The shepherds play a special role in the Christmas story. They are the easiest character to play in the nativity. As long as you’ve got a dressing gown, a tea-towel and a stick you can be a shepherd. Our image of the shepherd is a respectable one. As I have been looking through many old paintings of the nativity I have noticed something funny. In most of the pictures the shepherds have been well dressed, and often clean shaven respectable chaps that you could easily imagine in a quaint old English landscape. Their sheep are always fluffy and cuddly – almost like clouds. This sentimental view of the shepherds has been so ingrained in us that it is difficult to see anything different.
The truth about shepherds
But the reality of the 1st century shepherd is radically different. Shepherds were losers. Jewish society rejected them. They were tough and gritty. Their work required them to be outdoors during hot weather and freezing. The hours were bad – night was the time of the most danger. The community viewed them with suspicion. One of the jobs of the shepherds around Bethlehem was raising the animals required for the Temple sacrifices. As such they played a vital role in the religious life of the Jewish people but it came at a cost. The very nature of their work rendered them ceremonially unclean, and so unable to participate in the religion. This is a tragic irony – They were vital and yet excluded – this is the tragic irony.
Just imagine if it was the High Priest whom the angel visited. It would have conveyed that Jesus was there for those who were seen as being ‘right’. Those who were already excluded would have continued to be excluded. It’s not so different today. For many people Christianity is still seen as a religion all about rules. People believe that to be a Christian you need to be a good person and do all the right things. The tragedy of this is that in reality it would exclude everybody. After all, who doesn’t have personal faults or things they are ashamed of? If the ‘be a good person and do the right thing’ brand of Christianity were true, who could approach God? The truth is that we have more in common with the shepherds. Left to our own efforts, we can never make ourselves ‘good’ enough for God.
The message of the angels is not that you must get right to come before God but rather that God is drawing close to us in the midst of our brokenness.