In this gospel passage, Jesus draws upon imagery associated with sheep herding. The people to whom he spoke were well aware of the practice of herding sheep into a protective corral during the night so that they would not become easy victims of wild animals. They were also aware that robbers could climb over the low wall and steal the sheep. The true shepherd does not need to do this because the sheep are entrusted to his care and he has access to them through the door of the corral.
In the spiritual sense intended by Jesus, the thieves and robbers are those shepherds (pastors, counselors, friends) who claim to be concerned about the sheep (parishioners, anyone of us) but who deceive them by offering quick fixes, which promise salvation without the need of painful personal conversion. Sheep have always had a reputation for being soewhat naïve and easily confused just as we humans, while very cautious in some areas, are often gullible when it comes to spiritual matters.
Jesus then changes the imagery and calls himself the door to the corral. This means that it is only through the door of his teaching that one can find true salvation. In the same sense, he calls himself “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). His is the only trustworthy way because he teaches the only reliable truth which leads to true and lasting life.
We are great believers in salesmanship and we rely on salesmen even though we know that some of them inflate or misrepresent the benefits of the products they offer to us. This is true also when the product is the most important thing we can imagine, namely, everlasting life and happiness. We are constantly bombarded with promises of eternal salvation without the need to deal with personal problems or deficiencies. We are vulnerable to such offers because we yearn for that kind of security and because these promises are often packaged in very attractive wrappings.
We are told, for example, that if we go through certain external rituals or say certain special prayers we will find salvation in spite of our attachment to selfish behavior. Or we may be told that reaching an emotional pitch of fervor, which cannot be maintained, will nonetheless guarantee our future happiness. When Jesus says that he alone is the true shepherd and that he alone is the door to security for the sheep, he is telling us that it is only his teaching of unselfish love that will lead us to true life and happiness. Prayers and rituals and fervor are wonderful and necessary, but only when they lead to real conversion from selfish tendencies to genuine concern for others.
Being converted in this way will involve the painful process of facing the truth about destructive addictions and being willing to seek help in dealing with them. It will also mean being honest about one’s prejudices and striving with God’s help to escape from their dangerous influence. But most of all, it will mean trying to be a caring, thoughtful, generous person. This is the path on which the good shepherd leads us for he has come, not to deceive us, but that we “might have life and have it more abundantly” (v.10).
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.
Image: Flock of Sheep, Luca Giordano, 1675-1680.