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Honor and Shame

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church https://www.ststeves.org

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “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.”

Reading the Bible is difficult. It is difficult because scripture often challenges our assumptions and expectations about the world. It is also difficult because the cultures in which it was originally written are very different from the culture in which we live.  These differences can cause us to miss the message of a particular passage, or leave us scratching our heads at certain stories.

One such cultural difference is the honor-shame culture that plays a large role in Biblical society, appears throughout scripture, and were understood very differently than we would understand these two values in our culture.  Whereas we think of honor and shame as positive and negative values, respectively, the original audiences of these texts understood them as both positive values—a respectable person or family had healthy amounts of both honor and shame.

For the sake of brevity, in an honor-shame culture, honor is the claim to one’s value and worth that must be acknowledged by others in the community.  It is not enough that I think I am honorable, what counts are that other people think that I am honorable.  What’s more, honor had an almost tangible quality—it could be lost, taken, or even stolen, leaving one without honor until an opportunity was presented to regain the lost honor.  Honor was the currency of society—with it you were given admission to business dealings, religion, the legal system, and community.  Without it, you were an outcast.

Shame went hand-in-hand with honor.  Most simply put, it was the impulse to protect and maintain one’s honor and the honor of the family.  Shame is what caused a person to stop and consider their actions and behaviors, lest they do something that would cause them to lose honor.  If a person did not have enough shame, then they would likely quickly loose whatever honor they might hold or gain.  While this understanding of shame is very distant to us today, it is not entirely foreign. We can hear it’s echo in phrases that we still use—when we describe someone as shameless, when we state that a person acted without shame, and even when we talk about public shaming, which is giving shame to a person who lacked shame, we are nodding to this different understanding of the value of shame.

Wrapping our heads around honor and shame as it was assumed for the original audience is important as we read today’s gospel lesson.  Without that understanding, it reads like something you might find in a newspaper advice column, a mixture of practicality and false modesty.  With that understanding, however, these two, seemingly random sayings from Jesus, can be read as instructions that play on the deeply held understandings of shame and honor, and turn them on their heads.

The first instruction that Jesus gives, about where to sit at the dinner party when you are a guest, appeals to the hearer’s sense of shame.  It starts out sounding like good advice; don’t take a seat that is above your honor so that you do not lose honor when you are put back in your place.  It’s pretty good guidance if you are concerned with protecting your honor, but Jesus doesn’t stop there; he takes it a step further and twists the whole thing upside-down.

“Don’t take the spot that you think is fitting of your honor either,” Jesus continues, “take the lowest seat, the place of least honor, for yourself.”  This is crazy!  In a culture where people work so hard to amass and protect their honor and the honor of their families, Jesus is saying to give it all up, to act as though you have no honor for yourself.  “Give it up, let go, and stop relying on your own honor” Jesus instructs, “and trust that you will receive an even greater honor.”

The second instruction that Jesus gives, about whom to invite to your dinner party, appeals to the hearer’s sense of honor.  Remember, honor was something that must be acknowledged by other people, and throwing a dinner party was one way of demonstrating your importance and increasing your esteem among people in the community, especially if the guests were also people of high honor.  Just as you honored your guests with the invitation and were honored by their presence, you would likely be invited to a gathering in turn so that they could demonstrate and receive honor. It was all a part of a complex system of giving, receiving, and acknowledging honor.

Jesus’ instructions break down the whole system, however.  “When you throw a dinner party,” he starts out, “don’t invite other people who are honorable, lest they acknowledge and return your honor. Instead, invite people who are not esteemed, people who are not honorable in the eyes of the community, and therefore have no honor to return to you.”  These instructions are social suicide.  “Stop seeking after the honor that other people give you and give it away to those who have no honor,” he says, “and trust that you will be honored in ways you can’t imagine.”

We live in a culture of scarcity—something that we share in common with the original audience of this text.  There are limited amounts of everything—limited food, limited water, limited oil, limited wealth, limited time, limited education, limited honor, and limited dignity.  We spend a great deal of our energy, so much of our life struggling to protect whatever scarce resources we can call our own.  But God sees our vain struggles and in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, cries out in bewilderment and frustration, “[my people] have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

The Good News that Jesus shares with all who will listen in today’s Gospel is the Good News of God’s radical economy, an economy that is not based on scarcity, but on abundance. Jesus offers us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in this text, where giving up and giving away what you possess do not decrease what you have but causes it to increase. It is a vision of the Kingdom where honor is not measured by the esteem of others but is measured by your ability to give and share honor with those who have no honor. It is the Kingdom where one’s wealth does not increase through hording but increases only in the act of sharing it with those who have no wealth. It is the Kingdom where the grace we have received from God multiplies only as we share grace with others. It is the Kingdom where we trust not in our own selves to overcome scarcity, trusting instead in the radical abundance of God, where we do not struggle to keep water in cracked cisterns of our own making, but live freely in God’s living fountain

What does that look like here in our community at St. Stephen’s? If we say that we are a welcoming community, it can only be because we practice welcoming people who are different from ourselves, it can only be because we welcome people who are accustomed to being turned away. If we are to say that we are a loving church, it can only be because we seek to love those who have been unloved, and we work to love those who are difficult to love.

If we wish to be a community that rejoices in the Kingdom of God, it can only be because we proclaim the Good News of Jesus to those who have been stripped of their hope and hunger and yearn for it the most. And if we are to say that we are a dignified church, it can only be because we give and share dignity with those whom society says are undignified.  

My sisters and my brothers, Christ invites us to give up our struggles over scarcity and join in the radical and abundant economy of the Kingdom of God. Come and let us be a community steeped in grace because we have first been a grace to the world.