The lowest job you can have is that of a shepherd, today as well as 2,000 years ago. Even in Cambodia, the lowest job is a shepherd. Usually they get kids to be the shepherds. If a family has adopted kids, it would be the adopted kids who have to watch the animals in the fields. All a shepherd does is follow stupid animals around all day long. The animals eat, poop and sleep all day long. A shepherd just follows them to make sure they don’t get lost or stolen. Over the years people have tried to fluff up the job of “shepherd” by drawing cute pictures of well dressed men lovingly holding a baby lamb; or a shepherd sitting on a cool green hillside, sleeping with his head resting on the sheep under a shade tree. In the church, they quit calling leaders “shepherds” because it sounded too humble, so they referred to them by the Latin religious language as “Pastor” to elevate their stature.
There are a few words which adequately describe a shepherd: poor, uneducated and insignificant.
Last week when I was studying the Bible I was struck once again by the irony of God’s plan. The angels announced the birth of Christ to shepherds; Shepherds of all people, not rabbi’s. When I visited Israel with my wife I found out that Bethlehem is about 5 miles away from the temple in Jerusalem. You could almost see it, if it were not for the hills. Maybe in the days of Jesus, without buildings and barricades blocking the view you could see the temple from Bethlehem. Sacrifices were going on daily at the temple. If Jesus was born in December, there were surely huge festivals going on at the temple. There were probably processions of religious leaders going down the streets. The center of Israel was that glorious temple. To them, it was the center of the earth.
Yet, when the angels scanned the earth and God’s divine plan had Jesus being born in Bethlehem, he missed the “center” of the religious and pious world by 5 miles. Oops! It was no accident. A shepherd could not enter the temple. He was ritually unclean. A shepherd was too poor to go to the temple, because he would have to pay for offerings which he likely had no money to pay for. The shepherds were sleeping out in the fields, likely because the fields were just as nice as their homes!
We know that Jesus was introducing a new paradigm: humility. Serving others was to be a crucial sign of the followers of Jesus. Followers of Jesus were to be modeled after poor shepherds, not pastors. Yesterday, I spoke in a church about the shepherds and I specifically wore my worst clothes to the church. I had pants which had huge holes in them, a wholly and faded t-shirt and I went barefooted. People wondered what happened to me. My daughter asked me for some water, so I stepped out of the church and went across the road to buy some water. When I was buying the water, the sales lady asked me, “Why are your clothes so old and torn?” She then announced, “You can’t go into church like that.” She was a non-believer. This church is a very poor church, yet apparently it was not acceptable to “look poor”.
When I gave the message later I intended to encourage the poor people that it was alright to be poor, because Jesus loves the poor. However, because it was Christmas celebration a lot of rich people had come to visit (in their annual pilgrimage to Christmas parties). During the message, I shared the verse, “23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’” (Matthew 19:23-24). As soon as I mentioned this verse the more wealthy people started talking among themselves.
When Jesus was born, the rich people were right down the road. They were in Jerusalem. They were minutes away by SUV chariot. The religious leaders and their glorious temple were just over the hill. Yet that is not where the Savior of the earth chose to be born. He chose Bethlehem; in an animal stall; laying in an animal trough. He announced his birth to the poorest of the community: the shepherds.
What was the response of the shepherds?
1) “ 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16).
2) “17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:17).
3) “20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20).
The poor shepherds immediately believed and rushed to find Jesus, the Savior of the world. When they found him (in a poor place), they spread the word (shared the Good News of Jesus) to others. They were the first witnesses of Jesus. They then went back to their fields, changed men: glorifying and praising God.
Interestingly, years later it would be those same rich religious people who killed Jesus because the poor people were following him and it affected their cash flow at the temple!
As I reflect on the poor shepherds and the comments which were made to me by non-believers about how I was dressed to enter church it makes me wonder: Are we still trying to make our religion into the great and glorious temple in Jerusalem? Are our churches not acceptable for the poor anymore? Seems like the very thing that God “missed”, we are trying to model our modern churches after.
This Christmas I am going to spend more time praying to find the true meaning of Jesus’ birth and how that should affect the way I do ministry and with whom I do ministry. Feel free to join me.