When Sister asked the children in her class what they wanted to be when they grew up, little Tommy said he wanted to be a pilot. Elsie said she wanted to be a doctor; Bobby, to Sister’s great joy, said he wanted to be a priest. Then Mary stood up and declared she wanted to be a prostitute.
“What was that again, Mary?”
“When I grow up,” said Mary with the air of someone who knew exactly what she wanted, “I shall become a prostitute.” Sister was startled beyond words. Mary was immediately segregated from the rest of the children and taken to the parish priest.
Father was given the facts in broad outline but he wanted to check them out with the culprit. “Tell me what happened in your own words, Mary.” “Well,” said Mary, somewhat taken aback by all this fuss, “Sister asked me what I wanted to become when I grew up and I said I wanted to become a prostitute.”
“Did you say prostitute?” asked Father, double-checking. “Yes.” “Heavens! What a relief! We all thought you said you were going to become a Protestant.”
Even the worst Catholic is better than the best Protestant (and vice-versa)! Religion seems to be about sorting out “we good people” over and against “those bad people” as defined by divine sanction. Something like this appears to be going on in Peter’s confrontation with the high priestly aristocracy, defending his actions by invoking the name of Jesus, saying, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
In the mouth of Peter, Jesus’ name appears to become yet another basis for the age-old dynamic of defining “us” vs. “them.” This raises the question: “Is it possible to have a form of religious (or for that matter, any form of human) togetherness that is not defined by the creation of a non-religious (or less than fully human) other?” Does our justification depend upon the condemnation of others?
If Jesus came simply to redefine the terms of the “in-group,” then it seems to me that our spiritual evolution has not advanced a wit. The revelatory power of the Jesus-event lies in its subversion of this whole dynamic; creating a new and expanding sense of “we” that does not rely upon the exclusion of anyone.
Jesus himself is working this out as he plays with the metaphors of shepherd and sheep. Here, he is drawing on a well-known biblical image from Hebrew scripture, but improvising on the theme in such a way that the meaning of this figure of speech eludes his hearers. His interlocutors are unable to grasp the point of the picture Jesus draws for them because he is stretching the shepherd metaphor to the breaking point: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
It requires an imaginative leap to grasp this truth. We are not the only sheep in town. We know that. But do we know that we can relate to those of other folds without defensiveness, rivalry, or scapegoating? Can we imagine one flock, one shepherd coming together without coercion or homogenization? I believe Jesus is inviting us to imagine just such a possibility and, in fact, realizing that possibility by walking through the gate that he opens for us.
The stretching of imagination that the Good Shepherd evokes moves through a series of interpretative steps. Behind Jesus’s use of this image lies the prophet Ezekiel’s fierce denunciation of the corrupt leadership of Israel’s rulers, asserting God’s sovereignty as the true shepherd of Israel. Israel’s leaders had exploited the public for their own benefit: they fleeced the sheep rather than feeding them. The weak, the sick, the injured, the marginalized had been treated with harshness rather than justice. This failure of leadership led to the complete disruption of the bonds of social life that held the community together, leading ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon.
In the midst of this corruption and chaos, God speaks through the prophet Ezekiel saying,
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
One way to imagine the Good Shepherd image is at what I would call a pre-critical level. It is a common interpretation in Christian tradition that sees Jesus as the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. God has condemned these wicked Jewish leaders and come Himself in Jesus to become our shepherd. In being killed by those wicked leaders, Jesus became the foundational sacrifice of a new religion, and those sheep that hear his voice are no longer led astray. The Jews are now the wolves of the parable, from which Jesus gave his life to protect us.
This pre-critical reading is an idolatrous reading, because idols demand sacrifices. The death of Jesus becomes the justification for the sacrifice of Jews to shore up Christian identity and goodness. Today, we might replace Jews with Muslims, but the dynamic is the same. What in Ezekiel was a self-critical moment in Israel’s life becomes an unreflective preoccupation with identifying the wolves outside the gate that must not be allowed to enter.
With a little stretching of the imagination we might capture something of the intent of Ezekiel’s prophecy and move into a self-critical reading of the Good Shepherd. It is an interpretive move beloved by good liberals. Here, we understand the Good Shepherd coming to deliver us from the bad faith of our own leaders, providing an internal critique of the status quo of our own community, transposing the Jewish critique to a Christian setting.
In this case, the “we” is the victims of Church and society. It is our own leaders who have “have abandoned their sheep (that is to say, us), they have scattered their sheep (that is to say, us) by their harsh doctrines, making it impossible for us to gather together in a safe space.” In their focus on reputation, power, and privilege our preachers and moralists have proven themselves to be hired hands, who abandon the true point of religion, which is the practice of justice and mercy, the moment it threatens their security.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd is clearly on our side as the friend of outcasts and sinners, who reserves his harshest words for cynical, religious hypocrites. The bishops covering up sexual abuse and the televangelists fleecing the vulnerable are the “them” against whom “we” are defined. This self-critical reading strikes me as an improvement on the pre-critical reading, capturing something of the compassionate concern of Jesus and the prophets before him. Yet, in its preoccupation with the hired hands, it “is utterly dependent on there being another over against whom my protest has its validity and dignity.”
There is yet another, post-critical, way to read the Good Shepherd, focused entirely on the transformative encounter between shepherd and sheep. In this reading, we no longer focus on identifying wolves and hired hands. Jesus no longer is the accusing gatekeeper we can invoke against those we condemn. Rather, he becomes what he has been all along: the gate itself, through whom we pass on our way to becoming part of an all together new way of defining “we.”
As James Alison notes, Jesus says that he is the gate or door, and this in a special sense. The purpose of gates is to define what is inside and what is outside. Jesus as gate, however, marks an open passage – a following of Jesus through the death of our old identity as insiders or outsiders – into a new freedom to move in and out between pasture and shelter so that we can be fed without needing to be confined or defended against others. Our identity defined by insider vs. outsider collapses.
The preoccupation with hired hands and wolves recedes as we come to realize that they, too, are just sheep of another fold. As we begin to embrace our freedom to move in and out, we find ourselves being transformed from sheep into good shepherds or models for others, as well as open gates through which others can discover for themselves the responsible freedom and dazzling diversity of the one flock that the Good Shepherd is gathering.
To follow the Good Shepherd is to embrace a life of self-giving love and forgiveness that encompasses this expanding sense of “we.” It is to receive a new identity that is entirely gratuitous, no longer dependent upon “them.” This is what it means to believe in the name of Jesus and love one another. To affirm that his is the only name, by which we can be saved, is to affirm the universality of the gate through which all are invited to pass on the way to abundant life. Amen.