At the back of the main hall in Cornerstone there are two tables. One is a little stall where, at very low prices, we sell donated sandwiches, a few tins, packets of pasta and cereal. The other is ‘the free table’, where we put a whole variety of things: homegrown vegetables and fruit, woolly hats, knick-knacks from an old lady’s house clearance, and tins of cheap-brand baked beans and spaghetti from our surplus food stocks. The little stall does a good trade most days, but the free table is little short of looted: a flurry of people, arms and bags, and the whole lot is gone in half a minute or less. Watching this scene, someone said to me, ‘Look at that. Where’s the self-respect? Where’s the dignity? They don’t even know what it is they’re picking up.’
When Jesus is born, the first people to be told about it are the shepherds. Luke tells us that they are ‘living in the fields’. They sleep out. It’s safe to say, I think, that they are not regular attendees of the synagogue on a Sabbath. They are not the church-going type, or even the Law-abiding type. If they did turn up, chances are other people would shuffle up the bench a bit – if you live outdoors with sheep, you probably smell pretty ripe, even by first century standards. They are not wealthy, and being a shepherd is not a prestigious profession – it’s a job you pay someone else to do for you, if you can. Shepherds are semi-wild, dwelling on the physical and social margins.
These are the first people that are told about the birth of Jesus, first by an angel, and then by a whole army of angels singing, ‘Glory in the highest to God, and on earth peace among human beings who are pleasing to God.’ Notice that: human beings pleasing to God is addressed to the shepherds. What do the shepherds do in response to this announcement? ‘…they went in a hurry, and they searched for Mary and Joseph, and the baby, which lay in the feeding trough.’ They went in a hurry. Notice that, too: the other person who ‘hurries’ after the appearance of an angel is Mary, who hurries to Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah. The shepherds are in good company.
Why does God choose to tell the shepherds first? Two reasons, I think. First, because they are the most important. Thirty years later, Jesus will stand up in the synagogue and, unrolling the scroll, begin: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor…’ The shepherds aren’t there to hear him, but that doesn’t matter: he will spend the next three years seeking out and healing and reconciling those not welcome in polite society: lepers, paralysed people, women of bad reputation, tax collectors. They are the first to get the good news of Jesus’ birth, because the good news is for them.
Second, because God wants to be sure of a good welcome. In Jesus, God gives us the most precious thing imaginable: the gift of himself, as a human person. Our logic puts precious things in high-end boutiques, where they are guarded by doormen and salespeople. Few people walk through the doors of these places, and even fewer buy anything. God’s logic puts Jesus on the free table, where absolutely everyone can get him, even those who will misunderstand and misuse him. And the people who rush to the free table are –thank God!– the people with no dignity and no self-respect, the people who are honest about their need, who can’t be bothered to act as though they had better offers, or something more interesting to do. These are the people who rush to Jesus. God, give me the grace to be among them.
Photo credit: Osvaldo Gago on Flickr