Rev. Shalom R. Agtarap is pastor of Ellensburg First United Methodist Church, a growing faith community in central Washington State. She and her congregation continue to provide support for Latino families arrested and detained by the ICE raid in January of this year.
“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” John 10:2-3
I rarely “get” agricultural images and passages within Scripture. They are difficult to understand without some lived experience. My mother grew up in a small farming community in the Philippines, but I did not. I can try and imagine what that first century agricultural community experienced when they heard these words, but I’m sure I’d miss the point.
So it is with some uncertainty that I talk about sheep and shepherd, the gate and the gatekeeper. How do 21st century readers experience the power of Christ’s words when many of us do not read with first century, agricultural-based knowledge?
How do we make sense of these statements? Are these images relevant?
Still, I know some of the most popular and diverse cultural expressions of Jesus Christ are as the Good Shepherd…whether you are a Southeast Asian, Central American, or African herder, shepherds all over the globe relate best to these images. But Jesus isn’t simply the shepherd whose leadership we follow; Jesus is also the way, the truth and the life. Jesus does not simply point to life, Jesus himself is life.
The words that trip me up when reading the John 10 passage are "gate," "gatekeeper," “thief,” and “bandit.” It would be mean-spirited and cynical (but easy) to believe that those who come to this country without proper papers are ‘thieves’ and ‘bandits’ who choose to break the law by not going through the right processes, who refuse to be checked by the ‘gatekeepers’. All this would be true if we believed that we were the only sheep that belonged to the Good Shepherd. But we most certainly are not. Read a little further and we are provided the perfect reminder for those who believe they are the only ones important to Christ. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)
Our nation’s current immigration policy criminalizes those who come to this country in search of better living conditions. We punish those who seek pasture, those who seek life, simply because they did not go through the “gate.” Would Jesus, the Good Shepherd, reject sheep that are hungry, wandering in the desert, in search of food? Would the Good Shepherd, who knows the names of every creature, deny them the opportunities and nurture all living beings require?
Interpret these words from John however one may like, scripture is very clear in what the Shepherd stands for. The Shepherd has come for one reason: that the sheep “may have life, and have it abundantly.”
As we advocate and work for immigration reform, may we stand up to those who function as gatekeepers who restrict and deny life and model with our lives the invitation issued to experience abundant life. With Christ as our center and our guide, we are sure to never be led astray.