I grew up with a Christmas vision: in blinding light, the herald angels appeared to a bunch of rough-edged, uneducated ne’er-do-wells who could find employment only on the hills outside of town, sleeping on the ground and playing what would have been the equivalent of poker for hours with their fellow ragamuffins. I kinda loved those guys, the fourth witnesses of the nativity.
As for their reputations? One article claims,
The Egyptians were agriculturalists. As farmers, they despised shepherding because sheep and goats meant death to crops…. In the course of 400 years, the Egyptians prejudiced the Israelites’ attitude toward shepherding.Randy Alcorn
But there is some debate about their social standing. I recently learned that the shepherds of old may not have been the despised and outcast scruffians we have been lead to believe they were. Remember: Abraham, Moses, and David were all shepherds – which should be a clue that the position was honorable to both God and people.
And the fact that David said, The Lord is my Shepherd should leave little doubt.
From what little I’ve read, it seems that, although shepherding was not particularly glamourous (and it surely wasn’t a good fit for the white-collar crowd), shepherds were hard working and devoted to their flocks. They lived night and day to keep a whole bunch of vulnerable – and not all that cooperative – sheep and goats safe from predators. They calmed those in their care with words and music. They kept them fed and safe, no matter the cost.
This is how Luke introduces the shepherds into his account of the birth of Jesus:
Let’s revisit this part:
When the shepherds saw [Jesus],
they told [Mary and Joseph} what the angel had said about the child.
All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said.
All who heard were amazed.
That doesn’t sound like a crowd of people listening to the marginalized or disrespected. The shepherds told of the glory they witnessed – truly so amazing as to be unbelievable – and those who heard not only believed, but were amazed.
God granted the first public announcement of the Christ child to shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks. Men of perhaps lowly estate, but men who could hold their heads up because they lived admirable lives and daily accomplished something of value. Can you even imagine?
In the end, though, maybe the social position of shepherds, long a subject of debate, doesn’t matter all that much.
Maybe God chose the shepherds because they were despised – because Jesus was despised.
Maybe He chose them because they cared so greatly for the flock – because Jesus cares for His.
The job of a shepherd is not easy, but it seems simple. Not like anybody can do it, but like a job you learn over time that becomes second nature.
And God not only shocked them with the spectacular couriers of Good News appearing in the heavens. He asked them to leave their beloved sheep and go witness what they were told, a rather bold ask, since their sheep were so precious to them. In fact, they were asked to do something that would likely risk their very livelihood, asked to do something completely unreasonable.
But He did – and they did.
And look at the impact of that one night’s work – that one risky decision. That one “Yes.” The shepherds’ extraordinary story added a glorious, heavenly layer to the already extraordinary birth of Jesus. It was and is a story none other could tell.
May you be blessed and inspired, this fourth – and last – Monday of Advent, by a bunch of Biblical ragamuffin heroes, the shepherds. It’s true, we may not feel glamorous, we may feel despised or worthless, we may not feel at all. But never forget that God asked the shepherds to do something remarkable for Him. And they changed the world forever.
Merry Christmas, my lovelies.