John has a rather fancy notion of what a sheepfold is like. He imagines a gatekeeper who opens the gate for the shepherd to go in and collect the flock, a bit like a bridegroom being welcomed to his wedding by the ushers, or a commissionaire letting a guest into a classy hotel. The sheep recognise his voice and trust him to lead them out from the safety of the fold.
And it’s certainly a dangerous world out there. Never mind the wolves, lions and bears lurking outside, there are thieves and robbers who are only too willing to sneak in. And there are strangers whose aim is to rustle the sheep and take them away from the good shepherd.
When Jesus explains the parable it suddenly takes on a different meaning. Jesus is no longer just the shepherd, he’s also the gate. Those who come into the fold through him will be saved from harm. But it isn’t a prison; they will also be able to come and go freely so that they can find good pasture and enjoy a rich and satisfying life.
I don’t think this is the original meaning of the story. I think this is John’s elaboration of it. He finds new levels of meaning. And we can do the same. The story is still giving up new meanings.
In a time of lockdown our homes become our own personal sheepfold. Everyone on the outside, friend and stranger, is a potential source of danger. The only people trying to get in will be thieves and robbers. It’s a frightening world out there, but Jesus is with us.
In the end, though, he isn’t just symbolised by a gate, offering protection. He is also a shepherd and guide, who - when the right time comes - will be there to lead us out into good pastures. We cannot stay hidden forever. He wants us to come and go freely and to be working and flourishing for him in the world.