April 6, 2020

Losers Who Win

8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. (Luke 2: 8-20 NLT)

If I were to be in a Christmas play, I would want to play a shepherd. I mean, they get to wear cool robes and carry a stick. I like carrying sticks. I want a black thorn Irish walking stick in the worst way. I could use it once a year playing a shepherd in a Christmas play, and poke people with it the rest of the year. Sounds like a perfect gift.

We romanticize the role of the shepherds at Christmas. We make them handsome and rugged and virtuous. Obviously they must be godly, because the angel gave them the birth announcement of Jesus. Plus, they get prime spots in the creche—so they have to be righteous, right?

Wrong.

Shepherds at the time of Jesus were at the bottom of society’s list of acceptable people, barely above lepers. Some shepherds were the owners of the sheep they tended, and cared well for their flock, for that was their only source of income. But most shepherds were hired hands tasked with herding the sheep from pasture to pasture, tending to their wounds, birthing the lambs, and chasing away predators. These hirelings often had a higher sense of their own value than they did for their flocks. And they also saw themselves as overworked and underpaid. It’s surprising how often a ewe or ram would come up missing at the same time a shepherd had a little extra jingle in his pocket. Shepherds and thieves were thought to be one and the same.

Whether they were honest or dishonest, all shepherds had one thing in common: They were filthy. Living out of doors 24/7 does not exactly allow one to keep the best personal hygiene. Shepherds smelled like sheep and all that goes with sheep. They were not only dirty, they were ritually unclean as well, having touched blood, feces and insects on a daily basis that disqualified them from any part of religious circles.

Shepherds, as you might gather, were not often invited to dinner parties or weddings. They didn’t attend PTA meetings or get tickets to the latest play. There were no parachurch ministries to shepherds. As far as the religious leaders were concerned, they were non-people. They were outcasts from society. Losers with a capital “L.”

And, thus, the perfect ones to hear of the Messiah’s birth. They weren’t too busy on the night Jesus was born. The angel knew right where he could find them. And they weren’t so smart that they had to think over what the angel told them for several weeks, checking sources and verifying credentials before they would respond. They simply believed and went to see for themselves. Would you or I have done the same?

So, Jesus is just a few hours old and we have some very important things playing out here that are easy to miss if we only think of the shepherds as handsome, godly men with sticks who look good in a nativity scene.

  • Ritually unclean men are the first to bow down to the Messiah. The Old Covenant did not end when Jesus died on the cross. It ended the moment he was born. The formalities one had to go through to enter into the presence of God were now history. Jesus accepts those who are not perfect, who don’t line up with religious ideals. These shepherds had not performed the cleansing sacrifices, made atonement for their sins, or become ritually pure. They ran from the fields and, in their unclean, impure state, proclaimed to all what the angel had told them. They shouted for all to hear that this baby was someone special. And the baby accepted them as they were.
  • The shepherds were losers, rejects, outcasts. There were none of society’s winners in the cave where Jesus was born amid the blood and straw and dung. Jesus, who grew to become the King of Losers, was greeted by losers when he was born. Jesus did not come for winners. As Robert Capon writes in The Parables of Grace, “He has all of our messes fixed in Jesus–right now, even before we make them. All we have to do is trust his assurance that losers are his cup of tea. In fact, it’s precisely our attempts to be winners that he warns us about: ‘He who saves his life will lose it; he who loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it.'”
  • These shepherds were not scholars. They weren’t sought-after speakers. They had very little interaction with others at all. After they visited with the Holy Family and shared what had been told them by the angel, they went back to their flocks. They didn’t go on a speaking tour. They didn’t sign a multiple-book deal with a New York house with movie rights. They just simply believed and went back to work. So often after Jesus would heal someone, he admonished them not to tell anyone. It seems he initiated his stealth campaign at his birth.
  • Of course it had to be shepherds who first came to Jesus. Who else would be present at the birth of a lamb, especially the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world?

Things have not changed since that night more than 2000 years ago. Jesus still accepts us as we are, without religious performances. He welcomes the lost, the least, the little, the fragile, the broken, the used, the discarded. And he is not looking for shooting stars, but rather those willing to be lights right where they are. He is the Lamb of God, come into our world to set things right between man and God. And he welcomes you to his side right now in your lostness.

Comments

  1. Very nice job, Jeff!

    Thanks!

