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