Summary: The story of the shepherds teaches us what Christmas is really all about.
One night many years ago, a shepherd named Benjamin was keeping watch over his flock. It was a night that began like every other. Little did he know that this night would change his life forever.
The sky was unusually clear that evening. Benjamin never grew tired of looking at the night sky. Sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, he would try to count the stars. He had heard of some people counting sheep, but he did enough of that during the day. As Benjamin gazed up at the scene in the sky, he remembered the words of David: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”2 Whenever Benjamin admired the heavens, he became convinced that there must be a God out there somewhere—a God who created all things. “Could it be that the same God who created the stars really cares about human beings?” Benjamin wondered. “Could it be that God really cares about… shepherds?”
Benjamin took a seat by the fire. The sheep were down for the night. The hill they had chosen to spend the night on looked down upon Bethlehem. It was cold, but peaceful—except for the sound of another shepherd snoring. Benjamin needed to stay alert in case a lion or wolf was lurking in the distance. His rod and his staff were always close beside him. He even carried a slingshot with five smooth stones just like David. King David—he was Benjamin’s hero…not so much because David was a great king, but because he had once been a lowly shepherd too. He often thought of the words of one of the psalms: “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob.”2
Perhaps you don’t know that shepherds didn’t have the best of reputations in Benjamin’s day. People thought shepherds were kind of strange. After all, who in their right mind would live out in the open all year long, in all kinds of weather, wandering from place to place but never really getting anywhere? No home. No family. No roots. Just sheep all day, all night, all year. Sometimes Benjamin thought they might be right; maybe shepherds were a little strange. But Benjamin didn’t mind. This was the life for him. He enjoyed being out in the open, nobody bothering him, no one telling him what to do or where to go.
Of course, sheep aren’t the most noble of beasts—not like the Arabian stallions Benjamin would sometimes see on the road. Sheep can’t pull their own weight like oxen. They’re not the smartest of creatures either. They’re always wandering off, getting lost and in trouble. Benjamin once saw a whole flock of sheep follow each other right off the edge of a cliff. Sheep will even eat themselves sick if you let them stay in one place too long. They can be ornery creatures too when they don’t want to do something.
The thing about sheep is they need a shepherd. As long as they have a shepherd to lead them and protect them, they’re fine. And that’s what Benjamin did. It might seem kind of strange to some people, but Benjamin really cared about his sheep. At the end of every day, he would count them to make sure not one of them was missing. He knew them by name, every one of them.
Benjamin often thought about the words of Isaiah: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.”3 He understood what the prophet meant. People really are a lot like sheep—always wandering off, following each other, getting into trouble. Sometimes Benjamin felt like a sheep. Sometimes he wondered what it would be like to have someone watching over him the way he watched over his sheep.
Actually, Benjamin was more comfortable around sheep than people. He had to go into town once in a while to pick up supplies and deliver some sheep, but he never stay there too long. It was always so noisy and crowded. He didn’t fit in there. And the townsfolk, they stayed clear of him too.
Shepherds were often accused of being thieves. Benjamin knew how it worked. A farmer would go to his barn one morning, find a couple of tools missing, and right away he would blame it on the shepherds. “Shepherds came through town last night. They stole my tools!” “They have to blame someone,” Benjamin thought. “It might as well be us.” It didn’t really bother him.
But there was one thing that did bother him. People said shepherds were unclean—not in a regular way, in the religious way, like they were unacceptable. His people, the Jews, had all kinds of laws—laws about what they could wear and what they could eat and how they could kill it and how they could cook it and special laws about the Sabbath and washing your hands three times a day.