Two weeks ago, I received my MA in Old Testament from Abilene Christian University, which is another step towards my goal. My path, so far, to achieving my goal has not been easy. It has not come without personal, family, and financial difficulties. It has also included some unexpected detours and disappointments. As a result, my hoped-for path (if successful) will be more protracted (and more costly) than I anticipated at the start. Despite these hardships, I have not regretted giving up my very lucrative career to venture down this path. It has been one of the most life-enriching decisions I’ve ever made. In some sense, the hardships and difficulties have made my decision even more precious. Often that’s the way it is in life. The more costly or difficult something is, the more we value and appreciate it—the more it changes our behavior.
The culmination of my degree was a thesis. If you’ve never written a thesis or dissertation, let me tell you, it’s quite the task. Long months of research, writing a prospectus, getting it approved, assembling a committee—all before writing the thesis itself, which ended up being over 150 pages (nearly 48,000 words). My thesis examined how warrior dialogues in the books of Samuel reflect cultural ideas of honor and shame. I know you’re probably wondering what relevance does a topic like that have? Well, it turns out, quite a bit.
One of the first issues I encountered in my research was how difficult it was to pin down definitions of words like honor and shame—even among scholars who study these terms.
Honor is often equated with reputation, esteem, respect, and even face. Honor and shame in the biblical world were not merely terms of recognition; they were matters of life and death. In their book, The Social World of Ancient Israel, Matthews and Benjamin note that honor represented the ability of a household to care for its members and covenant partners. Honor impacted household commerce, marriages, and even decisions regarding which warriors could fight for the tribe. A loss of honor resulted when a household could not fulfill these obligations. In extreme cases, the loss of honor could mean the loss of land and children. In the biblical world, the loss of land and family could amount to the loss of eternal life since the memory of the dead at their tombs was the only form of eternal existence ancient Near Easterners usually contemplated.
Honor was a valued asset. In a sense, honor was a commodity that people actively sought to increase—not only to enhance their standing within the community but also to enhance the standing of their household. There were acceptable behaviors and rules for social interactions which had varying degrees of value for enhancing or diminishing honor.
Some scholars claim that virtually every interaction outside of the family group was a challenge to honor—especially for men. Personally, I think that’s a bit overblown. However, enhancement and preservation of honor were definitely important and not to be taken lightly. In the first century Roman world, rituals and customs around gift-giving were intricately tied to honor. Gifts were not mere expressions of thanks but a carefully considered mechanism for enhancing honor. By giving a gift, a person established a relationship and expected something given in return in the future. In the broad sense, gifts could include favors, introductions to influential persons, or even invitations to meals. In a sense, Roman society—at least the upper levels—seemed to run on an economy of honor and the obligations surrounding it.
I think it’s in this honor-seeking, gift-giving cultural context that Jesus offers this teaching on meal invitations.
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.Luke 14:12–13 (NRSV)
What’s really striking about this teaching is that Jesus gives it to the host who has invited him to a meal at his house. That takes some real chutzpah! I think the expectations that came with gift-giving help add some color to the parable Jesus tells at that same meal (Luke 14:15–24), but I’ll save that for another time. Incidentally, Jesus’s teachings against this sort of reciprocal gift-giving are not unique. Other Jewish teachers and rabbis wrote against this before and after the time of Jesus. Even some Greco-Roman writers expressed concerns over the practice.
The Opposite of Honor
People tend to think shame is the opposite of honor. That’s not really correct. Shame is not the opposite of honor. The opposite of honor is scorn, disdain, dishonor, or even contempt. These words reflect the reactions of others that challenge or diminish another person’s honor. They are also the reactions someone might have when a person seeks to challenge their honor.
The exchange between David and Goliath just before their battle is full of scorn (1 Sam 17:41–47). There’s even a beautiful symmetrical escalation of the contempt. I pulled this table from my thesis, which shows the carefully crafted exchange.
|Am I a dog?||Certainly not! But worse than a dog!|
|You come to me with sticks?||You come to me with sword, spear, and javelin But I come to you in the name of YHWH . . .|
|Cursed David by his gods||You have defied [YHWH]|
|Come to me||I will strike you down and cut off your head|
|I will give your flesh||I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine Army|
|…to the birds of the air||…to the birds of the air|
|…wild animals of the field||…wild animals of the earth|
One very small aside: if you look up this exchange in your Bible, you may not see this first line of David’s response. It’s in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), but not in the Hebrew. There are LOTS of differences between the Greek and Hebrew texts of David and Goliath. But that, too, is a discussion for another time.
David and Goliath engage in a verbal battle designed to dishonor their opponents before the physical fight begins. Contempt like this often accompanied challenges to honor when one person considered the other person of unequal (lower) status. Clearly, Goliath saw David as an unworthy opponent and responded accordingly.
