This Christmas season, countless pageants will unfold under soft light and in sacred sanctuaries telling the story of Messiah’s birth and shepherds will play an important part in each production. There will be gray-haired shepherds with live lambs in their arms, and preschool shepherds holding stuffed toy sheep. There will be shepherds in professional costumes and others wearing freshly washed bathrobes. There will be white shepherds, black shepherds, brown, olive, and tan shepherds. Each pageant will be different but one thing is most certain to remain the same- the shepherds will stand in a place of honor near the Christ Child’s manger.
But it has not always been so. Shepherds were not always so esteemed.
Shepherds in the first century were poor and despised, perhaps partially because the flocks wandered onto and fed from private property; even more so because it was both very tempting and easy to become a thief as a shepherd. The problem was so prevalent that the term “shepherd” became synonymous with “thief”. Rabbinical laws were put in place to deal with the problem prohibiting the purchase of sheep, wool, or milk directly from shepherds. The Rabbis also warned parents to steer their children away from shepherding as a career path.
“Abba Gorion of Zaidan says in the name of Abba Guria: A man should not teach his son to be an ass-driver or a camel-driver, or a barber or a sailor, or a herdsman or a shopkeeper, for their craft is the craft of robbers.” (Mishnah: Kiddushin 4:14)
They were uneducated, and disdained. They were at the bottom of the social stratum. Everyone they met would have most likely considered themselves just a little bit superior to them. It was most certainly a message which affixed itself to their own self image over time.
So strange that we would find these, the despised and the rejected, near the cradle of a king, standing at attention, or falling on their faces in adoration to worship him. How wondrous, that they were there by special invitation to celebrate his arrival. This is no ordinary King.
This is Emmanuel. God is with us. The Holy One come to receive us all.