If you have been journeying with me through the Christmas scripture passages of Luke and Matthew this month, you know that the next scene is that of the shepherds.
Once more, the pictures and images of shepherds at the birth of Jesus don’t give us much information about them and might also depict them differently than would have been the case.
Even though I grew up on a farm, we did not own sheep so I needed to look elsewhere to learn more about who shepherds traditionally were and what I can imagine from the short passage in Luke 2 about them.
Of all the things I have read about shepherds, few resources have had the impact on me as much as that of Margaret Feinberg’s book, Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey. She looks at the metaphors Jesus uses so often. The chapter about sheep and shepherds (The Good Shepherd) captures a much deeper understanding of how Jesus teaches us about our relationship with Him. Margaret gives a first hand glimpse as she spends time with a shepherd learning more about this powerful image Jesus gives us.
Shepherds appear throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament as well. I am not sure I always ‘caught’ that this was not a role that was held in high esteem. I can certainly get a glimpse of that when Samuel is seeking to anoint the next king of Israel.
After he has looked at all the sons of Jesse and sees none of them are God’s choice, he discovers the youngest one is missing from the group because he is out tending the sheep. Jesse cannot believe this youngest boy, a simple sheepherder, would be the one chosen. And yet he is.
In Luke 2, the seemingly ‘least likely’ are again chosen. This time they (the shepherds) are chosen to be the first noted visitors of Jesus after His birth.
Shepherds who tend sheep and lambs daily are honored as the first to attend to the Lamb of God.
Even though sheep might be a livelihood for some, those left to tend the sheep were often the youngest and weakest family members who had few skills for anything else. This might mean children, older men no longer in their prime, or even perhaps older women would compose the group.
It seems odd to me that the youngest and weakest were given such a difficult and dangerous job. Shepherds were exposed to extremes of heat and cold. Supplies for their own welfare were few and needed to be stewarded and protected. Shepherds also needed to be very watchful and on guard at all times to protect the sheep from robbers, predators, and the terrain itself, which was often rocky.
They also needed to seek out any sheep that were lost after wandering away and find food for the flock later in the fall and winter when none was available.
Shepherds provided for what the sheep needed right now.
Those of us in the Midwest might envision the pasture as a lush grassy one common in this part of the United States, but the fields near Bethlehem looked more like the picture below.
The sheep pastured constantly in open fields so the term ‘abiding’ was used because the shepherds stayed there throughout the day and night. Usually they would use tents or huts to provide shelter for themselves.
So with that background, I envision the shepherds outside Bethlehem as a group that is both older and younger than images of the scene might depict. Possibly an older woman would have been in the mix as well. I see them with eyes open and on the alert to watch over the sheep and lambs in their charge. What a heart they had for their charges.
Shepherds were first to see the Lamb of God.
At the time of Jesus birth, we see the least likely are chosen, a pattern that follows Him all the way to Calvary. That never fails to give me hope.
The other message that breaks into my awareness is the shepherds are accorded the honor of first seeing the one that would also be called “the good shepherd”. The Good Shepherd would be as fierce and protective, as loving and as much of a provider as those who gazed upon the manger. He would also be described by John the Baptist in John 1:29 as “the Lamb of God”
I wonder if the shepherds had any awareness of how much Jesus would identify His role with theirs.
The shepherds were not simply window dressing in a set. What would He have us understand about His choice of them?
His choice of us?