I wrote this article as a Christmas devotional in 2012. It originally appeared on “The Godly Woman” website.
by Marie Notcheva ©
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)
Even while there is no one more powerful and mighty than the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no one more humble. Philippians 2:6 makes this point well, reminding us that Jesus, although God Incarnate, did not consider His deity a “thing to be grasped”, but rather condescended to come to earth as a human…and to serve His own creatures. The gentle humbleness exhibited by our own Lord and Savior is an attribute we acknowledge and strive to emulate, but often take for granted. It can fail to “wow” us. But when you really think on some details of Christ’s incarnation and earthly ministry, the lengths He went to in His humiliation are just stunning. No; I’m not talking about the fact He washed Judas’ feet before dying a horrible death on the Cross, although those moments are the pinnacle of God’s redeeming love and should not be minimized by any means. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth, beyond the fact that His earthly parents were working-class folks and He was born in a stable, also reveal God’s heart for the lowly and despised things of this world.
Luke’s Gospel tells us of the shepherds out tending their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem, and the angels’ apparition to them heralding the Messiah’s birth. What would a Nativity scene be without these wavy-haired, blue-eyed, Anglo-Saxon shepherds, genuflecting at the manger? We have greatly romanticized the role of the shepherds. Their part in the Christmas story, as relaters of the angels’ Gospel message, was integral. Their role in society, however, was despised. In first-century Israel, shepherd were pretty far down on the highly-stratified class ranking. Ironically enough, the Temple’s economy was highly dependent upon shepherds, although they probably wouldn’t have been allowed as far as the Outer Courts. Every Passover, with up to a quarter of a million Jews streaming into the city, between 30,000 and 40,000 lambs were needed for the sacrifices. Someone had to raise those lambs. (The whole scenario reminds me of the illegal immigrant outcry of a few years ago – a local hotel manager was quoted anonymously as admitting, “Without illegals, we’d be using paper plates and plastic forks…the whole hospitality industry is dependent upon them.”)
During the post-exilic stage of Israel’s history, which gave rise to Rabbinical Judaism, Jewish society had become very class-conscious. At the top of the heap were the Sadducees, the wealthy, theologically-liberal controllers of the temple (and by extension, the economic center of Jewish life). As you all probably know, the high priesthood was a dynastic office within this class. Right under the Sadducees were the uber-conservative Pharisees, the guardians of the Torah and the academic, learned talmide hakhamim (‘students of the wise’). Intermarriage with commoners was so discouraged that marrying the daughter of a Pharisee was an exclusive status symbol.
These upper class intellectuals looked upon the unlearned, unwashed masses of Judaism with scorn and derision (as even a surface reading of the gospels reveals). They had a particular name for these lower classes of Jews: “am ha-aretz”, literally “people of the land”. This derisive term, somewhat analogous to our slur “red-neck”, was further used for two sub-categories of blue collar folk: the Ê¿am ha-aretz le-mitzvot, Jews disparaged for not scrupulously observing the commandments, and Ê¿am ha-aretz la-Torah, those stigmatized as ignoramuses for not having studied the Torah at all. It was into this latter category that shepherds fell…they were the “trailer trash” of Judea at the time of Christ. Jewish texts compared marriage to one of their daughters to “crossbreeding of grapevine with wild wine, which is “unseemly and disagreeable”. This is in stark contrast to shepherding during the earlier, Patriarchal period – when it was a somewhat prestigious vocation.
By the time of Christ, Jewish shepherds would have been excluded from “polite society” for their ceremonial uncleanness as much as their unimpressive pedigree. Think about it: Luke mentions that they were living out in the fields, and there were no portable showers in those days. If the Pharisees chided the Apostles for omitting the ceremonial hand-washing, imagine what they would have thought about dudes who bathed perhaps once a month?
These were the people to whom God first announced His Son’s birth — through angelic host, no less! “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
So here we have the Creator of the universe, God Incarnate from the foundation of the world, being born to a working-class mom, in a stable. The first people privileged with the “glad tidings” (read: really, really cool news) of the Savior’s arrival are some dirty, smelly dudes in a field. The religious establishment won’t give the time of day to these folks. They never go to Temple, and probably can’t read much Hebrew. Not many prospects in life, and not much chance of moving up in the world.
How exactly like God…to stoop down to the lowest, most disenfranchised and forgotten individuals, and say “I care! I love you! And I’ve got great news…you, too, can have peace with Me. My Son is ‘God with you’, and He’s here now. Go to Him!”