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Witnessing Shepherds

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 05, 2009 6:48 pm    Post subject: Witnessing Shepherds Reply with quote

Shepherd Witnesses

For this Advent season I thought spiritual shepherds “watching their flocks by night (and day!)” might appreciate the following reflections on the familiar account in Luke 2. Though well-known to us both in public liturgy and drama (e.g. the Herdmans), perhaps there’s more here to enlighten the shepherd’s mind and encourage the shepherd’s soul.

First, a word about the shepherd’s occupation. In light of certain rabbinic texts, it appears that shepherds in first century Palestine were not highly regarded. Assuming they were prone to dishonesty, herders were not legitimate witnesses in court. Luke deliberately highlights the “unlikely” people who participate in the Nativity account: an unwed mother, a barren woman, a widow in the Temple courts, and these field shepherds.

Thinking more analogically, let’s consider for a moment the reality that spiritual shepherds are typically among those disregarded in our own society. With ambiguous roles and wildly ranging expectations, pastors often feel unappreciated and overly criticized. Ministry, especially among youth, is often seen as a substitute for or stepping stone to a more important career, i.e., a “real job.” The salaries often reinforce the sentiment.

There’s more than a demeaning livelihood in this scene however. Luke infuses the rustic reality of shepherding with a royal and even divine dimension. This mix of theological threads in the fabric of Luke 2 includes allusions to Micah 5:1-5. God predicts a ruler from Bethlehem who will shepherd His flock. More subtly sits an echo from the Greek version of Exodus 15:13, where God promises to lead His people to his “guest room” (katalyma). Luke uses this same uncommon term in 2:7, erroneously translated “inn” (with inn keepers forever etched in our minds!). Another unusual term for manger (phatne) in 2:7, 12, 16 might recall a reference in Isa. 1:3 to God Himself.

The geographical context in Luke 2 further illuminates the role of the shepherds. Some sources indicate that the fields between Jerusalem and Bethlehem were reserved for Temple flocks. If this is the case, then these shepherds were tending highly valued, ritually certifiable livestock. They were entrusted with the very animals that served as substitutionary sacrifices for God’s people.

Let me draw out another implication. The importance of shepherding has everything to do with the value and identity of our flock. Such is the case metaphorically. Paul said to the Ephesian elders, “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Every life we care for is worth dying for. That’s how the Divine Shepherd came to become the Lamb of God.

Another observation: One of the commonly heard phrases from this account describes shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8 KJV). A literal and better translation reads, “keeping watches.” Shepherds would take turns through the night watches, making sure that their flocks were protected from wolves and thieves. Like soldiers sharing guard duty, field shepherds can’t expect a good night’s sleep.

Once again I find a suitable parallel to the work of spiritual shepherds. We take breaks from our work, but mostly take turns. The work of caring is ceaseless, even when the day is officially over.

Next, notice the shepherds’ responsiveness to the angelic visitation. They “hurried off” to “see the thing that … the Lord has told us about” (vv. 15-16). These unnamed wardens were not only tirelessly overseeing the predictable behavior of their animals; they were attentive to something unprecedented that God was doing. The notion of “watching” was important among first century Jewish groups like those at Qumran. The virtual nighttime of spiritual darkness would soon give way to the dawn of the Day of the Lord. Being ready for His advent was vitally important. The shepherds seemed to have brought divine perspective even to Mary and Joseph.

Perhaps this scene will provide a reminder that good shepherds are always ready to recognize God’s activity, wherever and whenever it occurs. That kind of perception is hard to come by when the daily grind is overwhelming.

Finally, watch the shepherds return back to their fields, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” Following their own personal encounter with the Incarnation, they worshipped God and bore testimony. Yes, though excluded in court as legitimate witnesses, these shepherds could provide credible evidence of what they had “heard and seen.” The Gospels are full of witnesses whom Jesus accumulated during his life. Fundamental to any message they shared was a living testimony of personal experience.

Like these shepherds we are witnesses to God’s work before we are anything else. Before we “do” anything for Him, we watch Him at work on our behalf. This Advent season, we join the angels in their joy over God’s favor on all people.


Tim Laniak, Th.D.
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