"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night."
I talked about the shepherds at Mercy Street last weekend, and have continued to think about them, and who they might be today. Thanks to nativity sets and Christmas pageants the shepherds have taken on a romantic air - adorable children holding fluffy lambs and whacking each other with their crooks - it's hard not to have a fond spot for them. But in first century Palestine, they were viewed a little differently.
Shepherds often were small landholders, whose land could not support their families. So, they hired themselves out to their wealthier neighbours, to get the cash they needed to buy what they could not provide for themselves, and of course, pay taxes. As we know from Luke, they spent the night in the fields, watching over the flock. Which meant they weren't at home, watching over their families - a highly dishonourable situation. They were also viewed as thieves, as the flocks grazed on other peoples' land as they moved around. At best they were viewed with ambivalence - most often they were viewed with deep suspicion. Because of their reputation, they were not able to bear witness in legal cases.
Luke begins the Christmas story with the powerful and prestigious - Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome, and Quirinius, governor of Syria. But the angels sent by God to announce the "good news of great joy for all the people" came to the shepherds. While Caesar slept in his comfortable bed in Rome, and Quirinius stirred under his furs in Syria, the news of the Christ came to peasant shepherds in an insignificant corner of the Empire.
So, how would this play out today, in the U.S.? Who would the shepherds be? Who are the underclass, those viewed with deep suspicion as they move from place to place to try and support their families back home? I wonder if Luke would tell it something like this:
"And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from the CEO of Burger King that no wage increase would be given to tomato pickers in Florida (this happened while his lobbyists worked hard in D.C. to overturn previous wage gains). And there were in the same country, migrant workers sleeping in shacks, keeping watch over their meager possessions 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 of the Lord said unto them, 'Fear not: for, behold, i bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people'..."
While the rich and the powerful sleep in their Starter Castles in New England, and under their 1000 thread sheets inside the Beltway, the good news comes to migrant workers picking tomatoes in Florida. They are the recipients of a divine visitation, and thus the recipients of God's favour. As they return from the fields to carry this news, who will receive and believe their report? Who will believe these unlikely messengers of an unlikely baby born in an unlikely place? As always, Luke invites his reader to step into the story, and answer for ourselves. How will we?