In today’s Gospel passage, which consists of the first 10 verses of chapter 10, there seem to be two separate parables. The first is a warning against people who would want to steal the sheep, and the second focuses on the relationship between the sheep and their shepherd. The central image, too, is not so much that of the shepherd as of the gate. In fact, later on in the passage, Jesus says,
I AM the Gate.
Here it would seem that Jesus is the Gate of the sheepfold, while the shepherds who come in and out are pastors who are faithful to Jesus. Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, for instance, by climbing over the fence or breaking through it, is dangerous and should be avoided. He is “a thief and a brigand” who comes to steal and do harm to the sheep. The genuine shepherd, however, enters by the Gate (Jesus). He is recognised and admitted by the watchman (the leader of the community?) at the gate.
The sheep hear and recognise and follow their shepherd’s voice. In a sheepfold where there are the sheep of many shepherds, the true shepherd knows which ones belong to him. He calls them out one by one. They, recognising the voice of their own shepherd, follow him. They will not follow other shepherds, even if called by them. It is a free relationship. The sheep go in and out. They follow, not because they are forced to but by their own choice. The other sheep (belonging to other shepherds) stay behind.
When the shepherd has brought out his sheep to pasture, he goes ahead. And they follow because “they know his voice”. They will not follow a stranger, but run away from him, because they do not recognise his voice.
We are told that the disciples failed to understand the meaning of this parable. This is a reaction which is more common in the Synoptic gospels, especially Mark (see Mark 4:10-12). Parables are meant for “insiders” and not “outsiders”. So Jesus spells out more clearly what he means. He is the Gate of the sheepfold. Those who enter the sheepfold by any other way are not to be trusted, they are “thieves and brigands”. And the sheep will ignore them.
Anyone who enters through me [the Gate] will be safe.
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