(Note) Annas was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, and was himself then still a figure of importance. Some have conjectured that, when the shepherds were out watching their flocks on the night of the Savior’s birth, in the vicinity of Bethlehem, the animals in their care may well have been those destined for sale and sacrifice in the temple of Zion. How to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt I don’t know. But from the mere possibility of that arose in my imagination the following story:
It was very rarely that the old shepherd, Jacob, ever saw a horse among these remote hills of Judea, so far from the roads. The usual four-legged animals about him—of which there were many—were sheep, goats and cattle, destined for sale in Zion’s Temple precincts, and for sacrificial slaughter on the altars of God.
Even more rarely did the horse ever carry a rider who was seeking him and his companions, Zacharias, Isaac and Benjamin, as this rider seemed to be doing. Their sense of mystery gave way to dread as the rider approached.
“Its young Annas,” Benjamin said ruefully.
“Barely twenty years old,” said Zacharias, “and he thinks he is God’s gift to Zion.”
“The self-appointed enforcer of the family honor, being groomed for high priest some day,” said Jacob.
“Thinks he’s royalty ’cause he comes from a priestly family,” said Isaac.
“He is royalty,” Jacob replied. “Or at least his family is the closest thing we have to royalty.”
“Don’t let King Herod hear you talkin’ like that,” said Benjamin. “Out here, even the rocks have ears.”
“Whatever you call him, this young man coming our way is our boss’ son.”
“Shall we tell him about what we seen the other night?” Isaac asked Jacob. “At some point, we gotta tell’em about the angels and the child.”
“Hold on and let me get a feel for it,” Jacob replied. “Now quiet down, everyone, a’fore he gets close enough to hear us.”
The young Annas drew near the group of four shepherds, at work around a fire, cooking food and cleaning a goat skin. From atop his horse Annas looked down upon them with an air of authority and disdain, though any one of the shepherds was at least twice his age.
“Welcome, sir. Can we offer you some bread and stew from our fire?” Jacob asked Annas.
A look of derision crossed the young man’s face. “Its probably unclean,” Annas said, “like the whole of lot of you, I suspect.”
Never a word of greeting, blessing nor respect from this boy, thought Jacob, not even for his elders.
“I’ve come to find out what you were doing the other night, that you would effectively abandon the animals,” he added.
Jacob did not want to lie to a future high priest. But priestly family or no, something about this man and his well-connected family made him seem untrustworthy. Jacob resolved to dole out only the bits and piece of truth he could safely part with, waiting to see if Annas should prove worthy of more.
“We all took turns watching the sheep, my lord. Not a one was left unguarded.”
“All of you? And throughall of the night?” the young man asked, ready to pounce on any inconsistency.
“No, not all of us, and not through all the night,” Jacob replied. “We often give each other breaks, especially when its as cold as it’s been lately.” That much was true.
“Just what is the minimum number of guards you usually keep over our livestock?”
Jacob hesitated a moment, and then replied, “It depends on where they’re pasturing, Sir, and how many livestock there are, and whether or not any should be kept near town.”
“But we’re between high holy feasts, aren’t we?” Annas sneered. “So there’s no need to keep many in the corrals near town, is there?”
“That’s right,” Jacob said, sighing.
“So now I want to know, old man, why I’ve been told that, even though everything on four hooves was out in the pastures three nights ago, there was only one shepherd with them around sunrise?” This also was true.
“Who told you that?” Jacob asked, although he knew the answer. It was as they had long suspected: the young boy who brought provisions to them was also a snitch.
“What does it matter who told me that?” Annas asked, with a rising tone of anger. “I want to know why you left everything in the care of just one shepherd before sunrise?”
Jacob thought to himself: With God’s angels all around, you don’t worry as much about wild beasts and thieves. But Jacob began to sense that this aspiring future priest would be the last man you’d tell about seeing angels and the baby.
So Jacob asked instead: “Are any animals missing, sir?”
“That’s for you to tell me, old man! And if there are, you will pay. But first, I want to know why they were effectively abandoned, when bandits or bears or jackals could have shown up and taken the whole lot.”
“Have any been seen around here of late, sir?”
“Stop trying to distract me! I’m the one asking questions. So: Why were all the animals left in the care of just one shepherd ? How would one man fight off beasts or brigands? And where did the rest of you go?”
