Thursday, May 4, 2017
I remember how, when I was old enough to stay at home by myself, my mother would tell me not to answer the door if the door bell rang. Instead, she said, I should peer through a window in such a manner as not to be seen by the person at the door to see if I could identify who it was. If, in fact, the person was a stranger but still got a glimpse of me, I was to lie to that stranger and tell that person that my mother was in the shower and could not come to the door. It seemed an awfully complicated scheme, but, now that I have children old enough to stay home by themselves for short periods of time, I understand. Stranger danger is a real thing. Parents like me fall victim to the long series of hypothetical plot twists that could, maybe, possibly, in some far-fetched but still plausible (sort of) scenario result in the kidnapping of our children.
In Sunday's gospel lesson (John 10:1-10), we read the opening lines of Jesus' Good Shepherd discourse. As I wrote about on Monday, we don't get to the "good shepherd" part this year. Instead, we read about Jesus the sheep gate through which real, authentic shepherds come. It's worth remembering that Jesus isn't speaking to his disciples but to his opponents--those who will not recognize his authority to teach God's people as the God-sent shepherd. These words, therefore, are not a parent's warning to her child not to open the gate if a thief or a bandit comes. They are a direct challenge to those who would presume to lead God's people in another direction. Jesus is speaking to the "strangers" all around him. But that word that is translated for us as "stranger" doesn't exactly mean "stranger" in the sense in which we usually use it.
In the Greek, the words used throughout this passage for "stranger" are forms of the word "ἀλλότριος." That word contains the Greek word "ἀλλό," which means "other." It also contains a root that directly contrasts the Greek word "ἴδιος," which means "one's own." In short, a better translation for "stranger" might be "other-belonging-one" or "one who belongs to another." But that's awkward. Still, the distinction is important.
Jesus isn't speaking of these "strangers" as those whom he and the disciples do not know. In fact, they are standing right in front of them. He's speaking to them. In the extended metaphor that Jesus uses, the thieves and the bandits are the "ones who belong to another" that climb in the sheepfold by another way. Their identity is "foreign" and "strange" to the sheep, but not because they've never been met or seen. Their "strangeness" is because they "belong to another." Jesus is contrasting his ministry and the ministry of the shepherds who enter through him--the sheepgate--with those who have allegiance with something or someone other than God. The issue at hand, at least for Jesus, therefore, is that those who try to shepherd the sheep without coming through him reveal their identity as those who belong to forces that reject God, his Son, his Gospel, and his shepherds.
I don't quite know how this will make its way into Sunday's sermon, but it does subtly shift the way I hear this passage. These strangers aren't some unknown or imagined threat. They are real. They are those who belong to another--to an other and contrary way. This passage--and the sermon that grows from it--are rooted in a rejection of false teachings and false shepherds. And, as one who is committed to the message of grace in a law-seduced world, I see them all around.