The Christmas Carol “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” was written by Poet Laureate Nahum Tate and was published in Tate and Brady’s supplement to the New Version of the Psalms of David in 1696. It was the first, and for a while, the only Christmas hymn that the Anglican church authorised to be sung. To this day it remains one of the most loved musical celebrations of Christ’s birth.
It is a hymn rich in biblical content; indeed, it is a metrical paraphrase of Luke 2.8-14 that allows us to sing the Christmas story virtually direct from Scripture. But do we give thought to what we are singing?
Why, for example, did the angel of the Lord appear to shepherds as they watched their flocks by night in the fields around Bethlehem? Why did the angel of the Lord choose this particular time, this particular place, and this particular audience to announce the birth of the Saviour, Christ the Lord?
In The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim opines that the flocks which pastured in the fields around Bethlehem were destined to be sacrificed in the temple at Jerusalem and that the shepherds who watched over them were under a rabbinic ban, charged with the responsibility of nurturing these ‘lambs of God’.
Whether that is the case or not, shepherds in first century B.C. Judea were essentially peasants, and therefore located toward the bottom of the social scale. In his account, Luke draws a sharp contrast between Augustus, the Roman Emperor, and Quirinius, the Syrian Governor on the one hand, and the Jewish shepherds on the other.
This is an example of God “putting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting the lowly” (Luke 1.52) or, as Paul expressed it in his letter to the Corinthians, “choosing the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty, and the insignificant things of the world to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Cor 1.27-28).
But is there another reason why God spurned the powers that be, both political and religious, and chose simple shepherds who were quietly going about their business and watching over their flocks, to be witnesses of the first gospel proclamation?
Could it be that God chose the shepherds because they were engaged in a role that was close to His own heart — a role that reflected His own nature and character? Jesus was the spiritual son of David, the great shepherd-king of Israel, who was called ‘a man after God’s own heart’ (1 Sam 13.14). And Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd whose mission is to seek and save those that are lost (John 10.11; Luke 19.10).
Likewise, God is called ‘the shepherd of Israel’ and speaks in terms of searching for His sheep and delivering them from the places where they have been scattered, bringing them back to their own land, and causing them to lie down in secure folds and feed in good pasture (Psalm 80.1; Ezekiel 34.11-14).
Moreover, through the prophet Ezekiel God rebuked the religious leaders of Israel for not having a shepherd’s heart and for not caring about His people:
“Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them” (Ezek 34.2-6)
Similarly, Jesus saw the people of his day as sheep without a shepherd, and rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for devouring widows’ houses while uttering ostentatious prayers; for focusing their attention on minute and insignificant details while neglecting to practice justice, mercy and faith (Mat 9.36; 23.14,23).
The phrase “devouring widows’ houses” indicates that the scribes and Pharisees were utilising their position of leadership to exploit the most vulnerable members of society. This is a very serious matter in God’s sight, who reveals Himself as “a father of the fatherless and a defender of widows” (Psalm 68.5). For this reason, the apostle James declares that in God’s estimation, pure religious service consists of caring for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1.27).
In the final analysis, life is all about loving God and caring for people. Quoting the Shema, the supreme commandment and central confession of Judaism, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus affirmed, “This is the first and great commandment.” But then he elevated another commandment from Leviticus to the same level stating, “And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mat 22.37-39; see Deut 6.4-6; Lev 19.18).
Jesus may have shocked the scribes and Pharisees with his summation of the Law — that loving people should be considered as important as, and the natural consequence of, loving God! Many years later, Jesus’ closest follower and most intimate friend would elaborate on this radical concept: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4.20-21).
Indeed, the Cross is the nexus of human relationship — the place where the vertical (our relationship with God) intersects with the horizontal (our relationship with one another).
Caring for people keeps you in touch with God
In 1959, one-time candidate for the priesthood, Morris West, wrote a novel entitled The Devil’s Advocate. The book quickly became an international bestseller, and helped to launch West’s 40-year career as an author and playwright. The Devil’s Advocate is a story about a terminally ill Monsignor who is sent to Calabria in southern Italy to investigate the basis for beatification of a man murdered by Communist partisans during the Second World War.
Before leaving Rome, the Monsignor has a meeting with the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites who says to him, “You, like many of us here in Rome, are a professional priest — a career churchman …. suddenly you have discovered it is not enough. You are puzzled, afraid. Yet you do not know what you should do to restore the lack. Part of the problem is that you and I and others like us have been removed too long from pastoral duty. We have lost touch with the people who keep us in touch with God …”
It is the people whom the Lord entrusts to our care that help to keep our feet on the ground and our hearts attuned to heaven. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Mat 25.31-46), Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” In this context, ‘it’ denotes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless, and visiting the sick and incarcerated.
Describing her ministry to the lepers and outcasts and AIDS sufferers in the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa said, “Every day I see Jesus Christ in all his distressing disguises.” Mother Teresa and her fellow Missionaries of Charity celebrated Mass every morning at 4.30am. Seeing Christ in the Eucharist enabled her to see Him in the streets. “If we recognise Jesus under the appearance of bread,” she said, “we will have no difficulty recognising Him in the disguise of the suffering poor.”
Perhaps we, as leaders, should focus our attention on “watching our flocks by night”, rather than pursuing personal promotion and financial compensation. For as the Christmas story demonstrates, it is the heart of a shepherd that attracts the favour of God!