Category Archives: Shame, Grace, and the Cross

Shame in Acts

In recent posts we have been thinking about the place of shame in the life story of Jesus and in his parables. Shame is no less significant in the Book of Acts and the Epistles. This post and those following will provide some examples. We will again listen to expert witnesses as we look at the different passages. Here are some examples from the Acts of the Apostles:

Acts of the Apostles 11, 16 and 18

The book of Acts contains several examples of entire households being saved and baptised (Acts 11:14; 16:15, 34; 18:8). The households of Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Crispus “probably represent not only the immediate families, but also the servants and other individuals who may have been employed under their authority. … People who live within a social setting that is shame-based are more oriented toward seeing the entire social group come to Christ together or resist the message together.”[1]

“In a shame-based culture it is difficult to act in isolation from others, especially those senior to you. [Acts] seems to recognize this reality. … Entire households [are saved together which minimises] the social dislocation and avoid[s] the charge that one person has brought shame on the rest of the family. … The source of the shame is not so much tied to the propositional content of the Christian message, as it is to the scandalizing notion that someone may be acting independently from the will of the larger group.”[2]

Timothy Tennent comments: “In my experience in India over the years, I have seen several remarkable examples of extended families and other larger social groups coming to Christ together. This tendency should not be viewed, as it sometimes is by outsiders, as an abandonment of the need for individual faith and repentance. Rather, whenever an extended social network comes to Christ, it should be seen as multi-coordinated personal decisions.[3] This means that multiple numbers of people are deciding to follow Christ in a single movement, rather than through dozens of individual decisions isolated from one another.”[4] This seems to me to be somewhat over concerned for Western ideas of individuality. It elevates the place of the individual. It would be entirely possible that the gospel could bring about change at a corporate rather than only an individual level.

While we will not dwell on it here, Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch have produced a Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts which analyses each passage in the light of honour and shame being pivotal values in the New Testament world. Their detailed textual notes point consistently to on-going honour-shame dynamics, and particularly to the social interaction of challenge and riposte.[5] The Context Group[6] of theologians is gradually working through the full text of the scriptures providing commentaries which highlight the honour-shame dynamic.


[1] Timothy C. Tennent: “Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology;” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007; p98.

[2] Ibid., p98.

[3] Tennent notes: “This phrase is my own, but missiologist Alan Tippet refers to these extended social conversions as ‘multi-individual decisions’ or ‘multi-personal conversions’”. See Alan Tippet, “People Movements in Southern Polynesia: A Study in Church Growth,” (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p123-241.

[4] Tennent, p98-99.

[5] Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch; “Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts “; Fortress Press, Augsberg Fortress, Minneapolis, 2008.

[6] The Context Group is a group of theologians and anthropologists of whom, Malina, Pilch, Neyrey and Cook, among others, are leading members. They seek to enable a wider audience to engage with the social realities of biblical cultures.

John 18 and 19 – The Passion Narrative

Shame and honour are present in the story of Christ’s passion. They are significant in the narrative. Jerome H. Neyrey says that “The passion narrative in John 18-19 is profitably viewed in terms of the values of honour and shame.”[1]

Neyrey reads John 18 and 19 through the lens of the typical honour challenge (claim, challenge, riposte, and public verdict). “This bring[s] the phenomena of honour and shame to the surface in that narrative and … interpret[s] the endless confrontations described there in their appropriate cultural perspective. Thus from the narrator’s point of view, Jesus maintains his honour and even gains more in his death; he is in no way shamed by the events.”[2]

Jerome Neyrey’s comments are informative and helpful as we think about the place of shame in the gospels.

John 18:1-11 – The Arrest – Normally capture and arrest would denote shame – but the gospel portrays the display and maintenance of honour. Jesus steps forward and takes charge of the situation (18:4); he knows all things before-hand (18:4); he asks the questions (18:4) – this is usually done by the one in power! The soldiers draw back and fall to the ground (18:6) – bodily posture in the presence of an honoured one. The sequence is repeated (18:8-9) to re-emphasise it.

Statements (18:8-9) also emphasise that Jesus is in control – ‘Let these other go’ and ‘This was to fulfil the word which he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those you gave me’’. So “the narrator presents Jesus firmly in control: knowing all that will happen, asking questions, controlling the events, giving commands, and receiving profound respect from his would-be assailants. He is without doubt the most honourable person in the situation.”[3]  Jesus suffers no shame. Nothing happens against his will, so he is in no way diminished.

