13 Dec 2012

Shepherds & Troughs: Looking at Christmas with Luke’s Eyes

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Christian hope, Christmas, Jesus, Kingdom, Luke

Coming to Luke

Sometimes at Christmas we never hear the stories of each of the Gospels. Our nativities never actually match any particular story witnessed to in either Matthew or Luke. But in fact there are many differences between Matthew’s Christmas and Luke’s Christmas. In Luke there is no mention of the Star, no wise men, no Torah scholars, and no mention of babies dying. These were not germane to his theological purpose.


Luke and Matthew begin in different places for their respective stories of the birth of the Messiah. But perhaps we are so familiar with the composite story of the Matthew/Luke mix that we miss some things that are especially important to Luke. (See my earlier Dark Side of Christmas: Loneliest Time of the Year that focuses upon Matthew)

There is a surprise at the very beginning of the story: the shepherds.  Why was this a surprise?  One commentary sheds light on why,

Shepherding was a despised occupation at the time.  Although the reference to shepherds evokes a positive, pastoral image for the modern reader and underscores Jesus association with David . . . in the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others lands.  Against this background, it is possible that Luke gets double duty from the shepherds first, developing further Jesus’ connection to David and Bethlehem, and second, graphically picturing Jesus as the one sent to the lowly and outcast.  It is to some of their number, shepherds, that the birth is announced. (The Gospel of Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible, 9: 65).

Indeed these shepherds are the sole recipients to God’s amazing news.  But the fact that the shepherds themselves receive this angelic announcement is nothing short of astounding.  Their presence at the birth indicates that the Gospel was first told to people from the wrong side of the tracks.  They are a class that was not trusted but despised.  They become the symbol of the people Jesus would serve and love through out Luke’s Gospel.


There is, perhaps, an even greater surprise here at the birth of Jesus.  This one we may (because of our pious traditions regarding Christmas) overlook even though Luke emphasizes it.  In Lk. 2.7 the Evangelist Theologian tells us, “And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger . . .”

A few verses later in 2.12 we read, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’

A few more verses down in 2.16 we learn that the lowly shepherds ‘went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”

When the Bible repeats something, as Luke has done so here 3x in just a few verses, it is wanting to underline and highlight what is being said.  Luke wants his readers to know, and not forget, that the manger is extremely important to the message of Christ’s birth.

Why? What is so important about this rather mundane point?  Luke uses the word fatne 4x in his Gospel – and only he uses the term –  the other time is in 13.15.  The word means something like “feeding trough.”  It is the place the animals eat their food.  Luke wants to stress the manger because it makes the same point conveyed by the presence of the shepherds.  The feeding trough is Luke’s way of telling us that the Messiah, the Promised One of Israel, arrives not in glory and grandeur but in utter destitution.  The Messiah is poverty stricken.  The Shepherds are there because Jesus is in their class.  An older Jesus will say, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Lk 9.58).

Remember that Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb.  Laid in a feeding trough as a infant, nowhere to call his home as an adult, and not even a place to be buried — the Promised Messiah teaches us that God works through the lowly, the powerless, and the humble.  God works through those who willing sacrifice grandness for the sake of outcasts of our world.

Reflecting on Luke’s Christmas Story

This forces the question upon me: do Christians regard the birth of the Messiah differently than the world does?  As I listen to the message coming from the world concerning his birth, it seems his impact is vague and missed.  Sometimes I suspect that some value Christmas more than the cross because the baby in the manger does not threaten our value system as much . . . is not the church culpable in this?  But perhaps if they saw Jesus in the ANIMAL FEEDING TROUGH among the untouchable shepherds then the baby just may rock our world.

Luke comes along and asks the people of God – are we really paying attention? He says the birth of the Messiah is every bit as radical and life challenging as any other segment of his life.  Jesus’s birth says that when God sent the Messiah to fallen world he was not sent to those with clout, those with religious heritage, those who had it together, those with money.  But he came to the poor, the lowly, the prostitute, the outcast . . . he came for the shepherds of this world.  He came to serve . . . not to BE served.  The Feeding Trough defines Jesus’ ministry on planet earth!

