By this time in our spiritual journey we might have a somewhat clear picture of those who would qualify as “Pharisees.” We know that they tend to be self-righteous and stuck up and rigid. At the same time, we suspect that a small Pharisee has nestled inside our heart. Because of that hushed yet disconcerting suspicion, as we read John 10: 1-10, we find ourselves pondering this: Although Jesus used this figure of speech, they [the Pharisees] did not realize what he was trying to tell them. (John 10:6) Yet, Jesus adds to the Pharisees’ bewilderment by making a contrasting statement: So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. (John 10:7)
Instead, as well-intentioned believers, we should wonder if Jesus’ assertion that he is the gate of the sheepfold is in contrast with his statement of being the Good Shepherd. The more we have learned to be in tune with God’s ways, the more we should find consistency between these two claims even if, at first, we might have to pause and refocus on Jesus and his teachings.
As Jesus affirms, he is the gate through which we come into the sheepfold and go out to find pasture with him walking ahead of us. Jesus said to him, “[…] No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Through Jesus we have access to the sheepfold. In it we find shelter, protection, warmth and the familiar surroundings that is our Home. In a word, we find our Father and with him we find the rest of our Family!
Through the gate that is Jesus we go out seeking our livelihood in the world, through honest and responsible work, even so without being of the world. Jesus, the Good Shepherd leads us away from the alluring yet deadly pastures of the world such as tyrannical relativism and godless secularism. He fills us with confidence in his light and power to live out and, then, to preach with our life the Gospel to the ends of the world. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)
Again, the more we are in tune with God’s ways, the easier it would be for us to keep in mind that Jesus is indeed a narrow gate. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction and those who enter through it are many.” (Matthew 7:13)
Passage through the narrow gate of Jesus Christ requires willingness to shed the hypocrisy, the inflexibility and the judgmental attitude of the Pharisee snuggled in our heart. Jesus, the gate, demands that we leave behind not only our habitual sins, but also self-interest, indifference towards the plight of others, vengefulness, arrogance and lukewarmness. Jesus, the gate, urges us, rather, to put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. (Colossians 3:12-14)
For us, his sheep, Jesus’ solemn and sworn (Amen, amen I say to you…) claim of being the gate of the sheepfold blends into the other claim of being the Good Shepherd. This second claim must engulf us in an incredible, most intense feeling of prideful joy. How many millions of sheep are there in Jesus’ sheepfold? (see Revelation 7: 9) Yet he assures us that he has a personal, unique, unrepeatable rapport with each one of us. […] and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” (John 10:3-5)
St. Ignatius of Loyola would suggest that, as always, we picture in our mind also this page of the Gospel of John. Hence, let us imagine Jesus calling us out, one by one, by our name. This action of calling us out is exactly what the word “Church” evkklhsi,a means. The Church is made up of those whom Christ calls out with infinite love and personal attention.
Today, Jesus, the Good Shepherd reminds us that, as he calls us out by our name, he has present in his mind and heart not only our personal history, but also our likes and dislikes, both our good and bad personality traits and all the rest that makes us unique. He knows our weaknesses and assets, i.e. the gifts he has given us not for selfish arrogance but for the glory of God and the building up and enrichment of the whole Church. As we file out of the sheepfold he makes a note of the best way to help us correct our flaws and capitalize on our talents. He picks from his words of life those that would be most suitable for our immediate and long-range needs.
Therefore, when we hear our name called out by his mouth, we should notice that our heart is comforted and settled, our mind focused and our ability to recognize his voice in the cacophony of this world perfectly enhanced. With the passing of time, both whenever we are in the sheepfold and when we are led out by Jesus, it should become instinctive for us to be wary of unfamiliar voices and run away from strangers, including those who would lead us to other sheepfolds with wide gates. We would also run away from thieves and robbers intent on exploiting and destroying us with callous disregard for our wellbeing.
Now, if this setting marked by personalized love and detailed caring is most comforting to you all, I shall point out that today is World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Face it: the priests whom you know are those that the Father has placed in your lives to be for you the extension of Jesus’ voice, hands, feet, mind and heart. Stop ignoring the unpleasant reality of their dwindling number and their advancing age.
If you long to have life and have it more abundantly, (John 10:10) I suggest something simple yet bold that you can do: ask individually your sons, grandsons, nephews or young men that you know if they would consider (again or for the first time) the ministerial priesthood as their future vocation. Tell them that such a generous decision would make you happy and proud of them because we all want always to feel the closeness of our loving God.
Such daring challenge, combined with heartfelt prayers for priestly vocations, may grant us the enduring comfort that comes from this beautiful page of the Gospel.