A while ago pastor Ken reminded us that the angels revealed to the shepherds and not to kings or religious rulers, that the Messiah had been born. That set something going in my slightly under-sized brain and got me to looking around for some information about the shepherds of Jesus’ day.
I’ve been told before that these guys were poor, but it turns out that they were beyond poor—they were at the bottom of the socio-economic food chain. Actually, not the very bottom. There were the slaves; they were the bottom.
The word shepherd is not really appropriate for us Americans. In our culture we call them sheepherders. In the American west, sheepherders were looked upon with disdain by cattle ranchers and were often the subjects of raids where sheep and even the sheepherders were killed. Today, sheepherding is at the bottom rung even for migrant workers. A typical salary is seven hundred fifty dollars a month, no running water, no toilet, no electricity, and a five by ten foot trailer-tent for living quarters. There is no cell phone service out there. Theirs is a harsh and solitary existence.
A sheepherder in Jesus’ day was likely to fare no better. They were the poorest among the poor of the working class. Their work was difficult, under the extremes of all kinds of weather—rain, blazing sun, dust storms, and the chill of winter. If they had a shelter it was likely a tent.
Scholars tell us that the sheepherders in the Christmas story were not likely the gentle and noble shepherds we see in Bible stories. The fields around Bethlehem were at that time of year filled with thousands of sheep to be used for temple sacrifices. It was probably more like stockyards than pleasant fields, and the shepherds were likely hirelings, hired only for the season.
Their social status was beyond low. They were victims of social prejudice. They were illiterate. They were not allowed to testify in court because it was assumed that they would lie. Sheep-herding was considered a “thieves trade” that no self-respecting Jew would do.
They were especially looked down on by the religious church people of their day. They couldn’t usually get to church on the Sabbath because of the demands of their job. They couldn’t ceremonially wash their hands as required by their Jewish laws because they didn’t have ready access to water. In their rough and secluded world rules and ceremony had little value.
To put these men into our world would be to see them as Gypsy’s or illegal migrant workers, men who live on the margins of society. They would make minimum wage or less. They would have no health care. They would be people who live lives of hardship, struggling to survive. They would have no social status; they would be pretty much ignored and anonymous. They definitely would not live in the suburbs, and would not sit with us in our padded pews on Sunday mornings. They might live in our inner cities and be addicted to drugs and a member of a gang, or they might live in our town. They likely have made some bad choices and suffer the
consequences. Good church people look down on them and criticize them because they didn’t bother to get a good education and a real job, and they use too many resources that are paid for by hard-working tax payers.
So why were these guys selected? Of all of the people of earth, why did God commission a host of angels to go and get them, to give them the privilege of being the first ones to see the long-awaited Messiah ? We don’t even know their names. Why were only they—the forgotten ones, the scorned ones, privileged to witness the dazzling scene of vast host of angels, and why were they the only ones invited to the first Christmas?
And have you thought of this? Not only were the kings and religious rulers not invited, but neither were the truly godly people like Simeon and Anna and Zachariah and Elizabeth apparently not invited? Yes, they did see him a few days later in the temple, but they would not see him today.
So why these people?
Could it be that our God is a God who has a special concern for the poor, dispossessed and forgotten people of our world? God cares for the poor. In fact, he cares for them so much that Jesus came to us as one of them.
The shepherds went and found Jesus lying in a manger. If you or I would have orchestrated this thing we would have had him in a palace, or at least in a comfortable home in the suburbs. Good church people would have been appalled to see him there. The Messiah surely deserved better than this. The sheepherders could say with joy and wonder, “Look, he’s one of us!”
Not only was Jesus born into poverty, he remained poor all of his life. His parents had to offer two pigeons in the temple, the offering for poor people, instead of a lamb. Picture Mary and Joseph over there by the temple standing line to buy their two pigeons—a couple of bucks, and that was a lot of money to them. Picture the suburbanite Jews over there in the other line, buying their lambs for sacrifice—a hundred bucks. Badly overpriced, but they had no problem shelling out the cash.
While Jesus was still a baby he became a refugee. It has been suggested by somebody that his parents might have had to sell the gifts from the wise men to survive their stay in exile. Later they would return as poor immigrants to the low class town of Nazareth. And as an adult he was an itinerant preacher who depended on handouts from others to survive.
Jesus could identify with sheepherders.
Mary said, in her song to God, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53).
When he was grown and had begun his ministry, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that the captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come” (Luke 4:18-19).
Later Jesus would say, “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is given to you. God blesses you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. God blesses you who weep now, for the time will come when you will laugh with joy.”
Why did God show favor to these undeserving sheepherders? Maybe it’s to show us that he cares so much for them. If God cares for them like that, so should we. No, I don’t mean feel sorry for them, but to actually do what we can to help them and show them the way to Jesus.
God has a special place in his heart for the weak, the vulnerable, and the needy, so Jesus came as a weak, vulnerable, needy baby. God loves down-and-outers.
No wonder so many people missed him. Their Messiah would be rich, powerful, glorious. He would defeat their enemies and give them everything they wanted. This just doesn’t work—a poor baby born in a dirty stable to peasant parents.
The Shepherds spread the word to everyone they saw. They had seen the long waited Messiah, and they had been the honored guests at the party.
Everyone who heard the story was astonished. What an amazing story. Could it really be true? The problem is, there is no evidence that anyone else bothered to go see him. After the initial excitement had worn off, most people went back to their busy lives and pretty much forgot the whole thing. How could they have been taken in by the sheepherders’ wild story. After all, the messiah would obviously be rich and powerful, one who would rule the world and put the Jews on top. Not some peasant baby born in a barn.
Unbelievable—they didn’t bother to even go and check out the promised Messiah. It’s like winning the lottery and not bothering to go pick up the check.
If Donald trump won the lotto, it would be no big deal. But if you were unemployed and out of groceries, it would be a very big deal. Unbelievable, I the lowest of the low have been invited to the party. I have won the power ball!
Jesus said that it is hard for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven. And not merely those who are rich economically, but rich in their estimation of themselves.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.” God has a special place in his heart for them. They have little to hang on to. Jesus said that it is very hard for a rich person to get into heaven because he has too much to hang onto.
But again, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. They are the ones that are able to see that they are spiritually destitute and can come to God only as spiritual beggars. So guess who it is that are the unblessed. I think that it would be anyone who sees themselves in a class something above sheepherder. They are the ones who don’t need to bother to go see the baby Jesus. They can make it on their own, thank-you. The ones who are blessed are the losers, the ones who know that they have made a mess of things, and that they couldn’t do enough good things in a thousand years to deserve the salvation that Jesus offers.
If we are ever going to have eternal life we must understand that we are poor, destitute, powerless sheepherders. We have absolutely nothing with which to buy our salvation.
The Shepherds had encountered Jesus and their lives were changed forever. They told everyone the saw. (If you won the power ball, I bet you would tell your friends.) They went back to their jobs, but they had encountered Jesus and they were different. They went back glorifying and praising God because they got to see the angels and see Jesus. They of all people got to see the thousands of angels light up the night sky. They, the lowest of the low got to see the baby Jesus when no one else was invited. They had an encounter with God and they were likely never the same again.