“To Bethlehem, Sir. Its the closest town to the pasture where we were. And its well within reach of the flocks should anything happen.”
“Is that common practice among you, going into the nearest town at night?” Annas asked.
“So, the other night–” Annas began saying.
Jacob interrupted him to say, “That night were different, Sir. It won’t never happen again.” That much was truer than Annas could know.
“It had better not. If Bethlehem provides such distraction, do we have to order you never to pasture the flocks in that area again?”
Jacob liked the direction the conversation was suddenly taking, away from the reason for which four shepherds had left one in charge. Nor did Annas need to know that the one who had been found alone with the animals at sunrise had also taken a turn seeing and contemplating the wonder in Bethlehem that night, while others took his turn with the flocks.
“It would make the local shepherds happy if we never grazed there again, Sir. They don’t like the competition for the best land around.”
“Let them try to stop us,” Annas said, with a smirk. “But I’m still curious as to what might bring you into Bethlehem. Do we not provide you with enough to eat and drink?”
Jacob knew he had better not answer that one any more truthfully than he had to. “Sometimes we just get a hankering for the warmth of someone else’s company, you know?”
“So you just went to visit someone.”
“We was invited!” Benjamin interjected.
“Invited by whom?” Annas asked.
“Uhhhh—the people we seen were so nice,” Jacob added, “and it were so cold, anyone would call’em angels.”
“You were cold,” Annas said, contemptuously. “Even around your customary campfire. You must be getting older than I thought. But you should be glad that I can better tolerate weakness of the flesh than I can weakness of the spirit. Do you catch my drift, old man?”
Jacob did not.
“Do I have to explain myself? All right. Our overlords, the Romans, fear the Hebrew spirit more than they fear the Hebrew sword. Our reputation for rebellion and resistance, that’s what I mean by ‘weakness of the spirit.’ There has even been a subversive song going around these past nine months, sung by women, about how God is about to bring down the mighty from their thrones and raise on high the humble and the poor. We’ve traced it all the way back to Galilee. Perhaps you’ve heard it?”
“All we hear ’round here,” Zacharias said, “is sheep.”
“Ba-a-a-ah” Benjamin added, for comic relief. No one laughed.
“Well, when even illiterate women are singing the most subversive words of the Psalms and the Prophets, you can understand why Caesar and King Herod would be asking us questions, don’t you?”
Jacob nodded in agreement.
“And do you know where the expected Deliverer, this supposed Son of David they sing about, is to be born?”
To keep from incriminating himself, Jacob shrugged his shoulders and said, “You are the scholar of the scrolls, and not this illiterate shepherd.”
“Bethlehem, old man. Bethlehem, where everyone seems to have gone the other night, without proper authorization.”
Jacob mimicked a look of surprise.
“What’s more,”Annas added, “We’ve just received visitors from Persia.”
“But Sir, we’re at war with Persia. Everybody knows that.”
“Yes,” said Annas. “But these men came armed only with expensive gifts, saying that they were looking for this ‘Son of David,’ the newborn ‘King of the Jews.’ Do you know anything about them and their visit?”
At that moment Jacob knew he must steer the conversation away from all the other amazing things he had seen that week.
“I won’t lie, Sir. In this open country, we see a lot of things. A caravan from the East would be hard to miss. But that don’t mean we trouble ourselves with such things.”
Annas continued: “Sooner or later, old man, they’re going to come back this way, looking for this supposed Son of David. Herod is sending them this direction, so they can fill him in on what’s happening. But honestly, why the Son of David would waste time in that wretched little wide spot in the road, among the likes of you unlettered and unclean louts, is beyond me. We Saducees don’t even believe in a coming ‘Son of David.’”
At this insult, Jacob felt a warm flush of shame and anger rising to his ears. More resignation before the likes of young Annas would strangle his soul, he knew. He would take the shame out on himself or someone else if he didn’t stand up to this provocation.
“Sir,” Jacob said, “with all due respect, I may be, as you say, unlearned and even unclean. Because of that, half the time we can’t even take part in the very sacrifices and ceremonies that we make possible. We may not even know which way to read a scroll. But at night, whenever we gaze at the stars, they also tell us something about the Almighty, just like your scrolls do. Its just like seeing and hearing angels sing about the glory of God and peace on earth. In a way, you can even say that we have seen and heard such things.
