Blessed are the Poor Shepherds

Ebenezer Scrooge had a hard time grasping and embracing the spirit and message of Christmas. The rich and self-sufficient always do. Their own personal kingdoms loom so large that they have a hard time making room for God’s Kingdom. This is why Jesus’ upside-down kingdom born in Bethlehem that day would embody Jesus’ later proclamation, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6)  and “the poor in spirit” (Matt 5). 

This is also why the glad tidings were given to poor shepherds instead of wealthy aristocrats. Shepherds were the carnies of Jesus’ day. (I apologize to any carnies who happen to read this.) They had a reputation for being  dirty, smelly vagabonds. Coarse and unkempt. Unlearned and dishonest. Randy Alcorn writes:

“Some shepherds earned their poor reputations, but others became victims of a cruel stereotype. The religious leaders maligned the shepherd’s good name; rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel, except on desert plains…. ‘To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property’…. Shepherds were officially labeled ‘sinners’—a technical term for a class of despised people.”

They were despised and rejected by the well-to-do and respectable folks—especially religious leaders who had adopted the common belief that those who were rich and healthy and in positions of power and influence must be “blessed” by God. While those who were poor and oppressed and at the bottom rung of society must be “cursed” by God. 

But the Beatitudes of Bethlehem turned the world upside down, and made clear that Jesus “came to seek and save the lost” (and the last, the lowly, the liars, the losers, the left out and the leftovers). God sent his holy heralds to poor shepherds in the field, not to reputable rabbis in the village, or the movers and shakers in King Herod’s Jerusalem or Caesar’s Rome. 

We can smile and nod and ooh and aah at this Great Reversal each Christmas Eve in worship, seated in our comfortable buildings with our rich feasts cooking at home and a tree full of presents that cost us hundreds of dollars. But I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t be squirming in our seats instead when we hear the Christmas story read and the Beatitudes announced. For most of us would be considered among the rich and well-to-do in Jesus’ day. 

The rich and self-sufficient are those least likely to receive and embrace the Kingdom this infant brings into the world. They are most prone to be scandalized and offended by the lavish grace poured out upon lazy losers and social outcasts. Jesus says to the panhandler holding a sign at the intersection, “The kingdom is yours!” while we avoid eye contact and think to ourselves, “Get a job, you bum.” On Sunday we celebrate a gospel that insists God’s blessings are a free gift and we did not do a thing to earn it; but on Monday we rail against the “danger” of giving free handouts to the poor. 

So, which King and Kingdom do we really want? “You cannot serve two masters (or kingdoms),” Jesus said. “You will eventually end up loving one and despising the other.” If we choose to align ourselves with the revolution characterized by the Beatitudes of Bethlehem, we need to distance ourselves from all kingdoms and values and politics that lead us to shun the shepherds and despise the very ones to whom Jesus says, “My kingdom belongs to you!”

In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, he doesn’t just give us the Blessings of the Kingdom like Matthew; he lays down a  dire warning in a series of “woes” to those who are most in danger of missing or rejecting the upside down Kingdom:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, or you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:24-26).

The undeniable, uncomfortable truth is that God’s upside-down Kingdom is least likely to be understood and embraced by hard-working, middle class American Christians who have their act together. Instead, Jesus’ Kingdom is most readily received and understood by those who seem to repeatedly fail at making something of themselves and find themselves in need of another bailout. As someone has put it:

God despises our smugness, prejudice and pride. The shepherds were undoubtedly coarse, unlearned men. Men despised and rejected—just as He would soon be. In the light of divinity each of us is filthy, simple and broken. The heralding of His birth to some of the lowest of the low reminds us that we are all unwashed in comparison to the Divine. Jesus stooped to our level to pay the ultimate sacrifice.

I like how Eugene Peterson puts the first beatitude. Let it wash over you as we move into the season of Advent while trying to hold together all the pieces of our lives that have been cracked, and in some cases shattered, during a very difficult year: 

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule” (Matt 5:3).

Ebenezer Scrooge had a hard time grasping and embracing the spirit and message of Christmas. The rich and self-sufficient always do. Their own personal kingdoms loom so large that they have a hard time making room for God’s Kingdom—and all the poor and lowly riff-raff to whom it belongs.

Read the rest of The Beatitudes of Bethlehem series here.

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