Monday, January 14, 2013

Honor & Shame

This post will be the epitome of a layperson's understanding of this particular topic, but perhaps it will be new information to some and provide a very general overview. Hopefully you know at this point in your life that most of the Bible wasn't written directly to you. Yes, it is most assuredly applicable to today, but we were not the intended audience and so reading the Bible can be difficult at times because we are essentially reading someone else's mail. That all being said, there were a number of social values in the First Century that give us a lens for reading Scripture (think of it like needing a certain pair of glasses to make things more clear). When we read things through this lens, certain Scripture becomes more clear to us.

The social value that I wish to talk about briefly (and also to segue into how we can better use this information today) is that of Honor and Shame. In New Testament times, honor was a highly coveted (quite literally) commodity. A person (and family) did everything they could to gain or simply retain their honor and keep shame at bay. At the time, it was really seen as a commodity, something that there is only so much of. This is one reason that the Pharisees didn't enjoy Jesus being around. To them, as Jesus gained honor with His teaching and character, they were losing it, there was only so much to go around. This is at least one of the reasons that drunkenness is condemned in the Bible; it's not that there is some magic blood alcohol content that made a person unholy, but a person would make decisions they might not make sober and these decisions brought shame to that person.

When Jesus came, He did something rather extraordinary. He brought in a reversal theme; he talked about and acted out humility. The idea of humility was not new, but it had definitely been a lost concept with the Pharisees. The word for humble (adj.) in Greek is tapeinos. The word describes a person who withdraws from the honor seeking society and is content with the level of honor that they have. Let me illustrate this. If you go about the next few days putting on a monocle and using your scholarly voice saying, "the Greek word here is actually tapeinos" then you've acted completely contrary to the concept of the word. Jesus touches on this in Matthew 6:5 when He says "when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others." Here Jesus condemns praying vainly, simply for the sake of gaining honor.

I feel like it's pretty easy to fall into that trap. Is our society really any different? Get rich or die tryin' right? We do alot of things for status (honor). We wear the right things, do the right things, go the right places (I mean, what's the use in that $100 outfit if nobody actually SEES you in it?). Like Macklemore, I tend to be like "yo, that's $50 for a t-shirt..." HOWEVER, even in my "Thrift-Shop-Style" I am still seeking a certain amount of recognition from a different set of peers. You can now start to see the dilemma can't you? It seems almost impossible to do/wear anything.

I have some thoughts on how to BEGIN the process of living a tapeinos kind of life. Firstly, we are a consumeristic culture. I am not saying that it's not ok to have nice things (necessarily), but try to be honest with yourself about whether you're buying something for quality or for recognition. I personally struggle with this just a bit. I'm not exactly an Abercrombie type of person...but I do like me some Patagonia gear and I can fall into the trap of brand connotation just as much as the next guy. Granted, their gear is in many ways superior in quality to others, however, not always necessary. I challenge you to do better than me in this. Don't fall into consumerism.

Secondly, check your motives. Are you seeking to do this in order to help others or to bring glory to yourself? Also in Matthew 6, Jesus talks about giving when He says, "don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." (v. 3) Obviously an exaggeration of sorts, but it does call us to check our motives for why we are doing some good work - for the good of another, or for the good of self. I struggle with this when it comes to speaking opportunities and other ministry related events. I truly do want to help those who I am bringing a message to, however, it can certainly feel good having a crap-ton of people come up afterwards and tell me how good a job I did.

This leads me into my third point: pass on the glory. We are commanded to do good things for the Kingdom and for others, but let us not forget the One who gives us the very breath and strength to accomplish these things. Colossians 3:17 speaks of doing all things in the name of our Lord, so that HE may be honored.

I challenge you, dear reader, live a life of humility and strive to do nothing for the sake of gaining personal honor or status. Disengage from the honor seeking culture and instead live a life so countercultural that the world may "see your good works" - not so that YOU receive honor - but so that they "give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:16)

"God Opposes the Proud, but gives Grace to the Humble." (James 4:6)  


  1. Honor & shame AND reversal all in one post!! :)

    Will done, my bearded friend.

  2. Spenser, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Let me ask you a question. You claim that Jesus did an extraordinary thing by talking about humility. Are you claiming that no Jew prior to Jesus lauded the ethic of humility (i.e. avoiding the pursuit of honor in the eyes of others)? If so, I would find that an amazing discovery. If Jesus' talk about humility was so extraordinary, why is this issue not showing up in the Gospel accounts as a source of complaint or confusion among his opponents. Just thought I would ask. Keep the musings going.


    1. I definitely don't want to insinuate things I don't know of. Thus, I say that it was likely not a new concept, but one that Jesus seems rather convinced that at least many of the Pharisees had lost, because of all the negative language used to describe their boastful acts. And I use extraordinary firstly because Jesus is just extraordinary to me, but secondly because whether it was contrary to religious practice, it was and is very contrary to the culture. The Pharisees seem to be caught up in this "pride/honor" aspect of their culture. As far as showing up as a complaint or confusion amongst opponents, it isn't as much that they attacked this idea, but embodied the idea of pride by wanting Jesus to be put to death because they saw themselves as losing honor as He was gaining it. It would likely be a convicting lesson (and one they might even admit to having validity) for the Pharisees who seem to be caught up in seeking honor, and so instead of attacking the idea, they seek to trap and kill the man behind the idea. Did I answer your question at all?