(I’m taking part in the Twitter #adventbookclub, reading “Beginnings and Endings” by Maggi Dawn; not every day will have a blog post.)
I must have taken awkward pills this morning (funny – I’m sure the packet said ‘ibuprofen’ …).
When we read the story of the angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds (Luke chapter 2), we are often reminded that shepherds were on the margins of society, outcasts, ‘not our kind of people’, probably permanently ritually unclean. This emphasis celebrates the fact that the Good News is for everyone, however humble, and challenges us to rethink our attitudes to any who we think are different.
But the question I found myself asking is: when did shepherds get such a bad reputation? There doesn’t seem to be any Biblical evidence for this; quite the contrary. In the Hebrew scriptures, rulers are often compared to shepherds, and even God himself: Psalm 23 is the most obvious example, but see also Genesis 48:15, Isaiah 40:10-11.
Jesus himself speaks highly of shepherds, contrasting the true shepherd who will even die for his sheep with a hired hand who runs away in times of danger (John 10:11-13). In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus starts by asking “which one of you, having a hundred sheep …” (Luke 15:3), as if it were perfectly normal for most of his listeners to have sheep and care for them personally.
The gospels do record Jesus spending time with ‘outcasts’, and getting criticised for it: tax-collectors, sinners, gentiles, lepers; even (shock, horror!) women. Yet nowhere do they say “and he ate with tax-collectors and shepherds”, even though he may well have done.
So when did shepherds get such a bad reputation that we see this story as being shocking? Would Luke’s first readers have had this reaction?
Before the awkward pills wear off, let me offer two alternative interpretations – not necessarily better, but in addition.
First, if leaders are compared to shepherds (and this is also true in the early church – see Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2), then this is a story for everyone who has any kind of responsibility for others – church leaders, business managers, teachers, parents – which is probably most of us at least some time in our lives. If we have the care of others, or even if we are simply expected to set a good example for others, we need to live our lives with integrity. Part of this is to be open to God’s message, whenever and however it comes, and to be aware of God’s working in the world, however unexpected.
Second, if it was normal and accepted for people to have sheep, then this story is really about all of us, whether we think of ourselves as leaders or not. The shepherds were simply people, doing what they were supposed to be doing. So whether we’re leading or following, working or resting, sitting at ease or living with pain, we are the ones to whom the angel comes “bringing good news of great joy for all people”.
One final thought. In our church Bible study the other day we looked at Isaiah 9:1-7, and the leader (who this week was my daughter), pointed out the similarity between “a child has been born for us” and “to you is born this day … a Saviour”. Were the shepherds expected to know their scriptures well enough to pick up this reference? Quite possibly – so let’s make sure we know our Bible as well as the shepherds did!