Doug Greenwold's knowledge and wisdom spoke clearly through the video screen a few months ago when I attended a conference he organized titled, "Shepherds, Flocks and Kings -- Contextual Wisdom from Genesis to Revelation." Since then I've followed his blog and just can't help but share "The Least Shall be First -- Those Despised Shepherds." Although I received it during Advent, it still offers plenty to ponder during this Christmas season about "Shepherds in Action." Once you've read it, you'll especially enjoy this thought from Doug: "What if every incoming seminarian had to successfully complete a two-month internship with Bedouin shepherds before beginning their (westernized) seminary training to become a 'pastor'? How do you think that might impact/reshape/revitalize the Western Evangelical scene?"
May you be blessed this Christmas season with the joy of knowing He loves the least of us.......
Those Despised Shepherds - Advent Part II
It is easy to conjure up a romanticized view of shepherding when reading the 23rd Psalm. Not so in first-century Israel where the Rabbis decided who God likes – observant Jews like themselves – and does not like – an ever-growing list of reprehensible (to them) people; e.g., tax collectors, prostitutes, Romans, Samaritans, Hellenistic Jews, people with disabilities, barren women, and yes, shepherds.
Why shepherds? In the creative minds of the Rabbis, sheep eat the grass on hills and lands owned by others as the herds migrate from south to north seeking food. Since shepherds did not pay for what their sheep ate, the grass was deemed “stolen” and that made shepherding a despised profession.
Many Rabbis had contrition and retribution woven into their paradigm of forgiveness. Because of the wandering “trespass” nature of their profession, shepherds had no way to provide retribution for the grass their sheep “stole.” Thus they could never be forgiven. As a result, they were despised people who were perpetually unclean, who could never be trusted, and were forbidden from ever testifying in a Jewish court of law – who would ever believe them?! Welcome to the compassionless world of the Rabbis! It was to just this kind of a hopeless person living in chronic, cultural shame that God directed the angels to announce His incredible Good News!
Near-Eastern shepherding was one of the most demanding and least appreciated and rewarded tasks in first-century culture. Sheep are helpless and not particularly bright animals. They are easily spooked and will always impulsively react before they think. Sheep are also vulnerable to a wide variety of diseases such as ticks, insects and parasitic afflictions. Consequently, they require constant attention and care. Shepherding is a “hands on” calling. It can’t be done from a distance. The shepherd must be with the sheep and they have to know and feel his presence. The following is a condensed version of a shepherd’s daily life (for more see Becoming a Judean Shepherd):
- Leading sheep to grasses that are good to eat. Some grasses are poisonous while others will produce nausea and stomach gas in the sheep. Other grasses look good, but provide no nourishment.
- Making sure that bully sheep will not run rough shod over younger sheep to get to the best grass first.
- Knowing how to store winter rains in cisterns so sheep will have water to drink during the long, dry, hot summer.
- Making sure that all conditions are met so that sheep will lie down at night and sleep, feeling safe and secure – full stomachs, adequate water, unbothered by flies, ticks, leeches or parasites.
- Protecting the sheep from lions, bears, wolves, hyenas and foxes; and scaring off these predators with a sling or fighting them with the rod.
- Lifting up those sheep that are suddenly “cast down” – fell upside down into a ditch/depression and can’t get back up on their own.
- Never giving up on a sheep regardless of how difficult and disobedient it may be.
He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm,and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young. (40:11 NKJV).
Do you want a glimpse into God’s ways? Note that these “despised” shepherds are honored by God with being the first to hear the “Good News” that Bethlehem night of His long-planned invasion of Grace. Giving shepherds a role to play as part of Yeshua’s birth makes perfect sense in God’s economy. These caretakers serve a highly symbolic role, modeling the kind of oversight God wants for His Kingdom on earth.
Shepherds exemplify the kind of pragmatic “seminary” training essential to a thriving body life – leaders called and equipped, not (just) to manage a church, or preach a good sermon; but to sacrificially care for, lead, and protect God’s flock. What if every incoming seminarian had to successfully complete a two-month internship with Bedouin shepherds before beginning their (westernized) seminary training to become a “pastor”? How do you think that might impact/reshape/revitalize the Western Evangelical scene?
The angel’s use of the word “manger” is pregnant with meaning for these despised and unwelcomed shepherds when they hear you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger (Luke 2:12, emphasis added). Only the poorest of people would ever put their new born baby in a manger – a feed trough for animals, typically fashioned from stone (basalt or limestone) and occasionally from mud and straw. To loathed shepherds who were undesirables in that first-century culture, manger communicated, “Maybe these are our kind of people. Maybe they won’t reject us and turn us away. Let’s give it a try and see what happens.”
A final thought. When those shepherds left the birth venue (most likely a half-cave, sub-basement for the housing of small animals) that Grace-invasion night, with whom do you think they initially shared this “Good News”? Not with Temple leadership, nor the Jerusalem aristocracy, nor the Pharisees and their Rabbis; not even with ordinary observant Jewish townspeople. The only ones who would listen to them were other “outsiders,” people who had been marginalized and despised, people who likewise had little to no hope of ever being forgiven. As a result, the “Good News” of Bethlehem was initially propagated from one despised person to another!
Amazing, isn’t it, how God chooses to do things! What His priorities are. What really matters to Him. That’s all part of the incredible Good News – God has come to be with us (even with those despised and shamed by the culture). Rejoice! It’s Advent.
NOTE: I am aware there are those who disagree that these Christmas shepherds were despised by their culture. Some argue that they were Temple shepherds tending Temple flocks producing Pascal lambs for Passover. As such they had a higher status than the itinerant shepherds. Some others argue there is no evidence that a shepherd in the First Century was shamed by their culture (an argument from silence?)
Over the last decade, there seems to be a trend to try to remove the shame motif from a number of passages; e.g., The Samaritan woman really wasn’t tawdry, just an unfortunate victim of circumstances; Mary Magdalene really wasn’t a prostitute. I find that a misrepresentation of the “Good News.” The majority of cultures in the world are honor/shame cultures including the Near Eastern culture of Jesus. The Gospel isn’t just about dealing with our sin, but with our sin and shame. The more we understate/remove the shame motif from the Scriptures, the more we truncate the power of the message to those living in the oppression of honor/shame cultures.
As you can see, for a number of reasons; e.g., the manger, the itinerant nature of shepherding, I suggest the shame motif in the Luke 2 birth narrative is real. In fact for me this motif permeates the Gospels: Jesus was born in perceived shame, His birth was first announced to shameful shepherds, for the bulk of His ministry He lifted hundreds of people out of shame, and in the end He died on a shameful Roman Cross. What a glorious story from Heaven’s perspective! Why would we want to dilute or ignore the power of that restoration motif?