  2. That was great! Thanks! If only those shepherds would have had access to some Joel Osteen tapes…

  3. Thanks for these words and images. What a wonderful depiction of the reality that Jesus is both our shepherd and the lamb of God. Interesting metaphors that illumine pictures, which deeply engage the imagination, going far beyond words.

  4. Barbara Gold says

    Simply beautiful article . Thanks for the reminder of who He really . Blessed be His name !

  5. Hanging out with thieves when he checked in, hanging out with thieves when he checked out (albeit temporarily). The circle of divine life?

    In all seriousness, thanks for this. My assumption was that the shepherds owned their flocks, that the did not just tend to them. Which makes me think about the use of the term shepherd as it is used as a descriptor for ministers. Did the fact that shepherds attended Jesus’ birth have anything to do with this, or does it come down to the sheep/goat thing?

  6. Thanks, Jeff. Good words! And I love the photos you chose to accompany this essay.

  7. Thanks for the good words.

    I thought of something else this season. We interpret the shepherd scene as “Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” and we interpret it in view of the modern nuclear family of parents and child. Wouldn’t have Mary and Joseph have been traveling with a very large clan of the lineage of David? Were they really alone or were their extended family about?

    Then, as this post describes, wouldn’t this large clan have been confronted and amazed by these unclean shepherds?

  8. Great post, Jeff!

    I was traveling in Eastern Europe a while back, in the mountains of Bulgaria. It was cold and rainy, and for the first time in my life, I saw actual shepherds tending a flock on a hillside, just as they have for thousands of years. My thoughts drifted to the shepherds you write about. I was humbled…our Christ not only for the American on the comfortable bus, but also for the shepherd, caring for his sheep in harsh conditions. Wow…it’s one of those moments I wish I could relive…

  9. Thank God, I woke up this morning feeling like the world’s biggest loser…

  10. The point about shepherds being ritually unclean sheds a new light on 1 Samuel 16:11

    “11: And Samuel said unto Jesse, Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep. And Samuel said unto Jesse, Send and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither.”

    We remember David being a shepherd, but we don’t consider (or even know) that this is the kind of messy, dirty work he would have been doing – probably because he was the youngest – and we don’t think of the ritual element of it. Christ indeed came into the Kingdom of His forefather David, but in a very different way to what we (and the Jews of the time) would expect a king and a kingdom to be.

  11. Outstanding. Thanks, bro.

  12. Cedric Klein says

    The sentiment behind this is great – the Gospel of Christ’s Arrival first going to the lowliest among us, but some things about the actual circumstances make me wonder.

    First, shepherding was an essential occupation. It was dirty, literally & ritually unclean, but somebody had to do it. Especially since the Temple system ran on a steady supply of sheep.
    Which leads to….

    Second, it’s my understanding that the Bethlehem flocks were quite possibly THE special supply for Temple use. Thus, the shepherds could very well have been Levites. Maybe they weren’t the best Levites & had been assigned to this scut work. Maybe they were very good Levites & had taken on themselves the sacrifice of this unclean but necessary occupation.

  13. Great article.

    And isn’t it strange that Jesus called Himself the “Good Shepherd”.

    He identified not only with the human race as a whole, but the lowliest outcasts as well.

  14. Thanks for this.. Almost brought tears to my eyes.
    How I need to remember this on a daily basis.
    Believe it or not, God actually loves me, too.

  15. Matthew Peak says

    The only problem I have with the idea of “winners” and “losers” is that they are shifting terms and the loser to one group is a winner to another. We say the shepherds were “losers” but given that the angels visited them we can now say they’re “winners,” which then throws the whole arguement into circular reasoning.

    I do not view as losers what society says are losers and the same with winners. There are wealthy or successful people we call “winners” and yet are “losers” in their own minds. Do we toss them aside as outcasts because they are what society calls a “winner”? I wonder how many mega-church winners actually feel like losers at night when no one is watching. Winners, losers, it’s meaningless to me.

    For me the story of the shepherds lines up with Jesus teaching of the invitation to a wedding. The shepherds were invited as were many during that time, from Nicodemus the Pharisee to the thief on the cross. It is those who refused the invitation who missed out on the ultimate manifestation of God’s amazing grace.

    • That’s the key, isn’t it? We are all losers. The trick is recognizing that we are instead of striving to be winners. But that’s a discussion for another day…

    • Agree. Rather than saying “Jesus did not come for winners”, I might suggest something along the lines of “Jesus did not come for winners or losers, but for anyone and everyone.”

