Shepherds and Great Joy

I’ve always liked the book of Luke most of all the Gospels. Somehow Jesus seems more relatable to me in Luke and not as distant as he can in some of the accounts. In particular, Luke tells the story of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth in a poignant way. As a Gentile and a physician, he saw the world through a different lens from that of the Jewish Gospel writers. He described Jesus’ birth plainly, with details noticed and collected by a scientific mind, apparently appealing to other non-Jewish people like me. He starts by telling about John the Baptist’s unusual conception and birth, the angel’s visit to Mary and her reaction, and Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem for the census. 

A Flair for the Dramatic

Among all of those details, we find a particularly dramatic scene: a group of shepherds sleeping  and watching their sheep on a hill outside town wake to a terrifying sight. A sky full of angels make an announcement. Of course, the angels’ first words are, “Don’t be afraid.” A blinding light on a dark night would frighten anyone, especially if it were accompanied by supernatural beings. The angels continue by telling the men that they bring good news. Specifically, they describe this good news as bringing “great joy for all the people.” The shepherds hurry into town to see this baby born to bring them great joy.

Old News but Good News

A lot has been written and sung and painted about these shepherds. None of the details from the paragraphs above are new to us. The story has been told for two thousand years, and shepherds are included in the telling nearly every time. We’ve probably all heard that the shepherds were smelly people, some of the lowest of society. They weren’t welcome in town, and they weren’t wealthy by any means. Shepherds were known as troublemakers, rough transients, undesirables. Think gang members, teenage guys hanging out in the park after dark laughing and playing loud music, homeless people on the street corner asking for donations to their food fund. 

Or maybe they were like today’s former third world slaves who escape from bondage to try and make their way in the world. Maybe today’s “shepherds” owe more money they can ever pay back and wonder where their next meal will come from. Maybe they’re single moms with too many mouths to feed or a small family trying to put two kids through school. Maybe they’re refugees at a border or immigrants sharing a cramped apartment with two other families. Maybe they’re exhausted suburbanites working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Who would God would choose to announce his good news to first now?

Everyone is Included

One of my favorite parts of the Christmas story in Luke is how it seems tailored to highlight the inclusion of the less-than-remarkable person. The shepherds are the lowest in society. Mary and Joseph are regular people. There’s no real evidence that they were more special than any other Jewish couple of their time before their designation as the parents of Jesus. Later, at the presentation of the new baby Jesus at the temple, Anna and Simeon, two elderly people who apparently spent most of their time just hanging out there, affirm the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. All of these were unlikely characters included in the greatest story of all time.

If we’re not careful, we see the Christmas story bathed in holy light, but when we read carefully, we see that the participants, including the shepherds, were ordinary people chosen to be part of an extraordinary story. Not only that, but the very one they went to worship later identified himself as one of them. He didn’t call himself a king, although he could have legitimately claimed that title. Instead, he called himself the “Good Shepherd,” associating himself with the low levels of the social structure. That inclusion of all is something I want to be part of this Christmas and throughout the year.

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