Summary: A look at the Christmas shepherds from Luke's Gospel.
The Characters of Christmas: The Shepherds
History and pop culture have given a cast of characters to surround us at Christmas. The characters evoke smiles, joy, reverence, excitement, anticipation and happy memories. Some, like Santa Claus have sacred beginnings, but most are purely secular in nature. That’s okay, for they still bring joy to our lives, and after all, this is the season of joy.
If you walk into my office this holiday season, in addition to what my daughter Kelsey calls my John Wayne centerpiece, you’ll find my Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer bobble-head collection. I love Rudolph. I watched it on Tuesday evening. I don’t know why it was on before Thanksgiving, but anyway, I look forward to the Christmas season so I can haul out my collection and show it off.
Rudolph is a purely secular character given to us as a marketing effort by Montgomery Ward’s and was popularized even more by Gene Autry after the story was converted to a song, but there’s a connection I want to make to the Christmas story found in Luke’s Gospel. You see, Rudolph was a misfit, and outcast, and the whole story in the TV special, Rudolph is surrounded by a band of misfits—from elf Hermey the would-be dentist, to the Abominable Snowman, to all the toys on the Island of Misfit Toys, they’re all outcasts trying to figure out where they belong, or more properly, looking for a place to belong.
Misfits and outcasts—that describes the cast of characters we encounter in Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. Shepherds. There’s not a Christmas pageant or play that can be had without shepherds. They’re so cute when our children don oversized bathrobes and towels to depict them in church Christmas programs. I almost believe that we fail to realize that it was to these misfits that God chose to announce the Good News of the birth of Jesus. God didn’t chose the mayor of Bethlehem, or the then King of the Jews, Herod. One would think with all these angels around, surely one would show up at Herod’s Palace saying, “Hey, Herod. You’re done. There’s a new king in town.” That didn’t happen. Not even Caesar Augustus was let in on this Good News. Nope. Smelly, dirty shepherds were the chosen ones this night. Outcasts and misfits.
The shepherds were both religious and social misfits. The nature of their work kept them from normal religious functions, and they were a filthy bunch, too. Luke says they were “out in the fields.” The work of keeping sheep rendered the shepherds religiously unclean. To make it to the Temple or to the synagogue meant they would have to go through a long, involved purification process that lasted seven days. On a shepherd’s salary who could afford to take seven days off to get ritually clean to go to worship? No one! They simply didn’t bother. Additionally, the priests and the temple assistants couldn’t touch them, for they, too would have been rendered unclean and have to participate in the same process. Talk about trouble. They wanted nothing to do with shepherds. It’s almost funny, though. The priest and temple assistants needed the shepherds because they provided the sheep necessary for the temple sacrifices on high holy days. They were necessary, but they were shunned. They were religious misfits.
The shepherds were also social misfits. Shepherds lived rugged lives, but living “out in the fields” had its benefits. Let’s just say, if a guy needed to fade safely away, he would likely look for work as a shepherd. Because of the seedy nature of those who were shepherds, they were considered untrustworthy. Among their number were thieves and robbers. They were a smelly bunch, too. They didn’t take regular baths, unlike city folks who took a bath once a week whether they needed it or not. You’d never find shepherds mixing in polite company. When shepherds were around, you kept a watchful eye on your possessions because they were quite likely to walk off with one of the shepherds. Interesting enough, the city folk who shunned the shepherds needed them, too. The shepherds kept the sheep that provided meat for the markets and wool for clothing. Nonetheless, they were social misfits.
I think about “Red.” I met Red while pastoring in Morgan City. Actually, I never met Red. I came to learn about Red because I officiated his funeral. Red was an underwater welder. Divers in the oil field have a seedy reputation. They’re known for hard work and hard living. Most of the time if they’re not working, they’re drinking, or doing other things that most in polite company would see as questionable behavior. Red was killed in a motorcycle accident just outside of Morgan City. There was no one to conduct the service. There was no family. The only friends he had were those with whom he worked. Whenever the local funeral homes had funerals such as this, they called the Methodist preacher. They knew he’d do it. I did 37 funerals in 36 months. I did more funerals for people I didn’t know than for people I did. Red’s was one of them. As I concluded the graveside portion of the service, said the final “Amen,” the friends of Red’s who were present stood around the graveside, pulled out a paper bag, and said, “We have to drink a toast to our friend, Red.” They popped the top of a 40 ounce (ask the person sitting next to you, if you don’t know what a 40 ounce is) and passed it around to toast their departed friend. Not quite what one expects in polite company or religious circles. That, my friends, is how others viewed the shepherds in the first century.