Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Through the Gate

“Truly, Truly I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” John 10:1-3

This passage has been on my mind since Saturday afternoon. I read it after confession on Saturday, again at Mass on Sunday, and again at Bible study last night. I didn’t really start forming any opinions about it until last night. I was trying simply to listen to it (the actual passage I had read was much longer, going all the way to verse 18.) After listening to all the points of view at Bible study last night I am full of amazement at this passage. It is so deep, so rich, so multi-layered. On the most obvious level there is the message that Jesus was conveying directly to the Pharisees and elders of a synagogue (see chapter 9). He was calling upon the rich religious and covenantal significance of the word “shepherd” and the image of the people of Israel as God’s chosen flock. He was tying together three themes from the Old Testament:

1)    God as the Shepherd of His people, (example Genesis 49:24, Psalm 23:1, Psalm 80:1, Ezekiel 34:11-15)

2)    The priests and prophets as the shepherds of Israel, (example Jeremiah 23)

3)    The ruler (especially David) as the shepherd of Israel, (example 2 Sam 5:2, 7:7, Psalm 78:71)

Jesus draws all of these themes together and unites them in Himself, casting his pharisaic listeners as the false shepherds of Israel declaimed by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and Himself as the Good Shepherd foretold by Ezekiel and Micah (Micah 5:2-4).

Jesus is never simple, though. If it were simply a message meant strictly for his immediate hearers it would never have been recorded since, presumably, the Pharisees never read the New Testament. It was recorded for our sake and so Jesus spoke with me and my friends specifically in mind. It is also a parable about the Church. We are the sheep, He is the good Shepherd who calls each of us by name. The sheepfold is the Church, but it is also the kingdom of Heaven. Any attempt to force our way into Heaven on our own merits is doomed to failure. Worse, we are thieves and liars if we try it. We are no different from Adam and Eve, reaching out to grasp and take what has not been freely offered. We must go in and out through the gate.

The idea of the gate, though, has been turning over and over in my head since last night. Some people might consider a gate a symbol of enclosing and limiting, but it isn’t. It is an image of freedom, specifically the only true path to freedom. It is a symbol of consent. When Jesus speaks those words about entering by the door and calling His own by name, the most powerful association in my mind is with the Song of Songs.

You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride;
you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain.
Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates
with choice fruits,
with henna and nard,
nard and saffron,
calamus and cinnamon,
with every kind of incense tree,
with myrrh and aloes
and all the finest spices.
You are a garden fountain,
a well of flowing water
streaming down from Lebanon. Song of Songs 4:12-15

These are the words of the bridegroom, who is variously either a human lover of a human woman, or Jesus, the lover of souls. Throughout the Song both interpretations are ever present, and in fact, inextricably united. One does not exist without the other. But for now let this be the voice of Jesus, calling His own by name.

She responds:

Awake, north wind,
and come, south wind!
Blow on my garden,
that its fragrance may spread everywhere.
Let my beloved come into his garden
and taste its choice fruits. Song of Songs 4:16

And again He speaks:

I come to my garden, My sister, My bride,
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk. Song of Songs 5:1

No matter how many times I read through the Song of Songs it never ceases to amaze me. Amaze is the wrong word. It never ceases to captivate me.

This is the most amazing thing about our God. The image of the sealed and locked fountain (whether the soul that Jesus longs to enter or the heart of the woman the man in the poem loves) is an image of something that is unattainable; something that, no matter how hard you try, can never simply be achieved. I can achieve many things by my own efforts. I can learn a language, or a martial art, or a recipe. If I wanted to I could earn a million dollars, or save up to own a Ferrari, or a cabin in the woods, or a mansion by the sea. What I can never do, however, is achieve love. I can never compel someone to love me. I can only ask permission. It will be either given or not. If it is not free it is not love. If it is truly love that I want then that freedom is the only possible condition for it to exist.

This should not be surprising for me, a mere human, but for God? God is the creator of the universe, of All That Is! How is there anything that He cannot achieve simply by willing it? And yet, there is. In His love He has created something that is forever beyond the reach of even His power: the human heart. He cannot force entry into it. He cannot climb the fence, for that would destroy the very thing that He longs for, which is love. Love, by its very nature exists only when it is given freely. Unfree love is simply a no-thing, a thing which is not. So He does not force entry, or climb the walls, or dig under the fence. He stands outside and calls. And we answer. Or not.

“I slept, but my heart was waking.
Hark! My Beloved is knocking.
‘Open to me, my sister, my love,
My dove, my perfect one.” Song of Songs 5:2.

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. Revelations 3:20

There is so much more here, but this blog is already too long.


  1. Thank you for sharing this lovely post. I have read it over several times now. There is so much here to think over and chew on. I stumbled onto it playing internet leapfrog, and I am so glad I did! It was a good reminder of what a leap it is to choose to love someone with no guarantees of anything. Another supremely important part of loving someone is sacrifice. Love and sacrifice are so inextricably bound together that neither exists without the other. Just as love must be freely given, so sacrifices must be freely made with love. What an example of this Jesus was/is for us with His every action! To truly love someone, we have to be willing to sacrifice for them...our time, our selfishness, our needs, our hearts, our lives. To love someone is to give all of these things --with joyfulness-- and expect no payment or recompense of any kind in return. It also means accepting the sacrifices made for us by those who love us in return with thankfulness and grace. Anyway, thank you for sharing and for inspiring a few quiet prayerful and contemplative moments in my life today. It was much needed and is appreciated. :)

  2. It may be long, but it was certainly worthwhile!