One of my favorite Christian thinkers is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  A great man of faith and greater courage.  He died in a Nazi death camp because of his opposition to Hitler.  He had the foresight to ask this question:

Who among us will celebrate Christmas right?
Those who finally  lay down all their power, honor and prestige,
all their vanity, pride and self will at the manger.
Those who stand by the lowly and let God alone be exalted, those
who see in the child in the manger the glory of God precisely in this

Luke is calling us as the Body of Christ to be molded by the feeding trough . . . just as Jesus’s own mission were defined by that moment.To be the people of God means we give up dreams of power, fame, fortune and take our place among the rejects of the world. The shepherds reappear throughout Luke’s narrative they just have “labels” like Mary, Elizabeth, lepers, Levi, and “sinners.”

So for Luke, the trough is near the heart of the Gospel story.  It is the reminder of Jesus’s identity, his poverty, his mission.  It shows us that God encased holiness in lowliness to give us a new life through the sacrificial life of the Messiah.  The trough is a call to us, to allow God to so indwell in us through his Holy Spirit that we are graced with the scent of the trough.  A humble fragrance that manifests itself in a life that looks strangely like the one lived out in the pages of the Gospel according to Luke.   One where there is an absence of pride and poverty of spirit but has the aroma of life, dignity and grace for the untouchables in our world.  May God lay our lives in that feeding trough  and cause us to be more like his Son.

Wrapping Up

Jesus.  The Son of God was born from a virgin but he was also born in a manger – a Feeding Trough. Born to a life of service to shepherds.  He was crucified because of the life chosen in the trough.  That trough shaped his message, his message shaped his obedience to the will of the Father, his obedience led him to the Cross where he was offered as an atonement for the world’s sin.  God raised him from the dead reversing the decision of Satan and the evil powers of this world . . . the one shaped by the feeding trough . . . yet serves at the right hand of the Most High on our behalf. Shalom flows from there …

3 Responses to “Shepherds & Troughs: Looking at Christmas with Luke’s Eyes”

  1. David Brent Says:

    We have a Christmas tree in our house that is . . . well . . . quite beautiful. It has a thousand white lights to remind those near of the shekinah glory . . . the light. The star on top of the tree is reminiscent of the star that led the wise men to the baby Jesus. 30 glass candles standing erect on the branches remind us of our candle
    that cannot be hide under a bushel. There is an angel at the top of the tree who sings glad tiddings though we cannot hear her. The tree is covered in beautifully colored glass ornaments reminiscent of Christmas traditions of long ago. Okay, if I say any more about how beautiful this tree is I may barf. You are probably already sick too.

    And then I find your post. It is great man and is just what I needed. Instead of a beautiful tree, what we need in our den is a feeding trough. An old used one that sort of smells. I don’t know how, but I hope to find one somewhere before our life group comes this Sunday. I’m gonna find one and plop it in the middle of our den when our brothers and sisters come for fellowship. We will turn the Christmas tree lights off and talk and gaze at the beauty of a manger.

  2. Warren Says:

    Good reminder as to our real “origins” as followers of Christ and sons of the Father – humble, among the disenfranchised, lowly. Those thoughts should temper any worldly aspirations of recognition or power – for ourselves or the church. Very good article. Esp liked this statement: “God encased holiness in lowliness.”


  3. Pastor Forde Says:

    This is so awesome and timely. I believe that the Holy Spirit drew me to your blog in light of the sermon I am preparing for Sunday morning. We live in a world that is trying it best to nullify the things of Jesus and especially the Birth of Jesus and by extension Christmas. It is a tremendous plan of the enemy and will fail. This has been truly inspirational and uplifting.

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