Tell the shepherds? You must be joking
Carols and Christmas cards represent the shepherds in the Christmas story as some kind of rustic nobility – an ideal example of primitive rural simplicity, an echo of distant Eden, far from dark Satanic mills.
Some of the world’s greatest artists – painters like Constable and Rubens – have portrayed the Christ child surrounded by shepherds, who appear as men of intellect and gravity. Others have suggested that the shepherds who feature at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel remind us that Jesus – born in a city surrounded by fields of grazing sheep – was destined to be the Good Shepherd who would one day give his life for his human flock.
A merciless bunch
But although the shepherds on our Christmas cards all look like Charlton Heston – with cute wide-eyed shepherd boys in tow – the reality was altogether different. I have to tell you that shepherds in the first century were anything but the sturdy upstanding citizens they are made out to be.
We need to go back and dig for a moment into the Bible – back to the time when Israel first migrated to Egypt in the days of Joseph and Jacob and his sons. All these men were shepherds and Joseph was abducted and sold into slavery by his brothers as they tended their sheep. Those shepherd brothers were a merciless bunch of men.
The sons of Jacob were a nomadic people but the Egyptians were not. They were settled agriculturalists, and when Jacob’s extended family entered Egypt and settled in the land of Goshen they presented a foreign lifestyle to the Egyptians.
There was a culture clash between the local people and these immigrants – who lived every day with animals and carried on their clothes the stink of the sheep. To the clean-shaven courtiers of Egypt the shepherds with their straggly beards and unpleasant odours stood out.
Goshen wasn’t close to the population centre of Egypt and the Egyptians were quite glad of that fact! In Genesis 46 Joseph is clearly keen to keep some distance between his family and the Egyptians and rehearses with his brothers what they are to say to Pharaoh when he introduces them:
‘When Pharaoh calls you in and asks, “What is your occupation?” you should answer, “Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did”. Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians’. Joseph warns his brothers that they neither would nor should merge naturally with the irrigation farmers of the Nile delta!
So shepherds weren’t high up on the social scale in Egypt, and that reputation clung to them for centuries – not just in Egypt but also in Canaan. Shepherds were not to be trusted.
They were the victims of some fairly cruel stereotypes – like some people groups today. Did the sheep being herded along the road really belong to those shepherds, or had they been ‘nicked’ in the middle of the night? It was surely difficult to be sure whose sheep they were.
A Jewish book called the Mishna, familiar to Jews in the first century and probably known to Mary and Joseph, forbade the purchase of food and clothing from shepherds because they were probably stolen goods.
By Jesus’ time shepherds were held in such low esteem that they weren’t even allowed to testify in judicial or civil court cases because they were judged to be utterly untrustworthy. They were banned from many homes and were not allowed to enter the temple in Jerusalem – because they weren’t ceremonially ‘clean’.
Let me ask you this question. When God sent the angels to announce the birth of Christ, did he say to the archangel, ‘Now go and tell people in the world that my Son, the Lord of glory, has become incarnate as the Saviour’ – and leave Gabriel to decide where he would go and whom he would tell?
Then as he thought of the wonder and the marvel of it all, did Gabriel ponder over who should be first to hear the breaking news? Did he think, ‘First I’ll tell the high priest in Jerusalem’ (roughly the equivalent of our Archbishop of Canterbury)? That would be a good choice, wouldn’t it?
Or perhaps Gabriel might decide to go to the scribes in Jerusalem, the teachers and preachers who were full of learning and wisdom – or to the Sanhedrin, the seventy elders who ruled the theocratic state of Israel.
He could have gone to the Pharisees, those strict interpreters of legal Judaism who were constantly talking about the Messiah. But he didn’t.
Tell the shepherds
Instead God sent Gabriel first to shepherds ‘abiding in the fields’. Gabriel might well have responded, ‘Tell the shepherds? You must be joking!’ We don’t know, of course, but I doubt whether left to himself Gabriel would have thought, ‘I’ll go to a group of shepherds on a Judean hill’.
Nor, I suspect, would the angelic host of heaven. Left to themselves on such an auspicious occasion, wouldn’t they have chosen a more discerning audience? To tell the shepherds would be a bit like telling the down-and-outs sleeping in cardboard boxes on our city streets!
Am I making myself clear? Gabriel would never have chosen to take this wonderful news to untrustworthy shepherds, fighting sleep on a dark hillside. He had to be specifically instructed by the Almighty to speak to them.
The first people to hear about the birth of God’s Son were the most despised people in that society. Isn’t that amazing? Shepherds, of all people, were the first to know who the baby was.
A picture of the gospel
Now think about that for a minute – God’s decision to preach to shepherds is a cameo portrait of the gospel, isn’t it? Mary herself had already recognised how God was working – responding to Gabriel’s announcement of her own pregnancy by saying, ‘He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly’.
This doesn’t mean that God respects the poor rather than the rich, or the weak rather than the strong. What it does mean is that to hear the gospel savingly we must humble ourselves beneath his hand. We must recognise that God draws near, not to the proud but to the ‘poor in spirit’ – those who know they have nothing to offer in return.
Remember how Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians, with their tendency to self-congratulation, that God doesn’t call to himself many people who are mighty or noble. Rather, he tends to call those who ‘are not’ – nonentities – so that all the praise, glory and honour for the blessing he bestows should be given to him alone.
I am saying that there is a reminder of gospel grace in the fact that on the hillsides of Bethlehem it was shepherds – of all men – who were the first to hear the good news of the incarnate Christ. The Good Shepherd came to seek and to save not the righteous but the very worst of sinners.
Compassion and mercy
By choosing society’s rejects to be first to hear the gospel, God demonstrates his amazing grace. The self-righteous think they have no need of a Saviour. This terrible delusion blinds them to the good news of a salvation that is free and unmerited – salvation that is God’s gift by faith in Christ and not obtained by our own efforts or works.
In his grace and mercy God came at the very beginning to a group of ‘worthless’ men – worthless in the eyes of men but precious in the eyes of God. It underlines how our God is a God of compassion and mercy, one who reaches out to sinners. His mercy is so great.
If we know we have been redeemed by that mercy, it speaks volumes about our own self-discovery. We have looked into our own hearts and seen something ugly there. We have realised that we are sinners and that conviction has got under our skins.
We stood in need of grace – something God alone could give. We have discovered that, and it has changed our whole view of life, of God and of the people around us. There is within us a new spirit of compassion and a longing for others, that they might also come to know the Christ who is our Saviour.
‘God saves sinners’ is a wonderful summary of God’s gracious gospel. As Paul declared, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief’.