Why tell the Shepherds? An Alternate Theory.

I read the Christmas story to Liam a lot these days, and I’ve been thinking about the shepherds.  Why did God choose to send his angelic army-choir to an obscure hillside where a bunch of blue-collar Joes were working the night shift?  We don’t know anything about these particular shepherds, but we can assume that, like today’s fast-food workers, they wouldn’t be working such an ignominious job if they were skilled, educated, or of good family reputation.

The commonly-accepted theory is that God sent the angels to announce the birth of the Messiah to these shepherds because God cares about the lowly, the poor, and those without power or position.  There may also be a reference to Jesus’ future role as shepherd of the church, the Good Shepherd, who would lay down his life for his sheep.  It’s also interesting to note that King David, a central figure in first-century Hebrew identity, also started his working life tending sheep.

I’d like to throw out an alternate theory.  I wonder if God sent his angelic choir-army to tell the shepherds about Jesus’ birth because he knew no one would listen to them.  In this scenario, God’s having a tough time keeping the news to himself.  He has to tell someone, but he can’t prematurely risk the life of Jesus by letting word get out amongst the powerful, who would tell the ruling elite.  As it is, Joseph has to flee with his family to Egypt for two years to avoid having Jesus killed by King Herod after the three Magi inadvertently let the news slip.

The book of Luke (the only Gospel to record the angelic visit) says that everyone who heard the tale of the baby in the feeding trough was amazed.  But who were those people that heard?  Other shepherds? The families of shepherds?  Think about who the shepherds would tell. They probably spread the news at the local watering hole, not in the synagogue.  They were more likely to talk about it at the sheep auctions than in the halls of power.  In other words, the shepherds were safe precisely because they weren’t connected to power.

There’s another piece of evidence for this, though it’s an argument from silence.  If the angelic announcement had been to more savory or well-born folk, Jesus would have been watched, famous his whole life.  He wouldn’t have exploded onto the scene as if from nowhere at the beginning of his ministry 30 years later.  People in the synagogue in Nazareth wouldn’t have said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Why is he teaching with such authority, unlike our priests and teachers of the law?”  They wouldn’t have expected so little of him because he would already have had a reputation. A visit from a warrior of light, after all, is hard to forget.

Leave a comment to let me know what you think.

Wetmore Family Christmas 2007

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