“Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.
“I am the gate.” These words are confusing, if not downright terrifying, especially if you are a sheep near a temple. No wonder the disciples “did not understand” Jesus’ teaching in this passage.
The Sheep Gate (see John 5) was the gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which the sheep were led to the holding pens where they would await their turns to be killed inside the gruesome sacrificial slaughterhouse of the temple. I’ve seen animal sacrifices at a temple. It is loud. It is anxious. Flies are everywhere. People are packed in. It smells of blood, defecation, and death.
The sheep metaphor shows up throughout the Gospel of John. The first words spoken to Jesus in the Gospel of John are, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” In this week’s passage (John 10:1-10), Jesus extends the sheep metaphor by referring to himself as both the “good shepherd” as well as the “gate.” Lamb, shepherd, gate. If we are caught inside the sacrificial system and the sacrificial logic that makes it work, this whole passage seems to be condoning the very thing it is dismantling. Yikes!
Consider the possibility that Jesus is actually subverting rather than affirming all forms of the sacrificial system. To enter that system as such (we all do) is to be a thief who “steals, kills, and destroys.” At the most basic level this is precisely what sacrificial systems do – whether on religious or social grounds. Just ask a sheep whose blood feeds it. Ask any modern day victim of societal injustice if we still practice sacrifice.
In the sacrificial system, each of us plays both a victim and victimizer role. We are both sheep and thief. The Good News of Jesus is a severe mercy that unmasks our participation in both roles, and points to our salvation.
In John 10, Jesus is turning sacrificial logic on its head. He transforms the very gate through which he invites us to walk. It is no longer a gateway of sacrifice. Through his own act of passage, it becomes a gateway of mercy. “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13/Hosea 6:6). Those who enter through the gate of mercy are good shepherds. Instead of locking vulnerable sheep inside holding pens of false righteousness, the good shepherd set us free to “come in and go out and find pasture” (vs. 9). Ahh, this is abundant life!
At Street Psalms we are learning to read Scripture and see our faith through the lens of mercy – not a sentimental kind of mercy, but a mercy forged in the harsh realities of our world hell-bent on sacrifice. Yes, we are sheep among wolves and yes, we’ve seen, helped build, and still benefit from far too many “sheep gates” built and maintained by wolves. Systems of sacrifice still thrive in all cultures and in our own hearts. Let’s face it, the best way to justify evil is to wrap it in righteousness. In fact, righteousness (false righteousness) is the preferred hiding place or “holding pen” of evil, ALWAYS.
And so, the Good Shepherd walks through the sheep gate transforming it into a gateway of mercy. He exposes the system from the inside. The Good Shepherd reveals the system of false righteousness that in the end “steals, kills and destroys” not only weak sheep, but even God. Each time we feed the sacrificial system with one more sheep, this is precisely what we do.” Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Jesus removes the lynch pin that holds it all together – the belief that the system itself is God’s own design and God’s own desire.
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.”
“Whoever slaughters an ox is
like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb,
like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever presents a grain offering,
like one who offers swine’s blood;
whoever makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
and in their abominations they take delight;”
Imagine there is a very rich white man who owns an NBA team that is in the midst of a playoff run. Imagine that he is exposed as a racist by his mistress, who is, herself, a person of color. Imagine that he makes a lot of money off the very people he can’t stand and has been known to treat people of color unjustly through his other businesses that have also made him a lot of money. For a culture that is trying to distance itself and wash itself clean of its own racism, it would be very tempting and quite convenient to call for this man’s head – to lead him through the sheep gate to the slaughter house, throw him in a holding pen, strip him of his team, make a public spectacle of him, and crucify him. We’d be worked up into a frenzy, “Crucify him, crucify him!” We’d be justified, wouldn’t we? We’d celebrate our own righteous indignation, wouldn’t we? In doing so, it is also quite possible that we would be feeding the very sacrificial system that we abhor – a system that will one day call for our heads too. That’s what these systems do.
Thought Experiment #2:
Imagine there is a local chapter of a national civil rights organization that has chosen the rich white NBA owner for a lifetime achievement award based on local philanthropy for its causes. After it is revealed that the rich white man is a barely-closeted racist, the organization is in a bind. The chapter president releases a statement referencing Christian values of reconciliation and forgiveness, and suggesting the door might be open for a way forward together. By the end of the week, the chapter president is out of office. From many corners, there has been blame for the organization’s hypocrisy in accepting money from such an appallingly unworthy source for its worthy causes.
Thought Experiment #3:
Might there be a way through the Mercy Gate for the disgraced NBA owner, the disgraced organization president, and the rest of us who carry our own closeted disgraces? How might the Good Shepherd lead?