      • OK, then try this: Jesus came for everyone, but it is only those who recognize they are losers who will see him. Those who are busy trying to be winners will not want to see that the only life we are offered comes thru death.

        But again, a discussion we will have another day.

  16. Jeff,
    I love the imagery you conjured up with this nice blog article! Well done. Maybe sometime you could portray, Mary, Joseph, the “wise men/magi”, etc?

  17. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Shepherds at the time of Jesus were at the bottom of society’s list of acceptable people, barely above lepers.

    Sort of like Furries in the Geek Heirarchy chart.

  18. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

    Did that passage skirt the boundaries of blasphemy?

    • Yes it did. As did Jesus calling himself the Great Shepherd. The Messiah was supposed to be a clean, pure priest and prophet, a religious winner. When he sneaked into the world as an unclean, impure loser of a shepherd, he fooled us all.

      “Those who have ears to hear…”

  19. ” I am the good shepherd, who is willing to die for the sheep. When the hired man, who is not a shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees a wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away; so the wolf snatches the sheep and scatters them. The hired man runs away because he is only a hired man and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd. ”
    “As the Father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me. And I am willing to die for them.”

    There would have been two types of shepherds. One was the hired shepherd, who was not known for great commitment or willingness to put himself out. The other was the shepherd who either owned the sheep or was one of the children of him who owned the sheep. David was the child of the owner of the sheep, when Samuel came to Jesse to look for a King. Those who actually owned the sheep would be much more willing to defend them because they would suffer the loss if the sheep were taken by wolves.

    Jesus is the Son of the Father who owns and has created all the sheep. In the Scripture above, he clearly distances himself from the hirelings and says that he cares and will sacrifice himself for his sheep.

    • And thus, he is the Good Shepherd.

      And thus, when we read that “The Lord is my shepherd,” we know he is a good shepherd who will not run away when danger approaches us.

      Still, all shepherds, whether owner-operators or hired drivers, were counted as outcasts and rejects. God himself is willing to be associated with the lowest of the low. He is our great Father. Because he is willing to stoop low, he can reign on high.

      • Heh heh, I have known some shepherds when I was a missionary. They herded llamas and alpacas instead of sheep. But, I got fleas from them and came home stinking from the mule ride. And, bathing in a high mountain stream is, uhm, CCCCOOOOLLLLDDDD.

  20. David Cornwell says

    You have spoken a truth here that is so easily forgotten. Thanks.

  21. Denise Spencer says

    “The Old Covenant did not end when Jesus died on the cross. It ended the moment he was born.” I’d never, ever thought of it that way before. Thanks for expanding my view! “Of course it had to be shepherds who first came to Jesus. Who else would be present at the birth of a lamb, especially the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world?” Beautiful, Jeff. Thank you.

  22. Amen. Good words and well written. Thanks for the reminder.

  23. DreamingWings says

    A most excellent post! I think I’d heard the bare bones version a long time ago but had forgotten it. And then, of course, come the Wise Men from the East. Who were likely practitioners of astrology and other magics. So Jesus’s birth seems to be, in and of itself; both a parable and religious service. A service with the lowliest of congregations and whose rites of reverence and welcome were performed by foreign sorcerers.

  24. I loved reading this. Thank you.

  25. But would have Paul made those shepherds elders? Would we put those shepherds on Church Council?

    What shepherd ever gave a significant donation that allowed us to break ground on our new million-dollar family-life center?

    Would we even welcome stinky, dirty, un-educated shepherds on Sunday morning?

    How is it that Jesus did not see poverty as a character defect, yet the trajectory of the gospel in America has given us that understanding?

    I mean, who would offer to pay more taxes so that shepherds would have health care? Our Christian tradition says they need to get some ambition and find a job with benefits.

  26. @jeff dunn and thoroughly off topic but (I think) very funny.

    If you are collecting chapter titles from books that are just …..out there…. here’s the title from LaHaye and Jenkins’ epilogue of “Are We Living In the END TIMES ?” (1999 ed.)

    IT”S LATER THAN IT”S EVER BEEN.

    yeah……you just can’t make this stuff up; have a great weekend.
    GregR

  27. Jeff I think this will be a I Monk classic please re post every Christmas.
    And if I am not mistaken because of their reputation Shepherds were not permitted to give testimony in a court of law.

  28. Wow! Is all I can say. How we forget or don’t think how things were at the time of Jesus’s birth. Not once have I ever consider the shepards and their status in society. My Jesus from the start reaching out to the unclean, broken, and unwanted.