Honor and Shame -- Innocence and Guilt

Greetings JCCS Community

Recently, my wife and I have been reading a book together called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understanding the Bible. In the text, authors E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien discuss many facets of our western culture that permeate into our understandings of our world around us, the people we encounter, and, more particularly, the assumptions we have that impact our understanding of Biblical texts.

More often than not, it is our natural tendency to assume that everyone is just like me. We assume that the way others take in information, process things, act, etc. are very much in accordance with the ways that I do these things. However, this is definitely not the case.

A major example of this permeates into our readings of the events surrounding the Easter story. Richards and O’Brien discuss a major difference between Western culture and the culture at the time of Jesus. As Westerners, we live in what they call an innocent/guilt culture. Right and wrong are two polar opposites on a spectrum and we determine how we behave in private by our sense of right and wrong. In other words, the actions that I make are based greatly upon doing what I believe (at my core) to be right. In doing this, I will feel “innocent”. If I go against my own moral compass, then I will feel “guilty”.

However, Richards and O’Brien also elaborate on how the culture in Jesus’ time did not operate on the same paradigm. They lived in a world where actions were dictated by honor/shame. People in Jesus’ day were at odds with each other trying to increase their social standing by gaining honor. In doing so, they avoided the idea of public shaming at all costs. This has a great deal of influence in why public debates were so prevalent in Jesus’ day. It was an opportunity whereby I can gain honor by being the “correct” person in a debate and my opponent would be “shamed” in their defeat.

This is all to lay groundwork to discuss the situation surrounding Jesus’ death. What probably goes without saying is that Jesus “shamed” the chief priests and teachers of the law over and over in many, if not all, of their interactions. In the eyes of onlookers, Jesus’ honor was increased after these encounters and the public shame of the chief priests kept getting larger and larger as well.

Now, the chief priests could have had Jesus killed in private. Why not? It would have been a lot easier than going through the difficulty of approval from Pilate. However, if we dive more into the honor/shame culture of their day, having Jesus publicly humiliated and shamed in front of the people would increase their own lot and have Jesus be the center of public ridicule. They did not only just want Jesus out of the way; they wanted to do so in a way that would increase their social standing as well. They wanted to shame Jesus. However, through all of this, Jesus exclaimed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”

Ultimately, Jesus’ honor rose in the sight of God; he did not need honor in the sight of men. If this were the case, then he would have called his angels down to save him and make a spectacle (this would have really shamed the chief priests). What a Saviour! He transcended the bonds that the culture of his day had placed on him.

Now, this leads us to ask the question of what cultural bonds are on us (and we may not even realize it). God calls us to live beyond these cultural bonds and avoid the ideas of honor/shame, and frankly innocence/guilt as well. We would be very self-absorbed to think that our cultural ideals are that much more enlightened than those of Jesus’ time.

So, as you enter into Good Friday and Easter, look not just at what Jesus did for you (for all of us). Look at how even in facing death and shame (what to avoid at all costs in his day), he remained faithful to God and transcended cultural ideals. Again, what a Saviour!