Shepherds weren’t very high up on the social scale, in the first century. In fact, the general view was that they weren’t to be trusted.
They were often the victims of cruel stereotypes — like blondes today! People would comment to one another whether the sheep being herded along the side of the road really belonged to those shepherds, or whether they had been ‘nicked’ in the middle of the night.
It was surely difficult to be absolutely certain whose sheep they were. In a Jewish book called the Mishna, familiar in the first century and so at the time of Mary and Joseph, buying food and clothing from shepherds was forbidden, because they were probably stolen goods!
By Jesus’ time, they were held in such low esteem that they weren’t allowed to give court testimony in judicial or civil cases; they were judged to be utterly untrustworthy.
Shepherds were despised. They were considered ceremonially ‘unclean’ and so banned from entering various homes, and especially the courts of the Jerusalem temple.
I suppose an analogy today would be found in the unsavoury reputation of some who work on travelling fairs, dodgem cars, rocket rides and ghost trains, moving around the country from town to town. They are hardly considered paragons of virtue.
That too might be a bit unfair, just like the bad reputation every shepherd carried 2000 years ago. Certainly, they were about as low on the social scale as it was possible to get, but there was a truth in it.
Let me ask you to consider this question. When God addressed all the angels the day his Son had been born, did he say to the archangel, ‘Now go and tell people in the world that my blessed and eternal Son, the Lord of glory has become incarnate as the Saviour’, and did he leave it up to Gabriel to decide where to go and who to tell?
Then, as Gabriel thought of the wonder and marvel of it all, did he ponder who first to break the news to? Did he say, ‘I’ll first of all go to the High Priest in Jerusalem’ (the equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury today)?
Or did Gabriel decide to go to the scribes and teachers in Jerusalem (preachers supposedly full of learning and wisdom)? Perhaps he (or we) would have gone to them? Or perhaps to the Sanhedrin, the 70 elders ruling the theocratic state of Israel now in tension with the occupying force of the Roman Empire?
Or perhaps he would have gone to the Pharisees, the strictest Jewish interpreters of Judaism’s laws, who were constantly talking about and looking for the Messiah?
Least of all, might Gabriel have thought, ‘I’ll go to a group of shepherds on a Judean hill’. And, very least of all, would all the host of heaven cry, ‘Us too! We’re all coming to rejoice with you all that our Lord has been born. We’re all going to proclaim our joy before … shepherds?’
Left to themselves, they might have chosen to sing before a discerning audience, full of the mighty, good and great of the world on such an auspicious occasion.
Surely, left to himself, Gabriel might never have chosen to go by night with this wonderful news to a dark hillside, to shepherds fighting sleep as they kept watch over their flocks.
Gabriel needed to be told by Jehovah Almighty to speak to them. And so did all of the angels, when God said, ‘Now all of you go! Worship me, as you surround some shepherds on the hill outside Bethlehem!’
The first people who heard the message of the birth of God’s Son, the Saviour and Messiah, were the most despised people in society. Isn’t that amazing? Jesus born in a cave. And shepherds, of all people, the first to know who the baby was.
Now, as you think about that, you may begin to see that this decision of God to preach to shepherds is a cameo portrait of the gospel itself.
Hadn’t Mary herself already seen that God was working in this way? She had praised God in the Magnificat, responding to Gabriel’s announcement of her pregnancy, with these very words: ‘He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly’.
Again, do you remember how Paul says, as he writes to Christians with a tendency to self-congratulation, that God doesn’t actually call to himself many who are mighty or many who are noble, but he calls men and women who are nonentities, in order that all the praise and glory for the blessing to and through them should be given to God alone.
If God hadn’t decided to give it to them, they wouldn’t have had it. There is a huge lesson about the gospel’s grace in the very fact that shepherds, of all men, first heard the announcement about the incarnate Jesus, on the hillsides of Bethlehem.
It was for the worst sinners that the good Shepherd came seeking and saving, not for the ‘righteous’. And so there is hope for the worst of us today, as we listen to the word his messengers bring us and fall in worship before Jesus, the Son of God.
The author is pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth