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Good Tidings for the Outcasts - The Significance of Shepherds in the Christmas Story

Updated on December 23, 2014
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Lesson - Don't Mess with the Money-Changers

Although I am a Catholic Christian, I rarely write about religion unless it is in a historical context. This doesn't mean that I don't take my religion seriously - although I haven't been to mass in months, practically everything I write carries the mostly forgotten message of social justice that is at the heart and soul of Christianity. If you truly read the gospels without having them chewed up and regurgitated for you by a political spin machine or some multi-millionaire televangelist, then you know that Christ was always taking verbal shots at the hypocritical rulers and religious leaders who made up the pampered and privileged class of society. His defense of the poor, downtrodden, meek and marginalized members of society was revolutionary in nature, and is what ultimately got him crucified. When you mess with the money changers, either in Christ's time or in today's world, the police pop in uninvited in the middle of the night, horse collar you, and lead you off to be scourged, either literally or figuratively. That's just the way the world works.

Originally I had no intention of writing a Christmas article here on Hub Pages, but the wheels of my own meek and marginalized brain were set in motion by something I saw or read or heard on the subject of the Biblical shepherds. I forget exactly where I ran across this, but I did my own research and was able to corroborate the information. I have long been aware that the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John comprise a revolutionary document far removed from the reactionary purposes they used by organized religion to justify today, but the commentaries I came across on the social status of the Biblical shepherds brought this view home for me even stronger. I thought I would share these thoughts with you here on Hub Pages, just a couple days shy of Christmas 2014.

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Good Tidings of Great Joy

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And lo, the angel of the lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And this will be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Luke 2: 8-12, KJV

To make a short story even shorter, after receiving this visitation from the heavenly hosts, the shepherds raced to the city of Bethlehem, paid homage to the Christ child the angels had spoken to them about, then went out into the world to tell their wonderful story.

In Luke's gospel, where the lowly shepherds appear, the mighty Three Kings of the East are auspiciously absent. In fact, The Gospel of Luke is the only one to mention the shepherds at all, meaning that Luke was certainly the most revolutionary of the three famous writers that set the Christmas story down on paper (There is no Christmas tale in the Gospel of John).

Whether you believe this account is authentic is beside the point. It's just a darn good story no matter how you look at it and even though it is impossible to verify its historicity, historical accuracy is not essential when a parable proclaiming a strong social message such as this is being told. The story of the shepherds watching over their flocks by night was included in the Gospel of Luke to make a point; that point being that Christ was not born in a humble manger in Bethlehem in order to hob-knob with the high and the mighty, the rich and the powerful. He was sent to make common cause with the dregs of society, the lowest of the low, and the shepherds certainly qualified for membership in this not so elite country club.

The "Carriere" family tree
The "Carriere" family tree | Source

Who were these Shepherds?

When I say that Luke was revolutionary, I do so because shepherds, being a socially ostracized caste, were simply not popular at the time of Christ. The words "not popular" do not actually do justice to this depth of feeling; it is more appropriate to say that they were absolutely despised. Perhaps the other gospel writers meant well, but Matthew and Mark chose to tiptoe around the delicate subject of the visit of these outcasts to the manger and instead dealt with the journey of the three Kings from the East, much like the modern paparazzi keeps his camera focused on the celebrities walking down the red carpet but won't waste his time taking pictures of the janitors who swept up before that carpet was rolled out. The legendary Three Kings, or Magi as they are otherwise known, are enshrouded in a popular aura of magic and mysticism. The shepherds, whoever they were, remain forever faceless and nameless.

Shepherds at the time of the birth of Christ were at the rock bottom of the Palestinian social ladder. In the strict Jewish society of the day they were considered religiously impure and ceremonially unclean, simply because they had a hard time abandoning their flocks in order to keep the Sabbath. As such they were labeled "sinners," an official class of despised people that shared the same social status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. They could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted into court as witnesses. For this reason they were similar to the "pariahs," or "untouchables," of the modern Indian caste system. Some of the more civilized folks reading the Gospel of Luke at the time of its appearance must have certainly wrinkled their noses at the mention of the shepherds.

The dictates of polite society called for the isolation and separation of these pastoral outcasts; a people so despised they were only allowed to graze their flocks deep in the desert, safely away from proper folks. The remarkable thing, therefore, is that the privilege of witnessing the first appearance of the Son of God in his physical manifestation on Earth was granted to these lowly, humble, marginalized people.

The King of Kings himself did not come riding in replete with all the trappings of heavenly royalty either. He was cast into humble circumstances as well, born into the family of a simple carpenter who did not have money and influence enough to bump someone off the Bethlehem Hotel reservation list so that he and Mary could share a cozy five star room by the pool. Instead the small family was forced to bed down in a livestock barn on the outskirts of town, and it was in these less than stellar surroundings that God brought his son into the world. The few simple sentences describing Mary and Joseph's predicament speak volumes about how God views the high and mighty, the wealthy and the magnificent.


Great Read for the Believer and the Skeptic

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Prosperity Gospel?

And yet we live in a world where our most influential religious leaders flaunt the trappings of wealth, and where the Christian agenda has been co-opted for nefarious purposes by the agents of the rich and the powerful.

Instead of living out on the open range sleeping on the ground or in tents, the people who have taken ownership of the message of Christ now dwell in multi-million dollar mansions that have three elevators to get them between floors. The bestselling books and inspirational calendars of one such well known evangelist smiled blindingly at me from every angle at the bookstore where I was Christmas shopping the other night. This particular "shepherd," a term from which the word "pastor" is actually derived, lives in a house worth 10.5 million. He has a net worth of 56 million dollars and preaches the "prosperity gospel," which basically means that if you pray hard enough you will get rich.

Another very well known televangelist sold his own TV network for 1.9 billion dollars. Although this particular shepherd of the faithful has probably never shorn a sheep, he was accused of figuratively fleecing his flock by taking rather sketchy donations for sick people in Africa. Instead of procuring medicine with this money, however, he bought a tent from which his disciples passed out Bibles to the sick and starving. Bibles are inspirational and certainly nice, but they are usually better appreciated after whatever chronic infectious disease plaguing the reader has been taken care of.

Funny how these advocates of plenitude through prayer don't really read the Bibles they are passing around, or if they do the skip the parts where Christ gives his views on the wanton accumulation of wealth. In the gospel of Matthew Chapter 19, verse 21 we hear Christ telling a wealthy young man "...If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me." Later in the same chapter he says "And again I say unto you. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

I'm no theologian, but it seems to me that Christ would be more at home among our poor rejected shepherds of the Christmas story than he would be playing golf at the country club with these modern day caretakers of the flock.

Christmas among the palms in Mel's yard.
Christmas among the palms in Mel's yard. | Source

Preaching to the Choir

My purpose in writing this article is not to drag the sinner before the altar. What I'm trying to do here is preach to the converted. What Christ was trying to tell us through the story of the Shepherds in the Gospel of Luke is "Get over yourself." If God has leveled the playing field of the human race, so much so that he invited these lowly, loathsome, spiritually unclean shepherds to be the first to witness the birth of his son, then in essence he is saying that he is not impressed with the social status of the country club you live on as much as he is with the spirit of humility that you hold in your heart. Christianity is not supposed to be country clubs, leer jets, and multi-million dollars mansions. It is supposed to be about having a "poor in spirit" attitude that embraces all people equally.

Even if you are not religious, even if you don't believe the literal story written down in the Gospel of Luke, the beautiful message of the Christmas story is still difficult to deny. What it tells us is that it doesn't matter what our vocation, class, caste, educational level or other mark of status in the social pecking order is. We are all equal in the eyes of our Creator and deserve equal justice and consideration, whether your creator is named Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, or simply consists of the primordial muck from which the first living organism crawled.

So on that note I wish you all a Merry Christmas. Peace be with you all and let us mark this festive occasion with a heartfelt desire to serve our brothers with the spirit of humility and respect that we all deserve, no matter where we live or what our net worth may be.

Is the Prosperity Gospel a true reflection of Christianity?

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    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 2 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Mel :)

      Do you have any references re the social status of shepherds in that society, please?

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I think there are Probably are probably multiple themes at work here Trish, but I think the most important component is that this Messiah, being born in a very lowly place, had come to save the lowly, not the priviliged. Thanks for reading!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 2 years ago from The English Midlands

      "Shepherds at the time of the birth of Christ were ... considered religiously impure and ceremonially unclean ... they were labeled "sinners," an official class of despised people ..."

      Fascinating. I have been reading about the politics of the New Testament and was wondering about the symbolism of sheep and shepherds - especially as I have written some items about their symbolism within the popular religion of Medieval Spanish peasants.

      It's interesting that shepherds should have been regarded as 'sinners' when the ram seems to have been symbolically important to the Jews / Hebrews / Israelites.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you DDE. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and a very Happy New Year. I appreciate you stopping by.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Hi you totally went all out here and I only saw this hub just now. A beautifully written and approached title.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Yes Dana Tate they sow seeds that sprout into money trees. Great comment, belated Merry Xmas and Happy New Year. Thanks for reading!

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 2 years ago from LOS ANGELES

      Televangelist is becoming the new way to go gospel. I don't consider myself a religious person although I attend church faithfully, and as you know, love the Lord with all my heart and soul. I do consider myself spiritual and a humanitarian concerned with the plights of the world more than rules and regulations. I find it odd that televangelist's keeps telling us to sow seeds ( even though it is biblical) my point is the only people who really seems to reap prosperity is them. They will tell us in a minute they sow into their ministry. The difference is they get tax breaks and somehow still live in opulence while they poor still get poorer and keep praying for prosperity blessings.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Deb. I hope you had a very happy New Year.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      One must work their way up through life in order to understand the pain of others. Life really IS that simple.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Pawpawwrites, "clear as mud" as we used to say in the navy. I appreciate your very kind words and I hope you had a wonderful Christmas!

    • Pawpawwrites profile image

      Jim 2 years ago from Kansas

      A very well written and important message. What should be so clear, has become so muddled. You helped bring some clarity to what some have such a hard time seeing.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Iris Draak. I was also raised in a pretty stern fundamentalist environment, but I can still see the beauty through the hypocrisy of it all, and I try not to confuse my religion with the actions or institutions of men that so easily fall into corruption. Merry Christmas!

    • Iris Draak profile image

      Cristen Iris 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Mel, having been raised in "the church" and now being a secular humanist I really appreciated your article. You are spot on! I really enjoyed this.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you very much Conservative View. I don't dabble in religious topics often, there are plenty of good people here to fill that niche, but I had these Christmasy topics going through my head and thought I would share them. I appreciate your great comment. Merry Christmas!

    • AConservativeView profile image

      AConservativeView 2 years ago

      I love hearing the real meaning and story behind Christmas. The historical facts you provided are very accurate, and the following few chapters of the bible only back up your point even further. When Herod, the king of Judea at the time, heard of the birth of Christ, he was outraged. He ordered the killing of all children under the age of two, leading to an angel telling Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to move to Egypt and later Nazareth. You would think that being the son of God he would have had a pretty calm childhood! For goodness sakes people were after his head. It is too bad so many "Christians" do have greed in their lives. A famous biblical story is when a rich man came up to Jesus asking how to get into receive eternal life. "16 A man approached him and said, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?" 17 Jesus said, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There's only one who is good. If you want to enter eternal life, keep the commandments." 18 The man said, "Which ones?" Then Jesus said, "Don't commit murder. Don't commit adultery. Don't steal. Don't give false testimony. 19 Honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you love yourself." 20 The young man replied, "I've kept all these. What am I still missing?" 21 Jesus said, "If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me." 22 But when the young man heard this, he went away saddened, because he had many possessions." Mathew 19:16-22. Money is the rude of all evil, it destroys kind-hearted men and women. I encourage you continue making these posts, loved it!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      lambservant as your name implies, Christ is referred to as the spotless lamb of God, which demonstrates clearly what he and his followers thought about the opinion of the rich and connected. Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Yes peachpurple even though the patriarchs starting with Abraham were all shepherds, by the time of Christ they occupied a very low position on the totem pole. Please see my longer comment above. Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you AliciaC I am absolutely thrilled to get an awesome from you. You are absolutely right, it doesn't matter if the story is true or not. It was included there to help us put ourselves in perspective. It is a lesson that all of us living in this narcissistic "selfie" society could profit from. Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Blossom SB for reading. The Christmas story is a powerfully moving tale, isn't it? Merry Christmas, God Bless, and Peace be with you.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Paradise7 there is a lot more to the story of the sheperds than I wanted to elaborate on here. As you are probably aware of the Biblical patriarchs were all sheperds. Even Moses tended sheep for a time. When the Israelites made contact with the Egyptians, however, they inherited that culture's severe anti-shepherd bias.

      Even in our more modern history shepherds have been persecuted and run out of town. In the old west there were famous range wars between cattlemen and sheepmen. Since I can count on one hand the times I have eaten mutton in the last year we can guess who won those battles. Anyhow, sheepmen are traditionally hated by cattlemen because sheep destroy the entire grass plant, whereas cows only chew the tops off. Hence the eternal grudge, I believe.

      Thank you for the great comment. Have a Merry Christmas!

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 2 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      EXCELLENT!!! And Thank you. I like your historical accuracy about the social status (or lack thereof) of the shepherd. I like, in that context, knowing that Christ was not too proud to refer to himself as the Great Shepherd. The them of the Shepherds keeps coming up for me this year. I just wrote on it my self only in short story. The Christmas story for most people is just a story, like a legend or tale. The power of it's truth and meaning are lost on most people. I am sure the men you speak of have plenty of money this Christmas to throw around for decorations gifts to themselves and each other, and maybe a charitable gift here and there, but you are right, they miss the true Christ.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I rarely vote a hub awesome, but I did this one. Your second to last paragraph describes my feelings exactly. I believe that the stories of Christ and the examples that he set are very important, even if we don't believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is an excellent hub, Mel. Merry Christmas!

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 2 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      A beautiful Christmas message. Thank you, God bless you - and wishing you all the blessings of Christmas.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Bill, for your kind words, encouragement, and support throughout 2014. May the coming year bring us both happiness and prosperity, but never so much that we forget our roots. Merry Christmas my friend.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      really, lots of stuff i didn't know, shepherds were considered outcast?

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 2 years ago from Upstate New York

      I liked this hub very much. I didn't realize that shepherds were outcasts in biblical times before I read this. I thought that shepherds, like farmers, fulfilled a basic and necessary role in supplying the society's material needs. It really doesn't seem fair, does it?

      Both the words of Jesus and the Buddhist philosophy eschew the accumulation of wealth as a worthwhile goal while we are on this earth. The material aspects of our human existence interfere mightily with the spiritual aspects of our human existence. It's something we all have to work on overcoming should we wish to spiritually advance in our time here on earth.

      A little postscript--Christ also said, "Judge not that you be not judged." That is a consoling message for a somewhat bitter heart.

      Have a very Merry Christmas and live long and prosper, both materially and spiritually, should such a thing be possible.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Brie Hoffman I wasn't taking any sides in the centuries old Protestant vs Catholic debate. There is enough crime and corruption on both sides to go around. Thanks for reading!

    • Brie Hoffman profile image

      Brie Hoffman 2 years ago from Manhattan

      I agree wholeheartedly and I also despise the prosperity teachers but don't forget that the Catholic church is the wealthiest church in the world. According to Wall Street Journal..The Catholic church is the biggest financial power, wealth accumulator and property owner in existence. She is a greater possessor of material riches than any other single institution, corporation, bank, giant trust, government or state of the whole globe. The pope, as the visible ruler of this immense amassment of wealth, is consequently the richest individual of the twentieth century. No one can realistically assess how much he is worth in terms of billions of dollars.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I like your line that whether you believe or not, it's just a darned good story. It really is, isn't it? Full of intrigue and wonder, a great story of pathos, struggle, miracles and love. Merry Christmas, my friend, and thank you for a wonderful article.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      You are very welcome Eric Dierker. They probably were looked upon as thieves, just as many undesirables in our own society are automatically assumed to be up to no good. I hope you and your family have a great Christmas all the way over there across the lake.

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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you for those wonderful, kind words Jodah. Christmas is meant to be enjoyed with our families and friends, but it's important to remember the meaning of the message too. Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas to you and all our friends down under!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      A wonderful writing of one of the most important messages of the Bible. My understanding is that those shepherds were routinely thieves also. Of course that might have been just heaping more proverbial dung on the already outcasts, like scapegoats. "Drummer Boy" always reminds me of this truth. Thanks for a great Christmas hub.

      Merry Christmas

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      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This is the best Christmas hub I have read this year Mel. I totally agree with the message that we should embrace the outcasts "shepherds" and not concern ourselves with the accumulation of wealth, but give what we don't need to the poor and needy. It is so wrong that evangelist become multi-millionaires preaching the Bible..it is hypocritical and gives Christianity a bad look. Have a great Christmas and New Year. Voted up.