Honor Culture in the Gospels

So, as promised and in much “quicker (?)” time than my Introducing the Apocrypha posts [1 and 2], here is the second part of my Honor and Shame series. 

David deSilva’s The Hope of Glory takes a glance at how the New Testament authors sought to change the behaviors and social interactions of honor-sensitive people. What is an honor-sensitive person? It’s someone who wanted to have honor for themselves and for their community. They wanted to have a good name for themselves and for their family and local community. 

The “Head” of Honor Culture

When someone was the head of the home, a tribe, or a group of people, they were the honorable authority. They carried the responsibility for caring for the group, and they were to be honored. 

Along with that, even the physical head was honored. Kings wore crowns on it, and priests were anointed with oil on it. It was a physical representation of honor granted to the recipient. On the other hand, dishonor was brought through slapping (Mt. 5:39), striking (Mk 15:19), and beheading (Mk 6:25-29). 

The Sanhedrin slaps, strikes, and spits on Jesus’ face (Mt. 26:65-68). The Roman soldiers give Him a mock “crowning”, mock prostration, and more strikes to the face (Mt. 27:27-31). 

Another dishonor, a huge dishonor, was crucifixion. “Corporeal punishment, such as flagellation or crucifixion, is an act of degradation imposed upon the body, a token of the lack of esteem in which criminals, who are so punished, are held.” (p. 13). 

Yet, though this is the most dishonorable of acts, the Gospels promote the innocence, justice, and courage of Jesus all throughout. Jesus’ opponents are the most dishonorable, being presented as envious (Mk 15:10), plotting to kill Jesus by trickery and deception (Mk 14:1, 10-11), and bearing false witness in court in order to deem Him guilty (Mk. 14:56-59). 

However, Jesus was not a character of a misfortunate circumstance. The passion predictions (16:21-23; 17:9-12, 22-23; 20:17-19) show that His trial, torture, and death were not a surprise.  His death was intentional. More than that, it was noble. In fact, it was “voluntarily accepted and enacted for the benefit of others” (p. 46). 

From as early as Matthew 1:21, we see that it was Jesus’ purpose to save His people from sin. Jesus said He came to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Mt. 20:28), and His blood is of the new covenant which will be shed for the remission of sins (Mt. 26:27-28).

The betrayal of Judas and the envious plottings of the Jewish leaders came as no surprise to Jesus. He knew how His life would end, He knew it’s how it should end, and He knew it was meant for others. 

Matthew records signs at both the beginning of Jesus’ life and at the end, signs which enhance the honor and significance of His death. Yet of all the signs, God gives the final and ultimate  “response” to the “challenge” of Jesus’ enemies (Mt. 27:43; Mk 15:31-32) through the resurrection. And it was through the resurrection that God gave Jesus the name above every name (Phil. 2:9). 

Jesus came to set things straight from society’s skewed views of honor. What they saw as great was not, and what was not was. Jesus came to turn that around (Mt. 20:24-28) in serving one another. Matthew heavily emphasizes forgiveness. It is underscored in the Lord’s prayer (Mt. 6:9-15), the parable of the forgiven and ungrateful servant (Mt. 18:23-35), and in the afore-mentioned “slap across the face” instance where, instead of slapping back, one turns the other cheek.  

When someone slaps you across the face as a “challenge-response,” why should you forgive them? That’s not the “response” that would advocate honor in this honor-hungry society. But it is the response that Jesus calls us to make. The response that flies in the face of society’s expectations. Jesus, the same King who forgave us an enormous debt (Mt. 18:24-27) and expects us to forgive others of their minuscule debts (Mt. 18:28). The same King who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). The same King who endured the torture, the shame, the mocking, and crucifixion for the joy that was set before Him (Heb 12:2) to sit at the right hand of the Father. 

He calls us to forgive, to go against society’s shaming tactics, and to love our neighbor, for when we arrive at the end of the race, when we’ve made it through all of the trials and difficulties that life chucks at us, we will hear, “Well done, My good and faithful servant,” and we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 Jn. 3:2). 

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