Characters of Christmas, the Shepards

Posted: December 21, 2015 in Thoughts on God

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:15-20 ESV)

Whenever we read the story of Jesus’ birth or attend a church Christmas play, we expect the shepherds to play a prominent role. Every nativity scene includes a cute little angel and gentle shepherds. They’re just part of the package. We may easily embrace shepherds as key characters in the story, but a Jewish person 2000 years ago would have found this incredulous. For the birth of the Messiah, surely God would invite kings or political influencers, priests or religious insiders, but never shepherds. God wouldn’t invite shepherds.

Shepherds were social outcasts. They were poor, uneducated, uncultured, and uncouth. They were rough characters in a small town on the fringe of society, so much so that their testimony was not even admissible in court. If you were with your family, walking through town, you would likely go to the other side of the street to avoid them.

Shepherds were religious outsiders. Because of the work of caring for the sheep made them ceremonially unclean, they were not allowed into the temple courts or to be an active part of synagogue worship. Religious leaders often considered them on the same level as prostitutes. When it came to religion, they were always on the outside looking in.

God invited a group of guys who had been labeled as outcasts and outsiders by everyone, and placed them at the top of the invite list for the most important birthday in history.

This is a theme we see continue throughout the story of Jesus’ life:

  • Jesus hangs out with religious outsiders, social outcasts, and “sinners” so much that He is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard.
  • Jesus heals a man with leprosy—considered contagious and religiously unclean— by touching him. Most people would have avoided lepers altogether.
  • Jesus chooses an inner circle of followers that includes uneducated fishermen, a former tax collector who has sold out countrymen, a zealot who wants to kill the Romans, and even a former prostitute.
  • Jesus consistently seeks out those who are considered social outcasts and religious outsiders and invites them to be at the center of His ministry.

Those who have been relegated to the outside are not only focus of His rescue mission—they become its leaders. The shepherds had nothing to offer Jesus. They were not religiously trained or socially polished. Unlike the wise men who would arrive later, they did not have exquisite gifts. These guys lived under the stars with only the clothes on their backs, a staff to guide the sheep, and a rod for protection. They had nothing of value to bring to Jesus except for themselves. That’s exactly what He wanted, and what He still wants today.

Who are “shepherds” in your community— social outcasts and religious outsiders? Do you believe that God can use them to impact your community and point people to Him? How can God use you to invite them to join Him mission?

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