses on the individual lost sheep when the Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to find it, todays parable focuses on the rest of the herd.
This story occurs in John 10 following the discourse with religious leaders about the healing of the blind man. Jesus is still speaking to religious leaders trying to help them see beyond their religious framework that has divided people into innies and outies. Like many parables, the audience fails to understand it (v.6). They didn’t recognize that Jesus was calling the religious elite thieves and robbers (v.1-5).
Jesus uses the metaphor of the Good Shepherd and the Door of the Sheep to reveal a truth about himself and compare it to the religious system’s design for access to God. Jesus has been claiming to be God (John 8:58) and proving it by miracles, and the religious leaders want to kill him for it (v.59). The issue is that religion, which was supposed to be a means of bringing people close to God, has instead divided and plundered the people.
This parable is about access to God. (Door)
Sheep are prone to follow. Once they recognize the voice of their shepherd they will follow it (v.4). Sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Jesus is saying, “When it comes to God, people can spot the imitation. It tries to be the shepherd but sheep won’t follow the voice.” At the time, religious law had become so burdensome and tedious that religion had become focused on compliance. Do you think it’s happening again today? Have we exchanged the voice of God for a message of compliance, obedience, and attendance?
“All that came before me are thieves and robbers (v. 8)” A second time Jesus charges the religious leadership with plundering the flock. Institutional religion was not serving people, but requiring people to serve it. Religious compliance didn’t bring people to a place of thriving, but instead became burdens too hard to bear. “They preach but don’t practice” (Matthew 23:4). By contrast, Jesus says “I am the Sheep Door and those that go through me (relate to God through an alternative to religion) are saved (rescued/healed/delivered from the plunderer) and go “in and out” (safety and pasture) (John 10:9).
It’s important not insert into this passage the modern evangelical notion of salvation which sees Christianity as an alternative religion. For Jesus, salvation was healing from religious oppression and freedom to go “in and out” between safety and pasture (v.9). He’s offering liberation. This wasn’t a statement about ones eternity, although it can be implied.
By now we know who the thief is (v.1, v.8), it’s organized religion. By contrasting the freedom to go in and out of pasture, Jesus again says the thief only steals, kills and destroys our life (v.10). This begs the question as to how much of our lives are stolen by thieves. (Career, religion, addictions, unprofitable relationships, etc…) Jesus purpose was the opposite, to show us not only how to live our life, but live it to the fullest (v.10). How to “in” but not “of.”
Thieves take. The Shepherd gives.
Of course you can’t subvert religion without paying a price. You can’t offer a disruption to the status quo without the establishment rising against you. This is why Jesus says the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He contrasts yet again with the “hired hand” (v.12).
The hired hand is the paid clergy. Those who profited from running the temple. They are supposed to do the work of the Shepherd, but instead look out for their own interests. So when the “Wolf” comes the hired hand dodges all the bullets to protect himself or his position. The Good Shepherd stands between the wolf and the flock- lays down his life (v.11).
The Good Shepherd has your back.
What does it mean to lay down your life? For Jesus, he already knew his audience wanted to kill him. He had already escaped their grasp a few times. Laying down his life meant there would come a time when he would not escape because he would no longer even try. There would be a moment when he’d submit to the will of institutional evil, but only to subvert it once and for all. Religion tries to get everyone to God, but the Shepherds death means God has come to everyone in an unexpected way.
God comes (The Door opens) in diverse ways.
When Jesus says, “I have sheep that are not of this fold”, I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (v.16), he’s expanding our consideration of what the flock actually is. Every world religion tries to control and ratify access to God and create uniformity through compliance. Jesus seems to indicate that we may be surprised by who is a part of the flock. His flock has unity as well as diversity.
So what is the path to God?
Jesus connects all these dots by charting the course. He’s the door (the archetype of what it will look like for you) (thlebo-constricted). First, it’s a downward path, “I lay down my life” and then it’s a turn upward “I have authority to take it up again.” This is the path given by God the Father (v.18). This is clearly a foreshadow of Jesus death and resurrection, but in a cosmic sense it’s the outline for the Christoform pattern which is: life, death, burial, and renewal. Everything from stars to smoothies follows this course. The path to God is not the ascent offered by any religion, but the descent, (death of the self, ego, pride) that leads to renewal (a new life, abundant life), that leads to a new humanity (green pastures) that is marked by humility, unity and peace.
How much of your life has been stolen by thieves? Does the idea that religion is stealing your life offend you? Have you traded an experience with God for religious practice?
Try following the voice of the Shepherd through the Sheep Door rather than your religion. Have faith that God is your ultimate caretaker. Trust that God has your back.
The pattern is set. The price has been paid. We know we are free when we can surrender the outcome of our life.