The only shepherd I ever knew was one who lived and worked near Faversham. This was over 40 years ago. I spent a day with him and enjoyed sharing the everyday tasks of a shepherd, like de-tailing new lambs and bottle-feeding a lamb that had been abandoned by the ewe.
Each day he would drive with his sheep dog to the field where his flock was feeding and his dog would round them up so that the he could cast his eye over them. By just looking, the shepherd could tell if any were poorly. This was the life of an English shepherd.
What about the shepherds that came to visit Mary and Joseph at Bethlehem? They were very different. In the time of Jesus they were often considered as dishonest, outside the law. Some scholars say that they represent the sinners who Jesus came to save. That is why they were part of the story.
Let us consider another suggestion about why Luke has moved the shepherds to front stage in his narrative. In one Jewish source we are told that the sheep found between Jerusalem and Bethlehem were used for temple sacrifice and this tradition had been invoked, according to late Scripture scholars, Raymond Browne as support for the idea that the shepherds in Luke’s gospel were especially sacred shepherds.
Whatever their status these shepherds wandered with their flocks far from human habitations, in order to bring them to pasture, and also because it is necessary for them to watch over them by night, to protect them from wild beasts. In a circle of stones, a temporary hut, or a cave, they form some place for repose upon a bed of rushes, and with their dogs they ‘abide in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.’
These were practical men, men on the margins, yet after their experience of the angelic manifestation their response was to go and see. “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” They told Mary and Joseph what they had been told about the child and they went back glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard. These men and boys were open to going and seeing. Once they had encountered Jesus they were people who were full of praise, glorifying God.
The revelation of Jesus as our saviour is for everyone, shepherds as well as kings. Am I like a shepherd who is willing to go and see? I will give myself time in these weeks before Christmas to imagine myself as one of the shepherds visiting Mary and Joseph among the animals with the new born child in a manger. I will stay there for a while.