10“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Notes: This pericope is sandwiched between the "Man born blind" narrative and the hinge of the book of John -- the Lazarus narrative. It is the beginning of a chapter long teaching. The beginning of Chapter 8, Jesus is at the Mount of Olives, but the story of the man born blind he is "walking along". In verse 10:22, it's obvious that Jesus is in Jerusalem. Thus this teaching is probably set on the road somewhere between the Mount of Olives and Jerusalem. In chapter 9, Jesus had just finished talking to the Pharisee, telling them that even if they could see physically, spiritually they were blind. Some commentors do note that this passage in Chapter 10 is logically linked to the end of the narrative in Chapter 9.
In this passage, Jesus is using pastoral images -- sheep and gates and shepherds. Later in this passage, Jesus tells us that he is the shepherd. Most modern day Christians do not realize that this language is kingly language. Many of the cultures around this area have art that depicts their king or leader as a shepherd. (for instance, see the 1911 The Encyclopaedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature entry for "Aegean Civilizations") Nonetheless, it can be understood that in this passage, Jesus is speaking of Leaders (or leader, himself) and followers (the sheep). According to Wikipedia:
Sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads. However, sheep have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to balk. In general, sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas. Sheep also have an excellent sense of smell, and—like all species of their genus—have scent glands just in front of the eyes, and interdigitally on the feet. The purpose of these glands is uncertain, but those on the face may be used in breeding behaviors. The interdigital glands might also be used in reproduction,but alternative reasons, such as secretion of a waste product or a scent marker to help lost sheep find their flock, have also been proposed.
So sheep are not particularly bright, they have excellent peripheral vision, but no depth vision. They move naturally into the light and have an excellent sense of smell.
The juxaposition of this parable with the previous narrative make for an interesting reflection. Jesus is telling the Pharisees that they are "seeing" but "blind." Sheep "see" extraordinarily well -- but don't see with depth. They are so very easily spooked by motion in their vision; they cannot really determine the difference from friend or foe. We know this about ourselves, do we not? We have problems at times determining the difference between friends and thieves and bandits. What are we to do?
We are to listen for the voice of Jesus.
In our sickness we need a savior, in our wanderings
a guide, in our blindness someone to show us the light, in
our thirst the fountain of living water which quenches for
ever the thirst of those who drink from it. We dead people
need life, we sheep need a shepherd, we children need a teacher,
the whole world needs Jesus!
-- Clement of Alexandria from "The Teacher"
A prayer from Clement:
Pasture us children like sheep, Lord. Fill us with your own food, the food of righteousness. As our guide we pray you to lead us to your holy mountain, the Church on high, touching the heavens.