“Jesus used this figure of speech for them, but they didn’t understand what he was saying to them.” So he tried again.
(And that didn’t work either).
For a slow-witted disciple like me, there could hardly be a more reassuring sentence. And it comes in the middle of one of those ultra-bewildering teachings of Jesus that John loves to recount. I’m reassured because I’m not the only one who doesn’t entirely get it. The disciples were baffled too – and they had the immense privilege of Jesus’ actual presence; they could hear the very words from his mouth, and still they didn’t understand. So I don’t feel so bad in starting with my honest response to this passage.
As far as I can see, Jesus is saying that he is the shepherd – but also the shepherd’s sheepfold – but also the gate of shepherd’s sheepfold – but also the gatekeeper of the gate of the shepherd’s sheepfold (but also, probably, something else that I’m not getting). Couldn’t he have just stuck with “I am the good shepherd”? I was starting to get the hang of that.
So there are two possibilities: either Jesus is being deliberately obscure – encrypting his message so that only a select few of us will ever get it. Or, the truths that he is sharing with us are so much bigger than our experience and rational abilities can cope with, that no single picture, parable or metaphor can possibly capture and express that truth. My hunch is that it’s the second.
I think the problem is about the same as we have with our “Sunday School” picture of God. Is God like a kindly, white-bearded father seated on a throne? Yes, and no. Yes, that was a good starting point for me when I was six and needed a simple picture to latch on to. No, it doesn’t end there; and it’s pretty sad if my understanding of God hasn’t matured with me and got a whole lot broader than that. I’ve pretty much lost the thread if I still see her like that! God will always be way, way bigger than any picture I use as a point of reference.
In the same way, Jesus is giving us pictures and parables, each of which helps set us on the right path; but not one of them can possibly give the whole picture. So Jesus is the shepherd, the fold, the gate … all of those things and none of them. The essence of what a shepherd can be – but still nothing like a shepherd. A wall of protection surrounding his precious lambs – at the same time as being the one that breaks down every wall and opens the kingdom to all. As soon as we get the picture, we have to let it go and reach out for something new. No wonder the disciples were baffled!
In the beautiful French fairy tale, “The Little Prince”, the boy who travels from star to star lighting them at night, is also looking for a true friend. The wise fox tells him that to find one, “Il faut chercher avec le coeur.” You must seek with the heart. What you see on the outside won’t help.
I think John wants us to do exactly the same. The disciples can’t understand what Jesus is saying because they are trying to unpick his words rather than seek with the heart.
So! There’s something to turn the emptiness of our enforced exile from each other into a precious time! To take the words of Jesus and put aside understanding in order to seek their meaning with our heart. To give attention to our own soul, and seek for God’s voice there – knowing that our mind hasn’t got the necessary capacity to let those words dwell in us richly.
When I try to do that, I think I hear Jesus differently. “I am, O my precious one,” I hear him say, “every single thing that is needful for your soul to flourish. Doorkeeper, shepherd, sanctuary. You cannot earn your place as God’s precious child; you cannot steal it, or break in and grab what you need. You must enter through the door that God invites you to enter. You must accept it as a gift. A gift without limit or price, which God delights to give to you.”
The fact that the words are there doesn’t always mean I hear them. “I am come that you may have life; life in all its fullness.” To hear it, il faut chercher avec le coeur.