In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8)
Garrison Keillor writes the following descriptions of shepherds in his foreword to Ron Parker’s The Sheep Book: A Handbook for the Modern Shepherd: “They are gentle and attentive people and good company…shepherding is an ancient scientific culture and teaches people more than they intended to learn and brings out qualities in them they might not attain directly through moral ambition.”
In Jesus’ time, shepherds were absolutely essential suppliers of wool, milk, meat, and sacrifices; but they were not held in high esteem among the townsfolk. Some people considered them backward and simple, and they were often seen as uneducated, unsophisticated, and unclean. In speaking with Palestinians in Bethlehem during my recent trip, I was surprised to learn that this is still how shepherds are seen among many people to this day. Perhaps this is the very reason that God had an affinity for shepherds. God, like Garth Brooks, seems to enjoy “friends in low places.”
What else do we learn about the shepherds in our story? We know these men were the night-shift shepherds named Ibrahim and his family, who make their living by keeping a dozen or so sheep in and around Bethlehem. Their humble state was evident as we talked. I asked Ibrahim why God chose to invite the shepherds to be the first to see and celebrate the birth of Jesus. He responded instantly, “Because Jesus was humble, and shepherds are humble.”
It may be that some of you reading this are thinking, “This author is like a broken record-in nearly every reflection he mentions God’s choice of the humble in the Christmas story.” But I don’t believe this is my theme; it seems to be God’s theme. The theme plays out over and over again in the story-from the choice of Mary of Nazareth, to the choice of a simple tekton in Bethlehem, to the song that Mary sang about the way God fills the hungry with good things, to the birth in a stable, to the choice of night-shift shepherds as the first people invited to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
James captures this idea when, quoting Proverb 3:34, he writes, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). The response that this idea is meant to evoke is captured in James 4:10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” The apostle Paul offers similar words of admonition in Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”
Among the people I know who exemplify this spirit is a physician in Kansas City named Gary Morsch. Gary is one of the founders of Heart to Heart, an organization that delivers medical supplies and more to impoverished countries and disaster areas. One of Gary’s lessons in humility came when he went to visit Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta, India. He and his team arrived to deliver medicine and to care for patients at the Home for the Dying and Destitute. Gary, stethoscope around his neck, introduced himself to Sister Priscilla as a physician from the United States who was ready to help the sisters. She said, “Follow me please,” and proceeded to escort him through the wards of dying people to the kitchen, where there was a large pile of putrefying garbage. She said to him, “We need you to take this garbage to the dump. The dump is several blocks down the street.”
In an instant, doctor was demoted to garbage man. As Gary made trip after trip to the dump, he began to feel sorry for himself, resenting the fact that he had come all the way to Calcutta, delivered millions of dollars in medicine, was a physician with a stethoscope in his back pocket to prove it, and yet was hauling garbage. After having done this for several hours, he noticed a small sign with Mother Teresa’s famous words: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” It was then that he understood why he had been assigned garbage duty. It was God’s way of teaching him humility, servanthood, and love.
If God chose night-shift shepherds to be the first to celebrate the birth of Christ, what might that tell you about the attitude of heart that God is looking for from you and me?
Lord, thank you that you humble the proud and give grace to the humble. Help me to humble myself before you and to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility to consider others better than myself. Amen.