Simon Peter’s response, although usually the correct one (a riposte to challenge of honour), is out of place. “Normally failure to respond to a challenge is shameful, but here Jesus explains that it is precisely out of honour that he refuses to resist, that is, out of respect for the will of his Father.”[4]

John 18:12-14, 19-24 – Jewish Investigation – throughout these passages we see a conflict taking place, an honour contest of challenge and riposte.

John 18:28-19:16 – Roman Trial – the extended conflict of charge and refutation, challenge and riposte continues. This occurs on several levels. First, those who deliver “Jesus to be judged engage in their own challenge-riposte game with Pilate. … This challenge-riposte game between Pilate and the Judeans will be continued in 18:39f and 19:6,12ff. But the main contest focuses on the formal process of Jesus before Pilate, which is also an elaborate game of challenge and riposte.”[5]

Charges are brought in verses 29-33. Jesus is than taken to see Pilate (18:29-33). This “serves as the forum where Jesus’ honour claims are both challenged and defended. On the level of rhetoric, Pilate asks questions which challenge Jesus, whose riposte is initially a clever strategy of answering a question with a question. … By questioning Pilate, Jesus might be said to be giving a riposte: ‘Do you say this of your own accord’ (18:34). Pilate’s response is not only scorn (‘Am I a Jew?’), but mockery of Jesus. How shameful, he points out, that  ‘Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over’ (18:35).”[6]

Pilate’s verdict (18:38b) “ tells the reader, at least, that Jesus’ claims are publicly judged to be honourable. … Honour defended is honour maintained. Yet the public verdict in this honour contest remains unclear.”[7] The honour-shame contest or game then continues between Pilate and the crowd (18:39-40) before Pilate gives a judicial warning (19:1-5) – a lashing is technically a judicial warning – intended to inflict pain but especially to humiliate and so discredit troublemakers. The mockery Jesus endured “is far more painful than the physical beating because it produces the most dreaded of all experiences, shame.”[8]

“But if the actors in the drama are portrayed as shaming Jesus, it does not follow that readers of this gospel must concur. On the contrary, insiders have been repeatedly schooled in irony to see Jesus’ death as his ‘being lifted’ to heaven (Jn.3:14; 8:23; 12:32) or his ‘glorification’ (Jn.12:23; 13:31f; 17:1,5). … In short, the gospel inculcates an ironic point of view that death and shame mean glory and honour.”[9]

Pilate’s presentation of Jesus to the crowd, in the culture of the time would provoke laughter and derision. Crowds regularly gathered a public executions to participate in the mockery (see Matt.27:38, 39, 41). Jesus own people call for his shameful death, and issue “a new challenge to Jesus honour: ‘By our law he ought to die, for he made himself the Son of God’ (19:7). The crowds consider this ‘claim’ to be so serious a charge as to warrant the death sentence. And so a new trial ensues to deal with the new charge.”[10]

The drama continues with the final verdict and sentence (19:12-16). The next point worth noting here comes in 19:19-22: “The game of push and shove continues over the public title attached to Jesus’ cross. Pilate’s inscription … may be read as a final ironic riposte by the narrator in defense of Jesus’ honour, comparable to Caiaphas’s ‘prophecy’ about Jesus’ death (Jn.11:51). It is also Pilate’s act of authority in defense of his own embattled status. The title, which may be construed as another honour claim, is once again challenged by the Jerusalem elite, who urge a more shameful version: ‘This man said, I am the King of the Jews’. Again they charge that Jesus vaingloriously assumes honours not rightfully his (19:7,12). This time Pilate wins: ‘What I have written, I have written’ (19:22).”[11] (p131).

These events then move on to the crucifixion (19:17-37) and the story makes clear that what takes place is shameful: the crucifixion itself; the surrounding criminals; the mocking title; Jesus nakedness; various people mocking him. The “spectators would give public witness to the shame of Jesus’ death.”[12]

Timothy Tennent asks us to note even more: “A crucifixion involves several parts, including the scourge, carrying the beam to the place of execution and, finally, the agonizingly slow death after being impaled on the beams. The scourge has all the elements of public shaming. Jesus is stripped naked, his hands are bound, and he is publicly beaten, including spitting and repeatedly striking the head (Matt. 27:30). All the features of honor are brought forward in a mock coronation ritual ceremony, adding to the humiliation and shame. Jesus is given a crown of thorns for his head, a purple robe to wear, they shout “Hail, king of the Jews” as they strike him (Matt. 27:29), and they mockingly bend their knees and bow to him. Everything is done to maximize the shame.”[13]

