Honor and Shame
In contrast to Western culture, Middle Eastern values were centered around the group rather than the individual. This key difference puts less weight on power and fame, and more on the honor and shame one brought to the group.
Gaining the respect of others, from close friends to complete strangers, was the goal of any individual in this time period. To succeed in challenges and show yourself as an upstanding member of society also earned one respect from their community. Yet honor was a fragile thing that sometimes was lost easily.
“The man who takes an honored seat at a banquet and is asked to move to a lower one is shamed before his colleagues, a fate almost worse than death.” Luke 14: 8-9
This idea of having and losing honor is found throughout all of Jesus’ parables and teachings.
As hard as it was to gain honor and keep it, shame was easy to come by. It could come from a rebellious son, an infertile wife, lost fights, and even simple unkindness to strangers. This shame on one person encompasses an entire community, no matter the type or severity of said shame.
Typically, a person who had shamed their family or community was not quickly forgiven. Yet in Jesus’ teachings sometimes forgiveness for these transgressions was the entire point. In the Prodigal Son, the eldest brother shows the typical response one would have when a family is shamed multiple times; he is angry. In spite of this the father waits with open arms for his shameful son.
This unique action of forgiveness or redemption from shame is actually a common occurrence throughout the Bible, and the best example of this is Jesus’ story.
Jesus’ Shame and Honor
Jesus gained honor quickly through his travels, both through his kindness and teachings as well as in his cleverness in arguments with religious leaders who opposed him.
This quickly changed when he was brought up against Pontius Pilate and accused of being blasphemous, and he was entirely shamed when he was crucified for the express purpose of being tortured and humiliated in public.
After his death, Jesus was redeemed in his resurrection. God showed forgiveness for the sins and shame of Jesus’ life and restored his honor to him as quickly as it had been lost at the time of his death.
This idea of redemption from shame quickly became a focal point to Jesus’ followers. They believed that they, in a sense, must take up the cross as Jesus did and follow his example to receive forgiveness for their sins.