Formations 12.22.2019: A Shepherd’s Perspective

Luke 2:1, 3-20

My beloved pastor at the church where I grew up asks church members (both past and current) to submit devotionals for an Advent booklet he compiles each year. Inspired by Luke’s account of the shepherds, I wrote the following story for the 2015 booklet. It’s just my imagined version of that night, of course, but I find that this kind of exercise draws me closer to God.

Nathaniel rubbed the sheep’s back, marveling at the dirt that clung to his hand and the dust that clouded the air. His own skin was as filthy as the sheep’s wool, made worse by the sweat that had trickled down in the earlier heat and was now drying in the cool evening.

He glanced up at the fading sun. Night was chasing day…and winning. Time to bring the flock closer in, next to the small patch of trees where he and his fellow shepherds took shifts for the night watch. The earth was softer there, near the trunk, and made a more comfortable spot to sleep than the harder ground where the hill began to slope. Glancing across the hilltop in the last orange-pink light of day, he spotted Simon rounding up his share of the sheep.

“Here!” Nathaniel called, lifting his own staff and nudging the animals up toward the trees. Samson, the scruffy little dog he had nicknamed after a character in his favorite childhood story, heard the call and began nipping at the sheep’s hooves. It always amused Nathaniel that this small creature could command such a big group of larger animals. “Herd them in, Sam!” he said, chuckling. “You make a better shepherd than I do.”

When the stars came out, the sheep never wandered far. Still, it was necessary to keep watch. Stalking beasts were certainly a threat, but the biggest danger was humans. Thieves. Looking to profit off another man’s flock.

Nathaniel and Simon shared a cold meal of bread, wine, and dates. Even cold, Priscilla’s bread was better than almost anything else. He wished he were home with her right now—her and young John, who always wanted to go see daddy’s “sheeps.” Nathaniel sighed. How he wanted a better life for his son than these long, lonely nights with little pay.

When Enoch came up over the short ridge with his portion of the flock, Nathaniel stiffened. Cruel, jealous Enoch always had a harsh word to say. For some reason, though, he was quiet tonight. He simply sat nearby and ate his meal in silence, frowning up at the sky. Nathaniel shrugged. “First watch?” he offered, and the other two men nodded. They soon found spots around the trees and quickly fell asleep, oblivious to the bleating of lambs hungry for their mother’s milk.

Nathaniel leaned against a trunk and swept his eyes over the flock, with Samson curled up at his side. The night was darker than usual since the moon was new, but the stars were out in full force. In fact, the longer he sat the brighter it became. Was he wrong about the moon? Standing, he stepped softly out from the overhanging branches and peered up. Yes, the moon was out. No. Not the moon. A magnificent star. One that he somehow never noticed before.

He thought of Enoch’s frown. But Nathaniel wasn’t frowning. He was smiling. The new star was beautiful! He was about to return to his spot when he heard something. Immediately tense, he grabbed his staff and narrowed his eyes, looking for the source of the sound. The sheep began to stir. He feared a wolf or a thief, though the sound was different, like an otherworldly song. And with the increasing sound, the sky brightened even more until he was certain he could see something more than a star. He shook his head and blinked. Had he fallen asleep?

No. There was a person in the sky! And then Samson was at his heels, barking. The sheep were bleating. His fellow shepherds had jumped up too and were watching, breathless, as the being in the brightness came down, stood before them, and spoke. Fear gripped Nathaniel’s heart, but amazingly, that’s when the words became clear.

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Nathaniel stole a glance at the others and saw that they too cowered with open mouths and frightened eyes. But just as he thought his pounding heart might jump out of his chest, a new song began, stronger, louder, mightier than before. The being that had told them not to fear was suddenly surrounded by many more of like appearance, and their song of glory to the Most High God filled Nathaniel with courage, hope, and something else…love.

When the light faded, a soft glow remained. He glanced once more at his fellow shepherds, and both of them—even Enoch—nodded. Without another thought for the flock they so fiercely protected, the three of them set off into the night toward Bethlehem, Samson trotting at their heels, headed toward the promise of a Savior they hadn’t known they needed.