Carrying one’s own beam to the place of execution is a form of shaming, especially since it is carried publicly through the streets and the criminal is taunted along the way by the crowds. “The Scriptures emphasize that Jesus is forced to carry the cross (John 19:17), and considerable attention is given to the fact that he is publicly mocked and taunted by several different groups of people (Matt. 27:38 –43; Mark 15:27 –32; Luke 23:35 –39). Ancient crucifixions took place in public (John 19:20) …, the criminal was nailed to the beam and exposed naked. This is emphasized in the scriptural account, which records that Jesus is nailed to the cross and placed between two criminals. Then the soldiers take his clothes, possibly even his undergarments, and divide them among one another (John 19:23), an act explicitly mentioned as a fulfilment of Psalm 22. … The vocabulary of shame is integral to Psalm 22, which foreshadows his humiliation,”[14] just as shameful acts are explicit in different accounts of the crucifixion. “… Thus to them he dies a brutal death, apparently a victim whose life was taken from him in violent fashion. His blood is spilled, without hope of vengeance or satisfaction. This is what outsiders see and count as shameful. … The narrator, however, instructs insiders to perceive this scene in terms of honour.”[15]

First, Jesus does the honourable thing by his mother.  “He defends her honour by adopting as ‘brother’ the Beloved Disciple, and by ensuring that his new kinsman will defend his mother’s honour by ‘taking her into his own house’ (19:27; see Acts 1:14). … Shame lies in being a victim and more especially in the exercise of power by another over one’s life. That may be what the eye sees in Jesus’ death, but not what the ear hears in the narrative. Jesus is honourably presented as the figure in control of events. He knows that all is now completed (19:28) and he chooses to die, ‘It is finished’ (19:30)”[16]

John 19:38-42 – Jesus’ Burial – “This gospel narrates that Jesus’ body received quite an honourable burial, despite the shame of his death.”[17]

Throughout the narrative in John 18 to 19, the narrator makes it clear to his readers that Jesus remains in control, he is honourable, he has status, but at the same time we see him embracing the shame, accepting the circumstances, being seen by others as shameful. There is an interesting and important dynamic here which the apostle Paul picks up in his Letter to the Corinthians. What the world sees and understands as shameful and honourable are not so in the kingdom of God. Honour and shame in the Kingdom are very different. It seems as though the cross, the passion of Jesus, is the point where this countercultural perspective takes final hold in the gospel message, until now it has been foreshadowed in the interactions between Jesus and his challengers, and in the way Jesus has dealt with those who were shamed, disgraced and rejected by the culture of the day.


[1] Jerome H. Neyrey; “Despising the Shame of the Cross: Honour and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative“; in Semeia 68, 1996; pp113-137.

[2] Ibid., p113.

[3] Ibid., p120, cf., Timothy C. Tennent: “Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology;” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007: p89.

[4] Neyrey, p120

[5] Ibid., p121, cf., Tennent, p89.

[6] Ibid., p123, cf., Tennent, p89.

[7] Ibid., p125

[8] Ibid., p125

[9] Ibid., p126

[10] Ibid., p126.

[11] Ibid., p131.

[12] Ibid., p131.

[13] Tennent, p89-90.

[14] Ibid., p90.

[15] Neyrey, p131.

[16] Ibid., p131.

[17] Ibid., p132

John 7 and 8

In the story of the woman caught in adultery, “Jesus is accosted in public by a group of Temple leaders. … They point to the place in the law where stoning is required for such women. They attribute this requirement to the authority of Moses. They demand that Jesus say what should be done. (There was a double trap in this situation. The Romans had prohibited the Sanhedrin from imposing capital punishment for any violation of religious codes; therefore, for Jesus to assent to stoning would be to place himself at odds with Roman policies; on the other hand, to treat the woman’s alleged offense lightly would reveal Jesus as being “soft” on the law. Their question to him was meant to be a source of consternation and embarrassment to him, leading to a public affirmation of the charges that he set aside important aspects of the law.)”[1]

In this story Jesus is being shamed by the potential exposes of his ‘laxness’ with regard to the law, and the woman is being shamed by the public exposure of her alleged sexual misconduct.

James Fowler comments: “Jesus’ response initially reflects his shame for the accusers and for the woman. He averts his eyes, looks and bends downward where he begins to write with his fingers on the ground, refusing to credit their questions. When they persist in demanding a response, he ‘straightens up’ meets their gaze, and says to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’. Eye to eye, straightforwardly, he throws the shame, directed at her and himself, back upon them. Then he kneels down again, resuming his writing on the ground. ‘The crowd melts away, led by the elders, leaving him alone with the woman. When they have gone he stands again, looking at her, and asks, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She says, ‘No one, sir’. And he says, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again’.”[2]

Jesus does not ignore the woman’s guilt, but he focuses on “dealing with her shame and her misuse at the hands of those who would have entrapped them both.”[3]


[1] Fowler; “Faithful Change;” Abingdon Press, Nashville Tennessee, 1996: p142.

