Those Dirty Shepherds
By Maria Fontaine
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One of my favorite pictures as a child was of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, as He carried a little lamb in one arm and His staff in the other.
Perhaps our image of shepherds and their sheep has been formed from some of the most famous, godly shepherds in the Bible, ones like Abel, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, King David, and our Good Shepherd, Jesus.
But that picture hides a less-known fact about Christmas. We might expect that those shepherds watching their flocks by night on the hillside near Bethlehem would be respected members of society. Wouldn’t they have been seen by the people of those times as honest, dependable, believable witnesses, trustworthy and upright?
Otherwise, why would the angels have entrusted them with such an important message as declaring the coming of the Messiah? Why would anyone but those who were considered worthy by others be directed to go to where Jesus was and to greet Him on His arrival on earth for the most important mission ever undertaken? These shepherds weren’t sent to just meet an emissary of the God of the universe. They were invited to meet face to face with God Himself! What could be more important than that?
According to some historians, shepherds at that time were considered the lowest of the low. The term used for them by the Pharisees is translated in the English Bible as “sinners.” It was a derogatory term meaning vile and unclean. Their lives were spent handling animals, often sleeping outdoors surrounded by dung and possible disease. They would not be seen as worthy to even offer a sacrifice to God, much less be the VIPs representing humanity at His arrival ceremony on earth. Shepherds were shunned by “respectable” people, especially by the religious Jews and the elite of Israel, and were often considered to be socially on par with tax collectors and prostitutes.
From man’s limited perspective, God was sending a band of filthy, smelly outcasts to be the greeting party for His Son and to spread the good news of salvation to all who would listen. By today’s standards that might equate to an angelic choir appearing to a group of homeless people sleeping on the street in cardboard boxes or camped out under a highway overpass. God looks at the heart. It doesn’t matter to Him if someone is dressed in rags or royal robes.
The Bible says the shepherds ran to see the babe, so they didn’t have time to take a bath or change into a nice set of robes, which they most likely didn’t have anyway.1 They just ran as they were, straight into the presence of their Lord and King, where they would have excitedly recounted their experiences to Mary and Joseph and been welcomed with love and acceptance.
Why would God choose the shepherds? Why would He offer this priceless privilege to these who were so unworthy in man’s eyes? Perhaps because He knew they would believe with pure and simple faith. They were the ones who would run to the side of God’s newborn son without trying to analyze it and figure it out in their minds. They were the ones who would spread the news to all who would listen.
Not only were the shepherds honored by God, but they were also given the responsibility—as well as the privileged task—of spreading the good news to others. In a sense, God started the discipling process through these shepherds as they told others of the Savior's arrival.
We can follow God’s example of witnessing by giving Jesus’ message freely, regardless of what people look like or what their social status may be, or their education or circumstances.2 Some of those He leads us to will be so grateful and excited to hear the good news, as the shepherds were, that they will tell others about what He has done for them in making them part of His kingdom. Let Him stir your heart to carry His love to others who need it.
Originally published December 2013. Republished on Anchor December 2017.
Read by Debra Lee.
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