Happy holidays, friends!
It’s the week of Christmas, and since I’m a blogger that means I had to write something seasonal and relevant. Otherwise the Internet police come and take away your computer (I think).
Anyhow, I struggled with what to write. Should I write about how churches should try to remain as faithful as possible to what the Bible actually says (meaning no donkeys, innkeepers, or Three Kings)? No, I’m all for a little embellishment and creative license. Plus, Christianity Today already did something like that. Should I spend time trying to defend the historicity of the virgin birth of Jesus? Meh, ReKnew already touched on that, and (as they mentioned) it’s not really all that central to the Christian faith. What about being truly relevant and comparing Mary and Joseph with the current Syrian refugee crisis? Nah, that angle has already been done (over and over and over again), plus it’s kind of a forced connection. Or what about trying to capture the socio-political tensions present in the nativity story, as well as their modern-day parallels? If that’s what you’re looking for, I highly recommend Brain Zahnd’s recent post.1
Instead, today I think I’d like to talk about the nativity party guests, namely the shepherds and wise men.
The Unclean Insiders
First of all, I think it is safe to assume that the shepherds in the nativity tale are Jews. They are taking care of sheep, which is clearly different than the pagans elsewhere in the Gospels who are depicted owning and tending pigs (Mk 5:1-13), which we all know Jews believed to be an unclean animal (Lev 11:7; Deut 14:8). Moreover, they are doing their thing “in the same region,” which would be near Bethlehem. In case your Bible geography ain’t what it should be, Bethlehem is pretty firmly nestled well into what was the Roman province of Judea. Of course, not everyone there was Jewish (far from it), but still it was more likely than not.
So, considering the lack of evidence to the contrary, I think it’s safe for us to say the shepherds were part of what was then the “people of God.”
The sad thing is (if you’re a first century shepherd) that they were not well liked among the Jewish people. Now, you would think that what with king David (hands down, the superman of Jewish monarchical history) being a shepherd in his early years, people would hold shepherding to be a noble career path. But it seems that people were more keen on David’s king-ness, and not so much on his shepherding youth. Instead, since they would spend long stints in the summer months ranging with their flocks (i.e., unsupervised) shepherds came to be viewed with suspicion, even being listed by rabbis as an occupation of thieves and cheats. In fact, so much was the assumption that shepherds were thieves, it was forbidden to purchase goods (wool, milk, livestock, etc.) from a shepherd because it was believed that any such goods were probably stolen.
So, essentially, they were insiders who were constantly treated like outsiders. Sort of like the smelly kid in your church youth group, or the American hero war vet begging for food on the side of the road.
As if that weren’t bad enough, let’s look at the other people that get invited to Jesus’ first birthday party.
The Pagan Outsiders
As much as we all love that “We Three Kings” song, the wise men that we find in the nativity story (Mt 2:1-12) were not royalty. Rather, as you might have noticed, the word “magi” is one letter away from the word “magic”! And that’s not just a coincidence.
Magi were members of the priestly caste who were trained in things like astrology, fortune-telling, and pretty much anything that Professor Trelawney would teach, with a little alchemy thrown in for good measure. So, when you read or hear “magi,” go ahead and finish off the word, “magicians.” To be clear, these are exactly the sort of people that early Israelite tradition condemned in some rather severe, even violent ways (Deut 18:10–14; Lev 19:26; 20:27).
To make matters worse, not only were these men the sort of spell-casters that good Mosaic Law-abiding Jews would have deemed worth killing, but they weren’t even Jewish sorcerers. Far from it! In Matthew’s Gospel, they are said to be “from the East.” Now, there’s a lot happening on planet earth east of Jerusalem. But, for Jewish people at the time, the biggest thing happening in the east was the Parthian (i.e., Persian) Empire. In case you didn’t know, the Jewish people hadn’t been autonomous for several centuries, and the Persians were one of the most recent groups to essentially own them. As you can imagine, most Jews still had a cultural bad taste in their mouth for the Persians, which we see in all the derogatory imagery of Babylon even in later Christian writings (cf. Rev 17-18).
So, if you want a modern day parallel for the magi, think of super nerdy potterheads, or better yet Wiccans.
Now, of course, the mere presence of shepherds and magi in the nativity story doesn’t prove anything in and of itself. But it is part of a much bigger theme that runs thick throughout the pages of the New Testament (with more than a few hints in the Old Testament), namely the radical inclusiveness of the kingdom of God.
Throughout the teachings of Jesus and the other New Testament authors, we find what would have been a wild and outrageous notion – that people who were generally considered unfit for the kingdom of God are actually the ones that are most likely to be there in the end. That’s why we see sorcerers and supposed thieves at the nativity cradle, and not Pharisees or Jewish dignitaries. In fact, the Jewish king Herod is the one in the story slaughtering children (Mt 2:16-18) in an attempt to stop the incarnate Christ-child, and the priestly Zacharias (Lk 1) is struck dumb for his lack of faith in God’s miraculous providence.
I am reminded of Jesus’ later parable in which a ton of people who thought they were part of God’s in-crowd found out they were on the outside, and others who thought they for sure weren’t going to be let in had the pleasant surprise of finding themselves on God’s good side (Mt 25:31-46).
All that to say, as you go about the rest of your holiday season, remember how uncomfortably inclusive the kingdom of God is. It isn’t the people with perfect church attendance, or the ones with prominent roles in the Christian sub-culture that get first dibs at God’s banquet table. It isn’t the Mike Huckabees and the Rick Warrens, but rather the Shane Claibornes and the Deepak Chopras (or probably less famous, less savory people) that fit the nativity story best. It isn’t the person in the three piece suit sitting in the front row at the Christmas Eve service, but the homeless guy that you passed on your way there, that most reflects the sort of person God exalts in the birth story of Christ.
Just a little something to keep in mind as you celebrate this holiday season.
Thanks for reading, and merry Christmas!
1: Along these lines, I also recommend chapter two, "Birth: The Visited Planet," from Philip Yancey's book, The Jesus I Never Knew (Zondervan, 2002).