• It has been a helpful exercise for me to “read between the lines” of Scripture and try to put myself in the place of the real human beings in Bible stories. How does this story about the shepherd Nathaniel make the night of Jesus’ birth more real to you?
• What other perspectives in the story of Jesus’ birth would you like to explore? What do you think Mary thought and felt when the shepherds came to see her baby? How about Joseph? Consider choosing a person and writing a few paragraphs from his or her point of view.
• What is significant about the fact that God chose to reveal the news of Jesus’ birth to people who were employed as shepherds?
• What do you think gave these shepherds the courage to head to Bethlehem, possibly leaving their flock behind, to see for themselves if the good news was true?
• How can you have courage to see the things of God for yourself?

Reference Shelf

In our day, the birth of Jesus may be, after the crucifixion, the Gospel scene most easily visualized by the general public. In Luke’s day, and for centuries thereafter, it was not nearly so familiar. Other scenes—the baptism of Jesus, the feeding of the 5,000, stilling the tempest—were more frequent scenes of early Christian art. On the other hand, what moderns “know” is not the biblical account, but an account stemming from and nourished by American culture, an account harnessed to an enormous marketing campaign for spending large sums of money. It would not be terribly useful for us to ask modern readers to replace their image with what we imagine Luke’s to have been. Instead, we can ask about the ethics of our readings: what can we do to use the power of this symbol more responsibly, in the service of goals more in keeping with Luke’s?

Luke crafts his account to be not an ageless story—a nativity set that will fit in any home at any time—but as a drama taking place within an emphatically political environment. He begins with Caesar Augustus and his decision to enroll the populated world. To be blunt and brief, we cannot identify the census Luke has in mind; it is likely that he was thinking of the one that happened a few years after Jesus’ birth. It is also hard to imagine why the Roman government would have been interested in requiring male Jews who claimed Davidic descent to return to Bethlehem, David’s hometown. We can find no parallel to such a census method, and with good reason: governments want to list people at their current addresses, at the spot where they make the money the government wants to collect. Luke and Luke’s readers would have known this, so it would appear that Luke is being sarcastic—typical, is it not, of the stupid Romans to move people around for no good reason—and ironic—convenient, is it not, for the stupid Romans to make a rule that gets the Messiah’s mother into the city predicted for his birth.

In keeping both with this sense of parody and with later Roman usage, Luke calls Octavian “Caesar Augustus.” …In his own day, Augustus was celebrated as a divine savior, the beginning of a new era…. Augustus was also the self-proclaimed inaugurator of the Pax Romana, the so-called era of world peace guaranteed by the might of the Roman legions. It was a complete fiction, of course; there were wars and military campaigns, but it played well to be seen as the savior, the peace-giver….

Luke and his readers knew all the puffery that lay behind the title “Augustus,” and knew that emperors after Octavian had delighted in using the same title. One suspects that in Luke’s mind, “Caesar Augustus” sounded something like “Emperor Godly” rather than “our revered Emperor.”

Luke also names Quirinius the governor of Syria. Publius Sulpicius Qurinius was appointed legate of Syria in AD 6, after Herod the Great’s son Archelaus proved incapable of ruling Judea. Thereafter, Judeans were ruled by prefects or procurators who reported to the legate. Luke’s mention of him may be, as some suggest, to relate the birth of Jesus to world events, but his name also would remind the audience of Rome’s colonial policies that brought so much misery to Palestine.

Joseph went, says Luke, from Galilee to Bethlehem. As this is his only role in Luke’s story, we should note that it puts him, too, in the role of a traveler just as Mary has been and Jesus will be. Luke calls Mary “his betrothed,” as if the marriage had not yet happened. If he is serious, then Jesus was not only born to a virgin, but also born out of wedlock, and the whole notion of Mary and Joseph traveling together would have been a scandal. Most commentators suggest that Luke wrote “betrothed” to indicate that Joseph and Mary had not yet consummated their marriage. In either case—whether Mary was not yet married, or married but not yet Joseph’s wife in all senses—the first-century audience would understand the unsettled, ambiguous position Mary occupied….

