Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




“How God Get's Things Done”

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 19, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

God uses the insignificant
Luke 2:15-18

In the Gospel of Matthew the stars of the nativity story are the magi from the East. The theological point that Matthew is trying to make is that Gentiles – the magi were obviously very gentile – were included in God’s plans for inclusion from the very beginning.

In Luke’s nativity story the stars are the shepherds.

This is what it is important to know about the shepherds in Luke’s nativity story. They are not like the 23rd Psalm “The-Lord-is-my-shepherd” kind of shepherds. The shepherds in Luke’s story were not shepherds who owned the sheep, but farm workers.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, agri-business had come to the Middle East. In the Old Testament most of the farms were family farms. Old Testament farmers had lots of children and they used their children for labor on the farm. You remember that King David, the youngest of Jessie’s eight sons, started out his life as a shepherd. Farmers in the Old Testament may have had some hired hands but most of the work was done by family members.

In Jesus’ time there were still family farms but there were also factory farms – huge operations with huge flocks of sheep.  Most of the work was done by farm workers.

The shepherds actually lived out in the fields with the sheep. Luke 2:8 says: "In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night." The farm workers actually lived in the fields with the sheep. This was not desirable work. It was not a vocation that got much respect.

The Gospel of John actually illustrates this. John 10 makes a distinction between the Good Shepherd and the hired hand shepherd. The Good Shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep. The hired hand runs away because the hired hand does not care for the sheep. (John 10:11-13) Even the Gospel of John disses shepherds who are hired hands or farm workers like the shepherds that Luke talks about in his nativity story.

The great biblical scholar Raymond Brown who has written a 594-page book on the nativities accounts in Matthew and Luke says: "To modern romantics the shepherds described by Luke take on the gentleness of their flocks…but such interests are foreign to Luke's purpose. In fact, far from being regarded as either gentle or noble, in Jesus' time shepherds were often considered as dishonest, outside the Law."

If you couldn't survive any other way, you became a shepherd.

The shepherds were poor but more than that they were invisible.

The biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan uses the sociological work of Gerhard Lenski to understand the kind of agrarian society that Jesus was born into. Lenski does a very thorough analysis of the class systems of agrarian societies. He identifies nine classes. There is the Ruler Class, the Governing Class (who are the people who run things for the Ruler Class). There is the Retainer Class – scribes, lawyers, managers, soldiers, and generals – who serve the Ruler and Governing classes. Then, the Merchant Class and the Priestly Class. In many agrarian societies the Priestly Classes owns as much as 15 percent of the real estate. These are the upper classes in a typical agrarian society.    

On the other side of what Lenski calls "the great divide" are four classes: the Peasant Class, the Artisan Class – which if Joseph was a carpenter would have been the class Jesus was born into – and then the two "lowest" classes: The Unclean and Degraded Class, which included miners, porters, and prostitutes.

The very lowest class, lower in social and economic standing than even the Unclean and Degraded Class is the Expendable Class. The Expendable Class tended to be 5 to 10 percent of the population. This class included underemployed iterant workers, farm workers who slept in the fields with the animals, beggars, petty criminals, and outlaws.

The Expendable Class: The people who don't count, who don't matter, whom no one will notice or care if they don't exist, the insignificant, the people nobody is polling.

The Expendable Class.

This is who Luke brings to the manger. In Luke these are the first people to worship Christ. These are the ones to whom Christ's birth is good news. These are the folk in the story to whom God sends God's angel. These are the ones to whom the angelic host appear.

Luke's nativity story is very interesting, very carefully written. It begins with the Emperor Augustus and the Governor Quirinius. They decide to hold an empire wide census to make sure they know everybody who is subject to taxation in the empire. This was a massive endeavor that took years, maybe even decades, to plan and organize. God uses Augustus' and Quirinius' census, but not for the purpose they'd anticipated. God plays a joke on them. God uses their big ambitious project they'd organized for years as a way to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. God plays a joke on them. Twenty centuries later Augustus and Quirinius are remember, not for being great administrators, but because Jesus was born during their lifetime. God uses Augustus and Quirinius, but sort of as a joke. 

Meanwhile where God is really acting in the world is among the expendable people; the ones who don't matter; the insignificant people; the people who don't count in anybody's book.

The message of the shepherds for us is that God is doing something among the expendable people of our world that we aren't part of and that we probably can't understand.

God is doing something miraculous among expendable neighbors in our city who we don't even know exist. God is doing something miraculous among people giving birth in stables in Haiti. Most of us are clueless about what God is really doing because we are more part of the emperor's and governor's world.

I don't talk about this this morning to put a damper on our Christmases. I don't want us to feel guilty about our presents and our good holiday meals and parties. I am looking forward to my Christmas celebrations. I am not even saying this morning we necessarily ought to do anything different.

I just want us to be aware of what Luke believed…that while we will be here Christmas Eve listening to our choir sing the most beautiful music humanly possible…humanly possible….angels will be singing to the expendable people of Haiti, some of whom may be giving birth in stables, or eating mud cakes for their Christmas meal.

And the thing is there is not much to do about it, other than to know it is true; other than pondering it in our hearts. The world's future is happening not as much in our offices and seats of power, as in fields where expendable people are just trying to survive through the night and babies are being born in stables.  


Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday), 420.

John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HapersanFrancisovc), 44-46.