Preaching from the common lectionary, as we do here at the monastery, presents challenges. One reason for this is that we often listen to texts read as though they stand alone. When, in fact, they are often part of some larger narrative. Often we are unaware of the context of a particular passage.
For instance, this morning we hear Jesus telling the Pharisees that anyone who enters the sheepfold except through the gate is a thief and bandit. He’s not, at this point at least, calling himself the good shepherd. That will come later. For now, he calls himself the gate saying that “Whoever enters by [him] will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”1 Why does he say this and what does it mean? In my reflections this morning on Jesus as the gate to greater life, I would like to take us back a couple of chapters in John’s gospel.
You might recall a rather contentious confrontation that Jesus has in teaching a group of Jews that John tells us “had believed in him.”2 The confrontation results when Jesus begins to teach this group about God’s true nature. He does so by saying that they can learn about God’s true nature only if they are willing to abandon the idolatrous god that they have created for themselves. The idol, in this instance, has more to do with cultural and religious identities as offspring of Abraham than with the true nature of the God that Jesus teaches and calls Father. Their god-idol is exclusionary and in their defense of it they resort to language that identifies themselves first as descendants of Abraham and later as both children of Abraham and God.
Many explanations of Jesus’ confrontation with this exclusive group can make the discussion that follows sound like nothing more than some sort of sophisticated tit-for-tat encounter.3 With the Jews saying something along the lines of we are children of Abraham and children of God and you, Jesus, are a Samaritan and have a demon. In his turn, Jesus replies with a series of ever more clever and more theologically sophisticated put-downs. Now this kind of understand makes for a problem in that reduces God to a “tit-for-tat” god and that is quite a long way from the God that Jesus teaches us.
What seems to be going on here is something much more profound. Something about what might constitute one of the biggest stumbling blocks that can impede us from accepting Jesus’ invitation to recognize him as the gate thereby allowing us to move freely in and out of the joys that lighten as well as the challenges that darken our lives preventing us from living life in its true abundance.
Now what has gone wrong is something that lies deep in our nature. Something that I would say we overlook in our relationships with each other individually and with each other as we are members of larger groups. And that something has to do with our identity as human beings.
The teaching that Jesus has engaged in with this particular group of Jews is his attempt to relocate God and our relationship with that God through an understanding of God that does not depend on having the right paternity, as in the assertion that has been made that God is our father and not your father. Instead, Jesus relocates the true God by saying that anyone who has seen him has seen God.
Now when we see Jesus what do we see? We see a human being like us. We see one to whom we can relate to as friend and brother.
When Jesus taught about Abraham he was teaching about a man who responded to God by stretching himself beyond his own boundaries, beyond his own group. God said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”4 If we are going to know the freedom of going out and coming in, if we are going to know Jesus as brother and friend and know his Father as our Father we have to follow Abraham too.
I’m struck again and again as I listen to people in spiritual direction by how debilitating it can be for them to have to try to identify God as Father especially when their own parental relationships have failed to provide them with the loving care and nurture that seems to be a prerequisite to realizing our full human potential. Loving care and nurture seems to be essential especially when we are young and even throughout our lives.
We’ve all absorbed so much Freudian psychology that we assume that the source of so much that infects and afflicts has to do almost exclusively with something that was lacking in our parents as parents. Often even into adulthood we continue to insist on seeing parents and other authority figures in their paternal and maternal role.
Jesus knew something about the Bible. He knew that the earliest breakdown in human relationships took place between siblings. Cain killed Abel. In Genesis, the source of the breakdown of human relationship isn’t lodged in anything in particular that happens between parent and child but rather between siblings. In the Bible’s view, whatever might be lacking in someone’s ability to love and nurture is grounded in the breakdown of fraternal relationships that pre-date becoming a parent.5 In this view we fail to recognize our common paternity in God in that our parents are children of God in the same way that all their offspring are children of God.
Anything that we might have received from someone growing up can be transformed if we can see them as our brother or sister. “As sons and daughters we can never forgive paternal or maternal damage held to have formed us, because as sons and daughters we can never be on the same level as the ‘paternal’.” If you have the experience of having forgiven one or both of your progenitors, or your offspring, did you not find it to be a process of becoming aware of them as people on the same level as yourself, of fraternally letting go of what seemed paternal, maternal, or filial?”6
This, then, isn’t about relating to our parents as parents or to our offspring as offspring. Rather this is the joint project of overcoming something that has dogged us all. As soon as we begin to see this as undoing our own part in skewing our relatedness to each other as brothers and sisters we find that we have no one to blame, no need to blame, and we find our own adult voices. Gradually, we’ll be able to see whatever appeared to be sacred or parental as part of a system that we have constructed for ourselves. When we stop endowing inherited structures of family, culture, political systems, and religion with either sacred or parental authority and begin to see them on a fraternal level with ourselves, the ever ominous parental seems to dissolve and disappear. We all begin to look more like what we are: brothers and sisters who have been on the receiving end and likely have done our own share of dishing out.
If we don’t move on or we can’t move on or won’t move on, we cannot know the freedom of going out and coming freely in life. That freedom is the inherent gift given to us by our true Father and made available to us again in his Son.
Quite miraculously the idol of the angry parent in the sky will disappear too. We will know the freedom of being children of the loving God who Jesus called Father. And we will be able to rightfully accede to claiming ourselves as Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
Can you see the gate? Do you see that it’s open to you? Go ahead and let yourself go in and go out.
- John 10:9
- John 8:31
- The source of this radical exegesis of John 8 is found in James Alison’s Faith beyond Resentment, “Jesus’ fraternal relocation of God”, pp. 56-85. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 2001.
- Genesis 12:1
- Alison, p. 79
- Alison, p. 79
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