3 February 2004 - Tuesday

Honor in shame

Let's do a little culturally-conscious exegesis. Because I feel like it. And because I ran across something fun tonight.

David A. deSilva, in The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation:

Cultural anthropologists have also discovered a common form of gaining honor in modern Mediterranean villages that appears to have deep roots in Mediterranean culture. Honor may be gained when a person offers a challenge to another person of equal social status and the challenged one fails to respond effectively in defense of his or her honor. This form of social interaction has been labeled the "challenge-riposte" .... The challenge may take many shapes, some of which may be overtly hostile (such as a slap across the face) and some of which appear quite innocent (such as a question) .... The witnesses will be looking for the response of the one challenged, and will adjudicate whether or not the response meets the challenge. In the words of Julian Pitt-Rivers, "the victor in any competition for honor finds his reputation enhanced by the humiliation of the vanquished."
As I read this, my thoughts immediately went to Matthew 5:38-40. The idea of "turning the other cheek," failing to respond assertively when slapped across the face, takes on a slightly different meaning when viewed in a challenge-riposte context.

Western exegesis of the "turn the other cheek" command usually focuses on the violence of the act and the peacefulness of the response. Some modern pacifists seem to base their entire worldview on this one brief passage. In its cultural context, however, the key theme in the passage is perhaps not peace but humility. Jesus encourages his followers not to be so concerned with their personal honor, but to pursue personal righteousness instead. They are not to find approval from society but from the Lord. Vindication is unnecessary.

It would be improper to assert that this honor-shame dynamic is the only idea being examined in the Sermon on the Mount. However, several different elements in the sermon make more sense when viewed in this light.

When the Beatitudes praise every sort of humility, for instance, they do so within a culture that values very few things more than high community esteem; the Beatitudes provide hope of divine honor for those whom society dishonors (5:11-12). When Christ tells his disciples to be "salt and light," he tells them that they may need to be different from their culture; significantly, he says that their uniqueness should cause others to glorify God -- not them (v. 16). Anger is to be forsaken, not channeled for honor's sake (v. 22). Reconciliation is to be valued more highly than vindication (v. 24). Oaths should not be elaborate and magnificent but simple and truthful (vv. 34-37). Enemies should be loved, not conquered (vv. 44-45).

Honor in the Sermon on the Mount comes properly not from man but from God. The theme continues into the next chapter, as Christ condemns religious hypocrisy and extols the virtues of contentment.

I find it interesting that this sermon is the first major teaching that Matthew records after the formal beginning of Christ's ministry. Jesus began preaching in a context that defined an individual as a function of his society. Religious norms were the defining characteristics of a Judean's identity. Christ's disciples stood to lose a lot of honor. He proposed that his followers adhere to an alternative source of honor -- a Patron recognized an unimpeachable authority on the subject.

It is easy to lapse into a traditional Sunday school perspective on this sermon, repeating platitudes about how we should get along with everybody or conform to an especially strict set of religious rules. I think we would benefit from considering instead that Jesus was preaching an inherently nonconformist doctrine. For congregational honor he was substituting singleminded allegiance to God. For religious pride he was substituting unconditional love and personal humility. Far from being a hymn to religiosity, the sermon turns religiosity on its head. Nothing fulfills the Sermon on the Mount less than being "nice" because it is expected by the church. Only when one ignores the expectations and esteem of other men, however pious, will one understand what it means to follow Christ.

| Posted by Wilson at 23:59 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk