Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jesus said “I am the Gate” (John 10:9)

A salutary lesson against religious movements that try to control the believer’s access to God.

John’s Gospel continues to delight and intrigue me. Having got my teeth stuck into the story of the Samaritan Woman at the well, I’m reading it in a different light.

It seems that everything in John's Gospel has meaning, including the apparently incidental details. The story-line and Jesus' dialog both move together such that Jesus’ various encounters are not simply random opportunities that he capitalizes to say something profound. Rather, both the physical action and the dialog advance in a unified procession with the sense that God is ordering them both (which would be the logical trajectory for John’s opening comments about Jesus being the Word of God made flesh). The Logos of God not only permeates the dialog; it drives the action.

So, we come to a rather peculiar claim of Jesus; that he is the Gate in John 10:7-10:
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
To understand what Jesus is saying, one has look back into the preceding narrative. It’s not an isolated grandiose statement, but an explanation, or reason, for Jesus’ prior actions.

In the preceding chapter, John recounts the story of the man born blind. In brief, Jesus comes across a (Jewish) man born blind and heals him. The miracle is remarkable enough, but it sparks a hostile verbal exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. In fact, John writes more about this exchange than the miracle.

The Pharisees have a hard time believing the miracle because it does not fit into their theology. This, I believe, is the issue Jesus returns to in his claim to be the gate. Why else put this statement here? Why not somewhere else? Although it looks like a break in the narrative, John intends it to be a natural extension of the preceding story.

With this in mind, it is possible to build up a satisfying explanation, and it’s got everything to do with the Pharisees’ attitude to religion and Jesus’ bold-faced rebuttal of it.

To the Pharisees, the man was born blind because of some sin, or failing, on his own part or the part of his parents (which would have prompted the Disciples’ initial query in John 9:2). We ought to understand that in the ancient world, the blessing of the God/gods was typically manifested in a person’s health and wealth. If they saw a blind beggar, the Pharisees would have thought that he had been put beyond the reach of God. The Pharisees might also have reciprocated by limiting the blind beggar’s access to the Temple, inferring that there was something unworthy about him that would keep him from making any proper contact with God. In other words, the Pharisees considered themselves to be the gate-keepers, and they were the ones who controlled who went in, and who went out. That was why they thought they could throw him out in John 10:34.

Their irritation at Jesus comes about because he simply circumvents them. He disenfranchises them from their position as judges in Moses’ seat (see Matt 23:2). In a beautiful enactment of Grace, Jesus takes the initiative and heals the blind man, thus removing his stigma, and equipping him for entry into the presence of God. The Pharisees see this, and they are incensed that Jesus would do this without their permission.

It is against the Pharisees’ assertion that they are the gate-keepers, that Jesus stakes his claim to be the gate. He calls them thieves and robbers, who had only come to steal and destroy, even though they believed they were justified to act on God’s behalf through his chosen prophet, Moses.

It is Jesus, not the Pharisees, who determines who goes in and who goes out. However, Jesus will not dance to the Pharisees’ tune (Matt 11:16-17) and he seems to have this habit of bringing in people who are at least undesirable failures, and at most, cursed.

Are there equivalents of the Pharisees around today? Most certainly, there are. If John’s account of the man born blind is a reliable guide, then anyone who puts himself in a position of saying to one “you can come in”, and to another “wait outside” is standing in their shoes. John’s Gospel warns us to respect the competency and authority of Jesus in determining who comes in and who goes out.

Earlier this week, I read the stories of some ex-Mormons and the trouble they had to go through to get their names removed from the rolls (see Vidar’s closing comment here). People who voluntarily leave commonly complain that they have to traverse an emotional assault course. The LDS community refuses to acknowledge that there might be a problem with it, so the problem must be some hidden sin in the person who is leaving. Guided by this unmovable dogma, the community and its leadership react to a person’s desire to leave by trying to find some sexual transgression so that the person’s departure can be written off as a formal excommunication (it’s a shame that they don’t apply the same ethic to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, but that’s another story).

In this context, the LDS community is acting as if it were the gatekeeper. I would like to remind it that Jesus says, “I am the gate.”

However, this is not the only context in which the LDS priesthood act as gatekeepers. The LDS religion orbits the Temple, entry into which is strictly controlled by the priesthood. If the Temple is the means through which believers connect to God, then the priesthood is acting if it were the gatekeeper. Again, Jesus says, “I am the gate.” There are other examples in other religions. There may be some in my own, and if there are, I would appreciate it if you would let me know.

Dear reader, you may find yourself in a position in which another person is controlling your access to God. To you, and to me, Jesus says, “I am the gate, whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”.

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