Jesus is born under the following conditions. First, Emperor Godly, in his infinite wisdom, decides to enroll the whole world. Second, for no better reason than that, Joseph must leave his home in Nazareth to go about seventy miles south to Bethlehem to participate in the census. Third, for no reason given in the text whatsoever, Mary—still not Joseph’s wife in some sense, pregnant, and close to term—travels with him, and while there gives birth. There is not enough space wherever they are staying for the baby Jesus to lie next to his mother, so she lays him in the trough where the animals feed. Could she not have stayed with kinfolk in Nazareth? Whose decision was it for her to travel with him—Caesar’s, or Joseph’s, or her own? We don’t know. Thus far, this is a story about the powers that be, the emperors and their lackeys who depose rulers and send in tax collectors and who, if they wish, can cook up a crazy scheme to move Galilean carpenters around like checkers.

…[W]hat does Jesus’ birth tell us about who he would be? Part of the answer may come when the scene shifts to shepherds on nightly guard duty. “Shepherd” is rich with nuances: David was a shepherd who became a king, so the new baby born in David’s city should rightly be acclaimed first to and then by shepherds. Ezekiel prophesied against the false shepherds of the flock of Israel, warning that when the true shepherd came, he would protect the flock and punish the false shepherds who harmed it. Shepherds were peasants, performing unskilled labor, and were on the other end of the power scale from Emperor Godly. The message comes to the shepherds, rather than to Augustus or to any other person of power, because Jesus’ destiny is to unseat the powerful. The baby born in unsettled circumstances is the real Savior, the bringer of peace, rather than Augustus or any subsequent emperor.

The angel calls the baby’s birth “a great joy to all the people” and calls the child “a Savior, who is the Lord Christ.” Gabriel predicted great joy at John’s birth, so this announcement brings the two in line. “Savior,” as noted above, was used for Augustus and for other emperors…. “Savior,” in other words, marks Jesus as a doer of good, but does not specify what form that good will take. “Lord Christ” or “Christ the Lord” is an unusual form. Christ, or Messiah, refers to the person from David’s line who would restore the fortunes of Israel. “Lord” denotes superior rank, and was used by slaves for masters, wives and children for husbands and fathers, lower-born for nobility, and everyone for God. Since this is the only place in the New Testament where the two nouns are stuck together like this, it would appear that Luke is contrasting this baby with the divine Augustus; whereas Octavian got his title of “revered Emperor” by Senate decree, Jesus was acclaimed “Lord Christ” by God’s angels at his birth and by God’s act of resurrection after his death (Acts 2:36).

The angel tells the shepherds how they will pick Jesus out from any other infant in Bethlehem: he will be the one in the feed trough. When they arrive, they find it just as the angel has predicted. This seems to have been enough to convince them that the baby was worth talking about, so like Elizabeth’s relatives, they spread the word around. But unlike the relatives, who speak about what they do not know, the shepherds praise God for what they have seen and heard. The narrator describes them imitating the angels, who likewise give glory and praise to God. Contrary to our usual tableaux, the shepherds do not linger over the manger; they come in haste, and then leave to go spread the news. Like Mary, they seem more than a little unlikely to have been chosen to be first recipients and then bearers of God’s good news, but they take to their job with enthusiasm.

As for Mary, Joseph, and the baby, this story places them in the middle, between Augustus and the shepherds. Augustus decrees, and they move, and all the world with them, and so they find themselves in a place without enough room for them and their baby. …But the shepherds hear the voices of the angels in the night, and go “with haste” to look them up—can you picture this? If the Holy Family is squeezed into some guest room or flophouse, having to resort to putting the baby in the manger, where are the shepherds standing while they look? We need to imagine them crowding in, straining to get a look—at an infant, wrapped in cloth like any other, lying in a makeshift crib—and then gasping with wonder, explaining to all the other grumpy lodgers why they are making such a fuss over the newborn. Whose version of the story makes most sense: are Mary, Joseph, and Jesus government-manufactured refugees or the instruments of God’s revelation to the world?

In the last three verses, Luke, like an on-the-street reporter, gives us three sample reactions. The crowds who hear the shepherds are, predictably, “amazed,” neither believing nor unbelieving, but shaken. Mary stores up all that happens and turns everything over in her heart; not an unquestionably positive response, either, since the verb can mean “think about” or “argue with.” But Mary, by not letting go of the episodes, is more in line with God’s will than are the crowds. The shepherds, though, are the ideal responders, praising God and repeating what God had shown them.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2008),excerpts from 57–63.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (15) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.


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