Whose honour? (Matthew 5–6)

There’s an amazing logic to the Sermon on the Mount when you hear how Jesus addressed his honour/shame culture.

Open Matthew 5–6.

In leading people towards the kingdom of God, Jesus turned our entire social structure on its head. You need to appreciate the depth of that subversion to see how Matthew 6 flows out of Matthew 5.

His world was so different from ours. Not just technologically different, socially different. His was an honour/shame culture. People received their personal identity from their community. If you brought honour to your village, you were honoured. If you brought shame on your village, you were shamed. The primary social pressure was to act in a way that brought honour rather than shame to your community.

But Jesus subverts this entire honour/shame paradigm. Jesus believes it is God who raises people up or brings them down. Kingship is bestowed by the heavenly sovereign, not by human acclaim. God does not give the kingdom to those with inflated egos who ride on public honour. God gives the kingdom to people of impoverished spirit (5:3), not the mighty but the meek (5:5).

Since it is God who gives the kingdom, Jesus does not seek to gain recognition or honour from his community. Instead, he teaches them not to seek social honour from each other, but to give social honour to their heavenly ruler.

When a child brought honour to their parents, the child received honour because the family received honour. If they think of God as their heavenly Father, and they do good things to honour their Father, they are seen to be his honourable family (5:16). Jesus undermines the honour/shame paradigm: they will gain true honour by giving honour to their heavenly Father, not by seeking honour from each other.

The fly in the ointment was the current leaders who did not recognize Jesus as the king appointed by heaven. These guys were not about to give up their communal honour, to bear the shame of stepping down. That’s why Jesus undermines their honour, publicly shaming them: “If you don’t do better than your current rulers, you’ll never have God’s reign” (5:20).

The crucial move here is Jesus’ belief that honour comes from God and not from social recognition. That belief was not unique to Jesus. Think of Joseph: demeaned by his brothers, but raised up by God. When Judah fell to Babylon, it was because God had raised up Babylon (Habakkuk 1:6). When Babylon fell to Persia, it was because God elevated Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). Even foreign nations understood things this way, that the king was raised up or brought low by the gods. But Jesus takes this one step further: if God’s kingship over the earth will be restored through the one he has anointed to reign, then people should distrust the current social structure and trust in their heavenly Father instead.

So this is Jesus’ agenda, in contrast with the usual honour/shame paradigm:

  1. There is no point seeking honour from the current evil social structure: seek honour from your heavenly Father instead.
  2. Only by giving honour to your heavenly Father do you, his children, receive true honour as your reward.
  3. Jesus himself will follow this path of being publicly shamed at the hands of the current rulers, believing he will receive honour from his Father.

That framework makes sense of what comes next in Jesus’ Sermon:

  • 6:2-4. If you give in order to be honoured by people, that’s the only reward you’ll get.
  • 6:5-15. If you pray in order to be honoured by people, that’s the only reward you’ll get.
  • 6:16-18. If you fast in order to be honoured by people, that’s the only reward you’ll get.
  • 6:19-24. If you build wealth in order to be honoured by people, that’s the only reward you’ll get.

Instead, they must look to their heavenly Father as the one who gives life and honour (6:25-32). Under God’s kingship and goodness, they will receive everything they seek (6:33). God knows how to bring his people back under his kingship, even in the present evil time (6:34).

Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God implies a radically different social structure. The kingdom of the world relies on people being given honour by each other. That power corrupts people so they end up ruling over each other in ways that are evil. The restoration of God’s kingship requires people to give honour to God instead of seeking it from each other.

In what ways do you seek honour from people rather than from God? That will be our topic as we dive into Matthew 6.


What others are saying

John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011) electronic edition:

One of the most difficult things for ancient history students to get their heads around when first exploring the subject is the place Mediterranean societies gave to honour and shame. Honour was universally regarded as the ultimate asset for human beings, and shame the ultimate deficit — so much so that academics frequently refer to Egyptian, Greek and Roman societies simply as “honour-shame cultures”. Much of life revolved around ensuring you and your family received public honour and avoided public shame. …

Ancient Mediterranean cultures pursued honour and avoided shame at all costs. Honour was proof of merit, shame the proof of worthlessness. …

Honour and shame are turned on their heads. The highly honoured Jesus lowered himself to a shameful cross and, yet, in so doing became not an object of scorn but one of praise and emulation. …

As a plain historical statement, humility came to be valued in Western culture as a consequence of Christianity’s dismantling of the all-pervasive honour-shame paradigm of the ancient world.

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 206:

Matthew begins this section of Jesus’ teaching with a thesis statement summarizing his point: Do your righteousness for God to see you, not others (6:1).

[previous: Is God male?]

[next: Authentic or acting?]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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