[2] Ibid., p142-143.

[3] Ibid., p143.

Luke 15

“In the teaching of Jesus, both guilt and shame play important roles in understanding how we are affected by sin. Conversely, both forgiveness and honor occupy central roles in understanding the nature of God’s gracious work in our lives.”[1]

The parable of the prodigal son is not only about the son’s receiving forgiveness for his incurred guilt (Luke 15:18, 21), but also about his shame being removed, about him being restored to a place of honour as a son. “The son sought forgiveness for his guilt by confessing his sin and asking to be made like a hired servant. The father could have forgiven his son, cleansed him of any guilt, and then made him like one of his hired servants. However, the father not only forgave him for his sins, but also restored him to the place of honor as a son by kissing his face (Luke 15:20), clothing him with a robe, and putting a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet (Luke 15:22). He honored him further by ordering that the fattened calf be killed and a great celebration be held in his son’s honor (Luke 15:23). The text does not indicate that the older son was angry because the father forgave his younger brother. The actual wording of the text makes it clear that he was angry because his younger brother had been shown honor, despite his having brought shame on the family, while he who had never brought shame on the family had never been so honored (Luke 15:28-31)”[2]


[1] Tennent;“Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology;” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007: p87.

[2] Ibid., p88. A more in-depth discussion of the dynamic of ‘shame’ in the passage can be found in Kenneth Bailey; “Poet and Peasant“; Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1983, p119-133, cf. Stockitt; op.cit., p114 and Appendix 1.2 – . Bailey:”Poet…”:1983:p119-33; Stockitt:p114; Musk:p163; Nouwen:p36.

Luke 10

In Luke 10:38-42, Martha is doing the expected work of a woman in her culture; Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning from him.

Using the lens of honor and shame, Werner Mischke points out that  “ Mary sat at the Lord’s feet. She physically expressed her recognition of the honor of Jesus. In the economy of honor and shame, feet have a particular meaning. Feet are among the least honorable parts of the human body—in contrast, for example, to the right hand. This honor/shame contrast may be observed in Psalm 110:1—“The LORD says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The meaning in Mary’s action of sitting at Christ’s feet was profound and plain in their honor-shame culture—and surely was clear to Martha.”[1]

In addition, Mary was listening, she gave honour to Jesus by doing nothing except listening in humility. “Martha was distracted with much serving.” Martha was getting things done. She became preoccupied with herself. Mischke asks: “could it be that Martha’s service was a smokescreen for her preoccupation with herself? No wonder Jesus said, ‘Mary has chosen the good portion’.”[2]

Ultimately, Mary gave honour to Jesus by her humility and was praised by him. “This overturns one of the classic features of the honor and shame culture, namely, that honor and shame is a “limited good.” … Here in the story of Mary and Martha, it is Mary who willingly ‘loses’ self-honor by giving honor to Jesus – and yet, in the end, instead of losing, she gains a compliment from Jesus; Mary gains honor from the Lord.”[3] Rather than trying to impress Jesus by her service, Mary gave immense honor to him by sitting at his feet.


[2] Ibid., p23

[3] Ibid., p23-24

Shame in Luke

James Fowler provides us some examples of the prevalence of shame mainly in Luke’s Gospel. These are examples of Jesus’ interaction with people experiencing personal or social shame. “Among these one can point to the woman with an issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48), the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-42), and the story of Jesus’ gracious initiation of relationship with the tax collector Zacchaeus when he invites himself to the little man’s home and, by eating with him, conveys a profound acceptance that opens the way for his seeking forgiveness and a new life (Luke 19:1-10). In every case, Jesus breaks through ethnic or religious taboos that govern relations and build barriers between persons and groups. In every case, Jesus offers a quality of really seeing each of these persons and conveying such acceptance and regard that they find a new relation to him, to God, and to the communities of which they are part.”[1]

Other commentators direct us to other passages in Luke. In a previous post, we noted that Halvor Moxnes refers to Luke 13:10-17. Moxnes also wants us to notice, “how important the genealogy of Jesus is to the claim to status made for him”[2] (Luke 3:23–38; cf. Matt. 1:1–17.).  Genealogy gave status and honour to an individual and placed them securely in people’s minds at their appropriate level of honour, their station in life.


[1] James Fowler; “Faithful Change;” Abingdon Press, Nashville Tennessee, 1996: p143-144.