“Now, I have attended a few synagogue services over the years, and while I can’t read, at least I can remember some of what I hear. And one time I remember hearing the rabbi read from the Psalms of David, that God makes his dwelling place with the lowly and the contrite. Well, sir, did you ever see a more lowly bunch than us weather-beaten old buzzards?”
Benjamin interjected: “Why, some of us are even contrite! Or at least we should be.” Some nervous laughter ensued.
“So,” Jacob continued saying, “if the Most High dwells with the lowly and the contrite, don’t you think that a hole-in-the-wall like Bethlehem would be the first place to come lookin’ for the Son of David, when he does show up?”
As Jacob spoke, he saw a look of contempt grow on young Annas’ face.
“You dare to lecture me on the scrolls and the faith of Israel? Anyway, it wasn’t even David who said that, it was Isaiah. I’ll even quote it for you: “For this is what the high and exalted One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”
“As you say, Sir.” Jacob restrained himself from asking, “So, how many of the contrite and lowly do you meet around Herod’s palace?” But that would not be a very contrite and lowly thing to say.
“It will be a cold day in summer before I ask the likes of you to interpret the scrolls,” Annas said, leaning back and pulling on the horse’s reins.
Suddenly, the horse leapt and bolted forward, throwing Annas onto his back, in a cloud of dust. A ripple of nervous laughter swept through the group of shepherds. So much for his plan to intimidate the shepherds from horseback.
But Jacob did not laugh. He felt pity instead for a man who felt the need to distance himself from others, and above others. He remembered something his father had once said, that “no one is to be pitied more than someone with no pity.”
As Annas got back up onto his feet, wiping the dust from his clothes, one shepherd stepped forward to wipe the dust from his back of his cape.
“Don’t touch me!” Annas cried. “I have priestly duties tonight.”
Jacob remembered something else that his father had once told him beside a campfire one night, long ago. “Son, whenever you feel bad about being poor and despised, like us shepherds often are, just remember that deep down inside, everybody feels little and lowly, too. Somewhere inside everyone is a little child who feels lost, alone and little, whether he’s a king or a street sweeper. Its just that some people can hide that from themselves and from the rest of us, while others just can’t. But before the Most High and Almighty, we’re all the same lost and lonely little children, like the newborn lambs in the fields around us. And the ones what get carried home on the Almighty’s shoulders are them what recognize how little they are, and who cry out for help. So its no shame whenever you feel the need of a shepherd to protect you and carry you around in his arms. Blest are you.”
Here before him, in the arrogant and self-satisfied person of young Annas, was one of God’s little lost lambs, Jacob suddenly knew. Too bad that Annas didn’t know it. They could have been friends, or like uncle and nephew, had they shared this knowledge about themselves. They could also have shared the joy of that night, and that birth, in Bethlehem.
With Benjamin holding the horse’s reins, Annas climbed back into the saddle. Before riding off, he said, “Remember: keep your eyes open for anything strange, and be sure to tell me about it. Strange things are afoot, so no more leaving the high priest’s livestock to less than four or five guards. Remember, you’re responsible for any losses.”
As they watched him ride back to Jerusalem, Zacharias spat onto the ground and said, “We’re responsible for any losses, eh? Why, on what they pay us, we couldn’t even buy one of these animals that we’re protectin’ once the likes of him sells them in the city.”
“Good thing you didn’t tell him what all we seen the other night,” said Isaac. “Somehow, I don’t think he’d take it right. We can’t trust him with such news; he’d feel threatened by it. For a wee little baby, that boy’s turning out to be mighty dangerous and troublesome. Still, it don’t seem right that we get to see angels and meet the Messiah, and he don’t.”
“That’s cuz he don’t know how much he needs to,” Jacob replied. “What’s more, if’n he wants to see God, he ain’t lookin’ low enough. There’s all the difference in the world ‘tween lookin’ down, and lookin’ low. Low is where you’re gonna see angels an’ such, which ain’t the same as lookin’ down yer nose at the world.”
“Ya mean, ‘lookin’ down’ on the likes of us?”said Zacharias.
“Yeah, the lowly and the contrite!’” added Isaac.
“There’s a lowly and contrite part inside all of us,” Jacob answered, “even him. And that’s what the baby, and them angels, come for.”
Jacob couldn’t resist adding: “Whoever it was what said it.”