In Biblical times, shepherds were members of a distrusted class of outsiders. Now their history has been rewritten in a more favorable light. If Jesus had been born today, who would be first to get the news?
Every year in late December, Christians gather round farmyard models–some of them with live animals. It’s not the farm they’re worshiping, but the Nativity, and a tiny baby whose first day on earth was spent in a barnyard feed trough.
In Christ’s time farms were subsistence rather than substantial. Hunter gatherers were being replaced by grower gatherers…people like shepherds. I think it’s because once they found food, guarding what was there turned out to be easier than looking for more.
Like most people here in Langdon and many around the world, I grew up hearing stories of the Nativity every year at Christmastime. Since they were such a big part of the story I naturally assumed that shepherds were good and favored people.
They were like farmers, living close to God.
In reality shepherds were outcasts of society. People relied on them for basic ingredients of food and clothing, but no one really wanted anything to do with them.
Biblical shepherds were on their community’s lowest rungs.
There have been times when I thought I was at the bottom of the ladder. My parents weren’t poor, at least they never made me feel that way. But like a lot of people, especially Midwestern farmers, who grew up during the Depression and farmed in the Fifties, they had money issues. Christmas offered a timeout from worry. Decorating, trimming the tree, the smell of fresh baked cookies and candy in my Mother’s kitchen soothed any feelings of societal exclusion with “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
On Thanksgiving we were thankful.
But at Christmas time we could be grateful.
Over centuries, the image of shepherds, and maybe farmers too seems to have been altered. Farmland prices have risen right along with new found wealth for farmers who’ve climbed the social ladder.
We still have family farmers, food farmers, farm to consumer farmers, who grow the types of crops people can eat, unprocessed, straight from farmers markets. The industrial farmers watch over flocks and herds tucked away in concrete and metal.
Things have changed some in the last 2,000 years.
If Jesus were born today, who would God call to witness His birth?
Its hard to imagine Angels of God singing hosannas above an agricultural corporation calling itself a farm. Would it take place at home offices in Minneapolis, Springdale, or São Paulo, or would angels choose to hover above a hillside concentrated animal feeding operation?
Years ago I had a conversation with a religious, very successful man who attended Sunday worship services and at least one Bible study session every week. He was troubled by the fact that Jesus could favor shepherds and fishermen over people of means.
He studied the Bible looking for reasons why, in Gods eyes, it was OK to make a lot of money.
Scholars believe that in the Nativity, threes represent the three continents where early Christianity had made itself known. I tried to share that humble observation with the wealthy businessman. First off is the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, the Angel of God announcing Christ to three shepherds as they watched over their flocks. And the magi, three wealthy men bearing three rich gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In those days shepherds may not have been seen as lowly as lepers, but they slept in the open with animals. When God came to earth He spent His first night sleeping with farm animals, among shepherds.
They were the first He told.
Their job was to tell everyone else about another Kingdom. A Kingdom of God where people true to themselves and their beliefs share equally no matter who they are.
The magi, three kings, wise men, came later. The story tells it as a single event. But taking the times into account, it may have been months or even years before they arrived with their gifts.
Kings honoring the greatest King calls for something special. I don’t remember ever hearing what happened to the presents they brought, even though they undoubtedly had great value.
To this day, that’s still a little the way Christmas is. There are gifts that keep on giving–like a Savior–and those that fall by the wayside. After all my years and Christmases, I have forgotten most of the gifts I’ve given, just as I have forgotten most of what I’ve received.
Stuff I once thought important I’ve completely lost track of today.
But a few things stand out.
Nothing is so meaningful and lasting as family and holiday food smells in a farmhouse kitchen. In spite of all that’s happened, for me at least, children’s smiles lighting the night on Christmas Eve are where I find Jesus.
As long as rich men and shepherds alike feel gratitude for those gifts, they need not worry.
Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.