[2] Halvor Moxnes; “Honor and Shame,” in The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, R. L. Rohrbaugh, ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1996: p28, cf. Jackson Wu; “Authority in a Collectivist Church: Identifying Critical Concerns for a Chinese Ecclesiology;” Contemporary Practice of www.GlobalMissiology.org , October 2011; Web, available through http://beautyofpartnership.org/about/free  at http://wernermischke.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/authority-in-a-collectivist-church-global-missiology-oct-2011.pdf; 21st November 2103, p15.

Mark 11

In Mark 11:27-33 (cf. Matt 21:23-27; Luke 20:1-8), Jesus is confronted in the temple by the scribes, the chief priests, and the elders.

They challenge Jesus to declare the source of his authority Jesus ripostes by turning the question to John the Baptist: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The question stumps the authorities: they cannot say it was from heaven or that it was mere human authority. It is certain that no one in the crowd has the status of the scribes, chief priests, and elders, and yet these elites are rendered powerless by public opinion (Mark 11:32).

This is a classic example of challenge and riposte. In the end those watching have the final say “the artisan Jesus shames his elite challengers” because those watching acknowledge it .[1]


[1] Zeba Cook; “Honor , Shame, and Social Status Revisited;” in Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 128. No. 3 (Fall 2009), p601.

Mark 7: 24-30 and Matthew 15

A really interesting example of the dynamics of shame and honour, challenge and riposte, is highlighted by Zeba Cook. In the middle of a discussion about the place of women in public life she relates the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman (Mark 7:24-30 and Matt 15:22-28, respectively).

Mark and Matthew agree on the general outline: “Jesus is in Gentile territory when a woman approaches him and begs that he heal her daughter, who has a demon. In Matthew, Jesus initially ignores the woman. … The woman re-issues the challenge, and Jesus ripostes again. In Matthew, Jesus’ first riposte is dismissive, while the second escalates to insult. In Mark, both components are contained in the one riposte: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?” But the challenge and riposte exchange does not end there. The woman’s final challenge ends the exchange: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matt 15:26). In a clever retort, the woman accepts the insult “dog” and turns it back on Jesus, thereby outwitting him. Having been outwitted, Jesus is obligated to give the woman what she wants; she has bested him.” [1]


[1] Zeba Cook; “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited;” p608-609. She notes that Malina and Rohrbaugh comment on these passages, but do not address the challenge and riposte in the story (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels).

Mark 7: 1-16

In Mark 7:1-16, Jesus’ disciples eat their food without performing a ritual purification of their hands and the Pharisees take the opportunity to challenge Jesus’ honour.

“What kind of teacher can he be if his disciples transgress the revered “tradition of the elders” (that was attaining a status equal to the written Torah)? Jesus responds … with a counterchallenge. He challenges the Pharisees’ honor as followers of Torah, citing an instance where their tradition stands in contradiction to the written Torah (7:9-13), indeed, one of the Ten Commandments, allowing him even to apply a devastating quotation from Isaiah in his riposte. (7:6-7)”[1]

David deSilva comments that “the reader is reminded of the public nature of this exchange as Jesus addresses his last comment to the crowd (Mark 7:16). Presumably Jesus has successfully warded off the challenge and even caused his opponents to lose face with the counterchallenge. In telling these stories, moreover, the Gospel writers make the Christian readers into the public that witnesses the exchanges and gives its own verdict on who won and who lost. Their own positive estimation of Jesus (as an honorable person and as a reliable teacher of the way to please God) is confirmed as they read these challenge-riposte stories actively and appraisingly.”[2]


[1] David A. deSilva; “Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity;” IVP, Downers Grove IL, 2000, p30.

[2] Ibid., p30.

Mark 5

In Mark 5: 1-20, Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac.

He has crossed the Sea of Galilee to the region of the Gerasenes, where a man ‘with an unclean spirit,’ lives. He is a man who is well known in the region for his madness. Efforts to restrain this man have completely failed: “the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him.”

When this man sees Jesus coming, he runs out to him and bows before him. When Jesus says to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit,” the man shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” Jesus asks him his name, and he answers, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Jesus orders the unclean spirits out of the man, and they enter a herd of swine, who run into the sea.”

James Fowler asserts: “Today it is well known that multiple personality disorder generally results from severe and protracted early childhood abuse, often including sexual abuse. Apparently Jesus conveyed such authority and such acceptance of this man (and of others like him) that his soul, split and shattered like a broken crystal, could find healing and reintegration. Grace is the most powerful antidote to shame. This man must have felt a grace of such acceptance and of value as to make possible the opening of his repressed memories and the reunification and integration of his divided selves.”[1]


[1] James Fowler, “Faithful Change,” p143.