Philip Devenish once told me that the person to reflect upon in this passage is the gatekeeper. Philip was my mentor at Notre Dame. His words come to mind every time I hear this pericope. It is the gatekeeper who has the awesome task of recognizing the shepherds (yes, multiple shepherds are assumed). It is the gatekeeper who opens the gate for them.
The gatekeeper controls the gate! The gatekeeper makes the decisions for the gate! Why is this so amazing? Because Jesus identifies himself as the gate! We may be all those who have anything to do with the gate — we may be the gatekeeper or the shepherds or the sheep but it is Jesus who is the gate.
Another thought: What if the gatekeeper refers to the Holy Spirit? Does the gatekeeper “control” the gate? Does the gatekeeper control Jesus? This image could lead to fryer reflection on the relationship between the Spirit, the Christ Jesus and us.
How does the gatekeeper know the shepherds? If there are multiple shepherds, there must be multiple herds. But all of these herds gather in one sheepfold. And all of the sheep recognize their respective shepherds. Are there strangers in the story who might pose as shepherds? Jesus does mention the possibility of thieves and bandits but they would come into the sheepfold by another way, perhaps by climbing over the fence. Or, as mentioned in verse 8, all who come before the gate are thieves and bandits. How can this be since clearly the shepherds are not part of this “all”? How does the gatekeeper discern who are the proper persons to let into the sheepfold? The gatekeeper needs to know all of the various shepherds. Presumably she must be able to ward off the thieves and bandits.
The immediate task of the shepherd is not to lead the sheep into the pen but rather out of it. It is the beginning of the day, not the end when all the sheep of all of the herds would again be penned together. The shepherds lead the sheep out of the pen in the morning and back into the pen in the evening.
The gatekeeper has a larger task. The gatekeeper must be able to recognize multiple shepherds. The gatekeeper must also recognize those who thieves and bandits and keep them out of the pen. Each shepherd has her own sheep and each of the herds recognizes its own shepherd. But the gatekeeper is not tasked with knowing who has each flock of sheep. There are multiple shepherds each calling his/her own sheep. Are there mutual discernment of leaders and followers by the shepherds and the sheep? The shepherds call; the sheep respond. The sheep are called by name. They respond. Each shepherd leads her/his herd out of the pen. But Jesus is not the shepherd. Are some of us shepherds? Are we shepherds some times and sheep at other times?
As with many passages of the various gospels, it is important to look at what comes before and after this passage. In hearing just the particular passage one can make all sorts of assumptions. In this case it is the possible identity of those whom Jesus is addressing. Heard by itself, it is easy to presume that Jesus is talking to and teaching his disciples. But the story just before this passage is that of the Man Born Blind. The final group that Jesus addresses in that story are the Pharisees. So this entire story and the Good Shepherd story that follows it are addressed to the Pharisees. Interestingly, Jesus switches his identity between the two stories. In this passage he identifies himself as the gate. In what follows, he identifies himself as the good shepherd. It seems that he switches analogies. No wonder, at the end of both stories, that of the gate and that of the good shepherd, the Pharisees conclude that Jesus is possessed by a demon and is out of his mind.
So the questions are legend for those who go deeper than the surface with this passage. For one thing, Jesus gives the possibility of numerous other shepherds. This could be seen as referring to those who follow other paths toward enlightenment. In verse 16 Jesus does recognize that he has other sheep who are not of his fold. Are they members of other folds or are they lost sheep?
It is better to recognize the myriad of questions rather than to try to answer them. For lectio leaders one definite lesson from this passage is that there are different ways to hear a passage. Participants can identify with or focus on many different characters in any particular story. One may be a shepherd or a sheep or a gatekeeper. You may be a shepherd or a sheep or a gatekeeper at various times in your life. But Jesus makes it clear in this passage that he is the gate. Who are you? Who are we?