Honor and Shame

If it is possible to imagine, the differences between the context of Jesus in 1st century Palestine and me in 21st century America seem to be even wider than two thousand years and six thousand seven hundred miles.


Image from USAGeo.org

The amount of change that has occurred in the world even in the last 50 years is enough to render the past a totally foreign place, let alone 2,000 years.  Anyone who has traveled knows that the amount of change that happens between getting on a plane in Alabama and landing in Jerusalem means a steep learning curve on the other end.  So it is that when we open the Scriptures and read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we are reading it through a glass colored darkly.  We can understand the story only in part.

Take, for example, the power of the honor and shame in the world in which Jesus lived.  As Asbury Theological Seminary’s Dr. Ben Wetherington notes in reference to Paul’s ministry, but with application to Jesus’ life, “The honor and shame culture Paul lived in was far different from contemporary Western culture and its values. “Honor” and “shame” in this context do not primarily refer to feelings of honor or shame, though feelings would be involved, but rather to being honored or disgraced in public.”  The goal of any point of argument in the culture of Jesus’ day would be to find a way to shame your opponent in order to bring honor to your point of view.

Which brings us to the tail end of Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus has healed the bent over woman on the Sabbath day, much to the ire of the religious authorities, and in the brief spat between them, honor and shame plays a big part.  Jesus honored the woman by laying hands on her and setting her free from her affliction.  The leader of the synagogue tried to shame her, the crowd, and by extension, Jesus, by suggesting that they came to the synagogue with bad intentions, seeking to be healed rather than to honor God on the Sabbath.  Jesus shames the leader by suggesting that his rules are merely man made and enforced only at his own convenience, in order to honor himself.

Luke tells us that when the dust settled, Jesus’ opponents were “put to shame,” and the crowd rejoiced at “all the wonderful things he was doing.”  We miss something in the NRSV’s translation of the Greek which literally reads that the crowd rejoiced at honored things he was dong.  As tensions grow between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be, honor and shame will play a large role, and it would behoove the preacher to take a moment to understand the power of honor and shame in Jesus’ time in order to preach the story 2,000 years and thousands of miles removed.


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