Why Shepherds?

Why were shepherds the first people that the good news was announced to?  There has been a long standing explanation that goes like this.  Shepherds were amongst the poorest and were often despised having a reputation for dishonesty.  Therefore, the appearance to them fits with a theme of Jesus being there for the poor and the outcast.

Ian Paul challenges that perception.  Yes, some Jewish texts talk about shepherds in this way, but they tend to date from a later time period and indeed may reflect a desire to undermine Christian scriptures and the place of shepherds as reliable witnesses. In fact, shepherds in Scripture hold a place of honour. King David, Jesus’ ancestor was a shepherd. The role of shepherd becomes associated with the kingly role, as the shepherd provides for and protects the sheep, so too does the king for the people. God is the true shepherd of his people.  The messiah himself would be a shepherd from Bethlehem.[1]

So, perhaps if there is any symbolism here, it is simply in that the shepherd king from Bethlehem is fittingly welcomed into his kingdom by his fellow shepherds from Bethlehem. However, we are really guessing here. Unlink Matthew, Luke does not stick in the phrase “This was to fulfil” in order to point us in the right direction. In fact, this looks to me like another example where we risk speculating about possibly incidental details and missing where Luke wants us to focus, on the angels’ message that a saviour is here bring peace and goodwill.

So, why the shepherds? The simplest answer is that they were simply the ones that were there, up and awake at night, ready to hear the message.  They were simply the ones who saw, believed and came. 

We can spend a lot of time working out strategies about who we are going to target with the Gospel. I’ve heard and read so much about why this or that segment of society is strategic for mission. What if we too were simply to share the good news about Jesus with anyone and everyone who is around, available and willing to listen?

[1] Micah 5.

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