A Season of Hope: Advent Themes Through the Four Gospels Part 3
The image of a newborn baby lying in a manger is a graphic portrayal of a harsh reality. Jesus was born into a desperately poor world.
In Jesus’ time, there were the very wealthy few and the masses of extremely poor. There was no “middle class,” as we know it. Most people were subsistence-level farmers, many of whom did not own their own land but paid their debts by farming the land of others. Some were hired workers (perhaps like the shepherds who came to visit Jesus). Others were skilled laborers (like Joseph, the carpenter), who barely scraped together a living. A bad agricultural year could mean starvation or destitution for everyone. In contrast, a small percentage of wealthy people owned land, large houses, and slaves. Some of the well-to-do were government officials like tax collectors, who controlled wealth and its distribution. Their positions allowed them to skim some of the money off the top of what they collected for their own personal use.
The Gospel of Luke is about a great reversal of these social and economic roles. Jesus’ birth introduces a savior born in a barn who champions the poor and lowly. Jesus says that those who are poor, who hunger, and who weep will be fed, but the rich and the well fed will go away hungry (Luke 6:20-25). When Mary finds out she is going to bear the Savior, she anticipates who this Savior, her son, will be and what he will do when she sings praise to God: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53)
And yet, the Gospel of Luke does not necessarily portray the rich as innately evil and heartless. The rich people in Luke who meet Jesus become models for how the wealthy should use their money fairly to help others in need (like Zacchaeus in Luke 19:2-8) and to support Jesus’ ministry (like the female patrons in Luke 8:1-3). Jesus instructs the rich not to invite other wealthy people to dinner, but instead to welcome the crippled, lame, and blind to eat at their table (Luke 14:12-14). In contrast however, those who do not use their wealth to help others are judged harshly (Luke 12:16-21, 16:19-31).
Mary represents the lowly status of those whom this Gospel reaches. While it is difficult to think of her as a “nobody,” with all the notoriety she receives today, “nobody” is exactly what she is at the beginning of Luke’s story. She is betrothed to Joseph who is a bit of a “somebody,” in the sense that he is a descendent from the line of David. But it is Mary, not Joseph, who is visited by an angel – the archangel Gabriel! (Luke 1:26-28)
When Jesus was born, there were some shepherds keeping their flocks in the fields who were scared nearly out of their wits by the appearance of a band of angels singing praises to God and announcing the birth of the Messiah (2:8-20).
Shepherds in Jesus’ time were not necessarily the poorest of the poor, but no doubt many were impoverished. They could certainly be described as a marginal population. By the very nature of their work, shepherds live on the margins of society. Moving a flock of sheep from pasture to pasture while protecting them from predators. This meant that shepherds live in the fields, alongside their flocks for weeks or months at a time. This nomadic life means they live apart from other people most of the time.
In the Bible shepherding is looked upon as an important task. The work of the shepherd is rich with symbolism for roles of service and leadership. The Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were shepherds (Genesis 30:37-43). Moses was tending to sheep when he saw the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-2). King David began as a shepherd boy (1Samuel 16:11; 17:34). The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel talk about God as a shepherd of Israel who will feed his flock. John speaks of Jesus as the “good shepherd”.
The job of shepherding however, was a lower socioeconomic position and often fell to the youngest son. David is a good example: he is the seventh son and is to be found in the fields with his father’s sheep. This lowly shepherd boy David would be chosen as the anointed king of Israel; just as Jesus becomes the king and shepherd of his people. The one who is the true Shepherd was visited by shepherds from the field at his birth.
We can see Luke’s purpose throughout his story of Jesus’ origin. Luke shows how Jesus fulfills the concept of God’s grace – God’s favor toward humanity, including the lowliest and the outcast. Through God’s choice of a humble young woman like Mary, to the revelation to the servant shepherds who foreshadow Jesus’ role, Luke paints a picture of hope and renewal and offers a message of reversal: the lowly will be raised up, an the great brought low. Those who have much should anticipate the kingdom of God’s favor will be to the poor and to those who have plenty who welcome those in need to the shared table of the God.