The nativity story is probably one of the most misunderstood episodes of the Bible. It’s an ancient Jewish story – not a modern Christian one, jam-packed with scads of cultural idiosyncrasies that are a bit difficult to understand for us modern Western folk. Nonetheless, read from a 1st century Jewish perspective, it’s a far better story than the one we usually tell. It goes something like this.
There’s these three groups of losers…
The first group is hanging out in the hinterlands of the Judean region when some really scary shit goes down. We call them shepherds and typically think of them as humble, simple folk – people at one with nature, animal lovers, passive, kind, etc. In their day however shepherds were considered by many to be the lowest of the low, though not as low as tax collectors (that’s a different but very interesting story). Shepherds would frequently sell and/or eat the animals they were charged with protecting, then lie about it, claiming that the animal(s) had fallen to the all-too-frequent predator attack.
In their defense, if I were a shepherd I would have a hard time resisting the temptation for a little snack every now and again. It would be like hiring me to sit alone and watch bacon for a long time by myself with nobody else watching. Some of it might go missing.
When the “Angel of the Lord” appeared in a blinding light, they became “sore afraid,” i.e., scared shitless, not just because angels are depicted as frightening creatures in the Bible, but also because these shepherds believe that God has finally showed up to punish them for being such horrible people.
What they get is something totally different – transformed in a flash from trash to the very Heralds of the long awaited Messiah Himself. Why? Because they were good people? Because they deserved it? Nope… They were the first on the invite list, and given a high seat of honor – because they were losers.
If God wanted everyone to know that the Messiah had finally arrived, and wanted everyone to show up at the manger, why would he choose people who were viewed as dishonest and cowardly, then send them running through the very capitol of all Jewishness to announce the arrival of something that everyone at the time was desperately waiting for?
The next group of attendees is the triad of “Magi,” travelling from the East, expecting to meet a great king, and led by a star. Again, if you consider what Jewish people were thinking at the time, these people have no business in God’s story – maybe as the bad guys, but certainly not as heroes. To be non-Jewish, from a place populated by so many people who wanted to see Israel burn, and on top of that some kind of “magician,” is to be pagan in the worst sense.
The third group is comprised of the three people sitting amidst the dung, smell, and conspicuous absence of human dignity – surrounded by the other losers mentioned above. There’s a baby, and that’s cute, but he’s illegitimate. The mom claims that God had impregnated her, but everyone knows what really happened and they’re probably all talking about it. Her husband initially tried to conjure up some way to get rid of her, but was “visited in a dream” by an angel and changed his mind. That’d be a hard story to sell in any culture.
In this world the only thing worse than a woman who has conceived via adultery is a husband who does nothing about it. We might romanticize something like this, but the people of Jesus’ day didn’t. Adultery was one of the most grievous sins to the ancient Jewish mind.
Where are the powerful, important, wealthy people?
It’s understandable why there were no important people stopping by to say hello to the newborn Messiah. “This can’t be him.” “He’s illegitimate.” “He might have the pedigree if he were actually the son of his father.” “Where are all the other important people?” “Why are there so many losers here?” “A stable?”
Considering the general sketchiness of the whole scene it’s easy to see why Herod, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Sanhedrin, the wealthy folk and other potentates decided to stay home that night.
These believed that they were conditionally blessed by God. They believed that their obedience to His rules, their devotion, and their wealth made them more important to Him than anyone else. The dishonest, the poor, the “unbelievers” were treated as trash because that’s how God considered them.
When Jesus reached adulthood, the powerful, wealthy, pretty people rejected him, mainly because he came from a sketchy place, and was constantly followed by the losers of his day. But he took those losers and did something with them that he never could have done with the important people. And they went out and changed the world.
Yet so many of his followers today have reverted back to a system that exalts white, wealthy, straight, “acceptable” people. That might piss you off if you consider yourself Christian, but who fills the pews on Sunday mornings? I’ve been a conservative Evangelical for 30 years, I can tell you who fills the pews.
The Nativity story invites us to make some drastic changes to our values system, especially as it applies to how we decide who’s valuable and who’s not. Christmas is a time to remember that God typically doesn’t see things the way we do. The people we call losers, God calls kings.
So you’d better watch out. Folk who consider themselves to be more important than others – especially in the name of religion – can easily find themselves missing the party.