Safety and security are on a lot of people’s minds these days. One of the arenas of life that we hear these terms is in international affairs. Nations want their people to be protected and safe. The indiscriminate action of terrorists is one activity that heightens the desire for safety and security.
We often read about these issues in the news today not only in regards to our own country but for many other countries as well. On a more local level we desire our communities to be safe and secure. If we live in a neighborhood that has a high crime rate we will take all necessary precautions to ensure our homes are safe and secure, especially at night so that our families are protected from anyone who would try to harm them.
The desire for safety and security is for a good — it seeks to preserve life. Of course, the method by which we seek to establish them needs to be good as well or it may jeopardize the very safety and security we seek in the first place.
Jesus uses an image in this Sunday’s Gospel reading that suggests, among other things, safety and security. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus describes himself several times using the formula “I am this or that.” Some of the more familiar examples of this are: “I am the Bread of Life;” “I am the Light of the World;” or “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
One of the less familiar ones comes in Sunday’s passage: “I am the Sheep Gate.” The image of the gate calls to mind the pens in which sheep are kept at night. In places where there is danger, from wolves for example, the shepherd gathers the sheep and leads them to a pen that can be secured at night so that no animal or robber can get in to harm or take the sheep away.
Jesus describes himself as the actual gate to this haven of safety. In another passage, the Lord identifies himself as the shepherd as well for he says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Jesus is the shepherd who leads his flock to life. Just as a shepherd of sheep leads the flock to good pasture so they can eat and drink — in other words, sustain life — Jesus leads us to the nourishment that sustains life.
This is the role of the shepherd but, again, in our Gospel passage the “gate” is emphasized. Jesus himself is that gate — the gate to life. Safe inside his protection, the life he has won for us is safe and secure. At the same time he allows us freedom, the freedom to follow him, as the Good Shepherd, outside the pen to verdant pastures. In either case so long as the flock remains with Jesus they are safe and secure.
Jesus is the gate to life for he is the Lord of life. His victory over the grave is witness to his triumph. The apostles after encountering the Risen Lord and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit go forth and proclaim. They bear witness to the Risen Lord and invite all whom they encounter to enter the flock and follow the Lord.
The first reading for Sunday’s liturgy gives one such example of this proclamation and invitation. Peter says, quite boldly, “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” When the people ask what they should do in response, Peter says: “Repent and be baptized.” It is through this act of faith that we become members of the flock and follow the Good Shepherd.
The examples I used above for “safety and security” deal with external forces but there are also forces from within that seek to rob us of life. Fear, doubt and temptation are some of these forces. The second reading, from the First Letter of Peter, reminds us that Jesus had an internal freedom which enabled him to bear great suffering so that the mission of life might be accomplished.
The passage reads: “When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.”
Jesus’ freedom came through his faith in the Father. No force from the outside, try as they did, could rob him of this freedom. He trusted and was obedient to the Father and through that he won the victory of life. We share in this victory, and this freedom, because he is the “guardian of our souls.”
Safety and security are conditions that we all desire in life. They are good in that they protect life itself. External precautions are helpful but sometimes tenuous. The greatest protection of life and freedom lies in the One who is Lord of life. In Jesus, the Shepherd and the Gate, we find our sure safety and security.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.