Challenge-Response in an Honor Society in Matthew’s Gospel

I’m reading through David deSilva’s The Hope of Glory right now which looks at how the New Testament authors sought to shape the behaviors and social interactions of honor-sensitive people. What is an honor-sensitive person? How did the New Testament writings help early Christians on gaining honor and self-respect before God and withstand the outside society’s pressure to return to their pagan roots?

I can’t answer these right now, but there were a few insights I thought were notable.

Challenge-Reposte (Response)

One common form of gaining honor in Mediterranean culture was to offer a challenge to another person of equal social status. If the one challenged fails to respond effectively, they would lose honor, whereas the instigator would gain honor (p. 10).

We see a smaller variation of this in sarcasm and comebacks. The one who can “come back” with a remark is seen as quicker and wittier (though, perhaps, not always more honorable).

We see these challenge-responses occur often between Jesus and the Pharisees, especially in Matthew’s gospel “(cf… 9:1-8; 11:2-6; 12:1-8; 15:1-20; 16:1-4; 19:3-9; 21:15-17; 22:15-22, 23-33, 34-40, 41-46)” (p. 48). 

“A sizable amount of Matthew’s gospel portray’s Jesus and various representatives of Judaism (especially the Pharisees and the scribes) as competing for honor and the results of honor, influence and authority as interpreters of God’s law. Jesus’ repeated victory in these contests contributes to establishing his greater authority to teach the ways of God as the superior interpreter of Torah in particular and Scripture more broadly” (p. 48).

Then with His final challenge-response victory in Matthew 22, He has silences his opponents, astounding the crowd (Mt. 22:33), and segues into His scathing censure of the Pharisees in chapter 23.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t seek to gain honor in this way to boost His self-esteem. What He says in Matthew 23 is for the benefit of the people. The Pharisees are hypocrites who “bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (23:4).  They love lifting up other rabbis so that they themselves will be lifted up in honor. But Jesus flips their pride in 23:11-12,“But He who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles will be exalted.”

“Matthew’s gospel, therefore, affirms the teaching of Jesus as the way to fulfill Torah so as to receive God’s approval….The audiences are also supported in their commitment to discipleship and assisted in deflecting any pressure put upon them by non-Christian Jews by Jesus’ censure of the Pharisees, which is given considerable weight not only by Jesus’ victory over them in public challenges…but also by God’s explicit affirmation of Jesus as the spokesperson of God’s values” (p. 50).

In reading Matthew’s gospel believers would be strengthened to remain committed to Christ, for He is the one who is the true honorable guide to conduct (and eternal life), rather than to return to the “ways of their ancestors” by giving into pressure from the rival Jewish groups, those censured as dishonorable for their ignorance of God’s law.

I may post a few more insights like this one. If so, the next one will be on how the “head” and “face” of a person is seen as honorable, and we’ll look at slaps across the face (Mt. 5:39), Jesus’s crucifixion, His courage through it, and forgiveness. That is, if I can fit all of that into one post.

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