I don't know any Scripture scholar who believes the historical Jesus said the words in Sunday's Gospel exactly as John narrates them (Jn 10: 1-10).

Gospel authors weren't primitive camcorders or tape recorders. They were not reporters; they wrote editorials. They explored the meaning of Jesus' life, death and resurrection for people who lived two or three generations after those events. In many ways, they tried to answer the question which Peter's Pentecost audience asks in the first reading: "What are we to do, my brothers?" (Acts 2: 14, 36-41).

The actual facts about Jesus' life are simple: He lived among us 2,000 years ago, taught about God being present and active in our everyday lives, died by crucifixion, and according to His followers, rose from the dead three days later.

Going deeper

It doesn't take more than a few seconds to memorize "the facts." But it takes more than a lifetime to explore how His life affects our life, what we're expected to do because of Him, the cost to us of imitating Him. Each author of the Christian Scriptures gives a different twist to these insights; opens a door to a roomful of implications no one had yet explored. Each presumes we've already read the news and are eager to delve into its meaning.

It's only after 50 years of community reflection on such implications that Luke has Peter proclaim, "Repent and be baptized...in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the Holy Spirit."

Those who make Jesus' death and resurrection the focus of their lives show they've done an about-face on their value system by being buried and rising with Him in Baptism. They believe their sins have been completely wiped away, and the Holy Spirit has filled the vacuum. But no one understood this on Easter Sunday night.

Years after Acts was composed, the author of I Peter goes even further and pens the well-known statement in the second reading (I Pt 2: 20-25): "In His own body, Jesus brought your sins to the cross, so that all of us, dead to sin, could live in accord with God's will. By His wounds, you were healed. At one point, you were straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd, the guardian of your souls."

The image of a shepherd quickly became a favorite of these early editorial writers, and no one develops it better than John the Evangelist.


We have just a part of his theology in the Gospel. "The one who enters through the gate," Jesus says, "is shepherd of the sheep; the keeper opens the gate for him. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own by name and leads them out. When he has brought out those that are his, he walks in front of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice....I came that they might have life and have it to the full."

Those who think the historical Jesus applied these shepherd images to Himself exactly as John quotes Him don't understand how faith works. In a recent National Public Radio interview, playwright Edward Albee mentioned that several publications contacted him and other writers immediately after Sept. 11, asking them to write articles on the meaning of those horrible events. Albee refused the request; he mentioned that it will take years before anyone really starts to understand how those terrorist acts have changed us.

Important people and things don't come with meaning attached. Meaning only begins to appear much later. In the case of Jesus, only after we've tried to imitate His giving of Himself for others will we begin to surface the implications of His (and our) actions. And as our Sacred Authors discovered, that meaning is never quite the same for everyone. If it were, we'd have just one Gospel.