Shepherds and Wise Men


Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2017

The story of the Birth of Jesus Christ, as we all know it, and as it is depicted in movies and songs and in countless nativity scenes, is not really one story, but two that we have tied together. What we know about the birth of Jesus, we now from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, two different authors who give us different details about this miraculous birth. If you only read one gospel or the other, you miss out, because each of them contain only a piece of the whole story. While our tradition has woven these two storylines together to give us one image of the nativity, it is helpful sometimes to unravel them to see how they complement each other.


In the gospel of Luke, which we read on Christmas Eve, we hear of the census that was taken while Quirinious was governor of Syria. We are told that Mary and Joseph found their way to Bethlehem, where she gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. We are also told that there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, that were told by an angel that they would find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. There is however, no star, and no mention of the wise men in Luke’s account.


In the gospel of Matthew, which we read tonight on Epiphany, we hear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, but there is no mention of a census, no mention of an inn, no manger and no shepherds. Instead, Matthew tells us this fascinating tale about these wise men following a star. It leads them to a child that was born King of the Jews, and there they offer their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.


In Luke we have shepherds but not wise men; in Matthew we have wise men, but no shepherds. Now I point this out not to argue that one version is more reliable than the other, but rather to show that our understanding of the birth of Jesus comes from two different stories that focus on different details. It is not that one must be right and the other wrong; we aren’t being asked to choose between Luke and Matthew; we simply need to recognize that the image we have of Christ and his birth is a composite, made up of different stories that while probably true in the details they present, are nonetheless incomplete. Sometimes it is only by looking at the differences in the stories of the gospels that we can really appreciate what they have in common and the great truth, which they are all trying to point to.


On the surface it would not seem that Luke and Matthew have much in common at all: just the characters of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the little town of Bethlehem. Afterall, what do shepherds and wise men have in common with each other? Our two birth gospels give us two very different types of people that are able to identify and adore the baby Jesus: the very wise and the very simple. The wise men travel far, are entertained by kings and priests, and are able to offer the child expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; the shepherds, who only keep company with the sheep and the livestock, find Jesus in their own town, but have nothing to offer him but praise and adoration. One group was probably dressed in fine and exotic clothing, the other in the only homespun clothes that they owned. Of all the people that could have been found at the birth of Jesus, it would seem that few could have less in common than wise men and shepherds, and yet, those are the only ones our gospels tell us about. The only people who were able to find Jesus were the very wise and the very simple; those that knew nothing, and those that knew that they didn’t know everything.


If you are a smart person you know things; if you are a wise person, you realize just how much you do not know. It can be dangerous to just be smart. You can have a little too much confidence in your own intelligence. You can put too much faith in your own version of reality and fail to see that others may see things very differently than you. A smart person may be able to memorize every word of the gospel of Matthew; a wise person will recognize that his account is only one part of the story.


A wise person recognizes the limits of their own understanding. Wise people realize that no matter how much truth they possess, or how much they think they know, that God and his truth will always be infinitely greater. The late archbishop Fulton Sheen commented in one of his Christmas broadcasts that there were “only two classes of people that heard the cry that night in Bethlehem: shepherds and wise men. Shepherds: those who know they know nothing; Wise Men: those who know they do not know everything. The very simple and the very learned. Never the man with one book! Never the man who thinks that he knows.”


What do the wise men have in common with the shepherds? Humility. They both understand that here is a mystery that is being revealed to them: this is not something that they figured out under their own power. None of them found the baby Jesus under the power of their own intellect; they were each in their own way guided to him. For the shepherds it was an angel, for the wise men it was a star, but each had to recognize that they did not already have all the answers, all knowledge or all truth. They had to have the humility to put their faith before their understanding, not ignoring what they knew, but always remembering that they did not know all.


When you look at a nativity scene, you will discover that actually all types and sorts of people were able to find Christ in the manger: Jews and Gentiles, Rich and Poor, Learned and simple; different races and different classes. What they all had in common was humility. Each one of them understood that they only had a piece of the whole story.