This sort of verbal sparring and scorn is not unique to the Bible. In fact, exchanges, as we see between David and Goliath, aren’t really the norm in the Bible—even among warriors. But we do see similar exchanges in Greek writings. In particular, Homer’s epic, The Iliad, has similar dialogues before warriors duke it out. But in The Iliad, most of the real scorn or contempt happens after the battle has been decided. The victorious warrior stands over his dying victim and gloats. In some cases, the loser uses their dying breath to predict some dire fate awaiting their opponent as one final blow.
Shame, on the other hand, is a concern for your honor. A person unconcerned with their reputation is considered shameless. As anthropologists use the term, shame is a positive value and a desirable trait. Shame serves to regulate behavior and relationships in a community. Someone who is shameless acts in ways contrary to the expectations of their community, with little concern for the consequences. Social anthropologist Unni Wikan goes so far as to claim that, in the Mediterranean world, it is shame rather than honor that is the prevailing concern. Shame drives behaviors and actions more than the pursuit of honor. She observes that shame and honor relate differently to behavior. While honor is a character trait or aspect of the person, shame applies only to an act.
I’ve been thinking a lot about honor and shame for the past 18 months. So, when I see them in a Bible passage, they get my attention. For the last month, our church has been focusing on the opening lines of Hebrews 12:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Heb 12:1–3, NIV italics added).Hebrews 12:1–3 (NIV, emphasis added)
Do you see the honor-shame language? The cross was not only an instrument of torture; it was an instrument of shame reserved only for the worst offenders. For a society so concerned with honor (having shame), to be sentenced to death by crucifixion was the ultimate dishonor. The cross was Rome’s way of saying you were the worst of society, beyond any hope of redemption. In academic circles, this is known as disintegrative shaming. This goes way beyond a loss of dignity. The resulting dishonor could have far-reaching implications for the convicted’s family, their place in society, and even their ability to earn a living.
If you read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion, you can see the dishonor and contempt on the part of the Roman soldiers. The stripping, beating, insults, not to mention the mocking sign they put atop the cross, were meant to dishonor him. Anyone concerned for their honor (i.e., shame) would be appalled by this punishment, as likely would their family and close associates. It’s no wonder the disciples fled and disassociated themselves from Jesus.
But notice how the Hebrew writer twists these concepts around. Jesus’s honor was not diminished by the cross. It was magnified. Jesus was not shamed by the cross. Instead, he scorned the attempt to dishonor him.
I think the Hebrew writer might be alluding to the sort of scorn we see in The Iliad after the battle had been decided. God, through Jesus Christ, defeated death. In victory, the Hebrew writer envisions Jesus scorning the cross, its inherent dishonor, and the finality of death. It was a contest of unequal opponents. The natural response of the superior combatant is scorn. Because he was victorious, he receives the ultimate honor—being seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
The Cost of Following Jesus
Has the cross lost its shame for us? Perhaps the better question is: do honor and shame have much meaning for us anymore? Do we still carry any sense of shame (concern for our honor)? I don’t think we (in American culture) place the same importance on honor and shame as people in ancient times.
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34, NRSV). In my very affluent American context, self-denial means forfeiting some degree of worldly success, pleasures, or even wealth. It’s sort of like delayed gratification or maybe giving something up for Lent. But I think the original hearers and readers of these words had a different understanding. The Greek word used here for “deny” (aparnéomai) also has the sense of “to disown” or “to renounce.” In this context, I wonder if the intended meaning is more about denying your personal honor and all that comes with it. Be willing to become shameless in the eyes of society for the sake of following Jesus. That’s a much higher bar—especially in a society where so much was tied to one’s honor.
I know people in honor/face-based cultures who courageously took up their cross to follow Jesus. In those cultures where Christianity is the minority religion, the most significant deterrent to accepting Jesus Christ often has little to do with belief or conviction. Often the prime impediment is the dishonor their decision would bring upon their families. You see, a faith decision is not merely a personal choice. It is viewed as a rejection of their family, their traditions, and the values they represented. From the perspective of their families and society, these people are shameless—they have no concern for personal honor, their family’s honor, or that of their ancestors.
These individuals faced severe consequences for their decision to follow Jesus. In one case, not only did the family disown the person, they attempted to murder him! In an honor-based culture, maintenance of the family’s honor within the community takes precedence. Dishonorable actions by a family member had to be addressed to preserve honor and standing within the community. Failure to respond would result in the dishonor extending to the whole family.
Despite his familial rejection and an unsuccessful attempt on his life, he persisted in his faith—following faithfully after Jesus. In the words of Hebrews, he scorned the shame of the cross. His focus was on an even greater honor: righteousness before God. His faithful endurance ultimately led to more of his family accepting the good news of Jesus in addition to many more in his town.
I think the cross has lost some of its shame—at least in American culture. There is minimal cost to becoming a disciple of Jesus. Ironically, at even the slightest hint that our society might do something to increase the “cost” of following Jesus, we cry foul. We’ve come a long way from the disciples rejoicing in the suffering (and dishonor) they endured because of the name of Jesus. I wonder if the result is that we don’t take it as seriously as we should. If the personal price we paid for our beliefs was higher, would we value them more? Would it strengthen our faith and make us more faithful followers of Jesus? I wonder.