Category Archives: Shame, Grace, and the Cross

Matthew 12 (and Luke 13)

Most of the interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees were conducted in public. Both Werner Mischke and Jerome Neyrey (Mischke relying on Neyrey) talk of four steps in what was always a protocol of ‘push and shove’, challenge and riposte:[1]

(1) a claim of worth or value;

(2) a challenge or refusal to acknowledge that claim;

(3) a riposte or defence of the claim; and

(4) a public verdict of success awarded to either claimant or challenger.

Take, for example, Matthew 12:8-16, 23. In this story, we have (1) Jesus claim to honour, “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (v8); (2) a challenge to that claim, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Asked so as to open the possibility of accusation! (3) a riposte, in this case in three parts: (a) an indirect response, Jesus paints a picture of a sheep in desperate need, who would not help it, he asks (v11-12); (b) a direct response, “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (v12); (c) a demonstration of authority, “Then Jesus said to the man [with the withered hand] Stretch out your hand. And the man stretched it out, and it was restored (v13).  The Pharisees lost the contest and this is attested by the response of those present, “And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. … And all the people were amazed, and said, Can this be the Son of David?” (v15, 23).

Mishcke goes comments that “the beauty of the indirect communication, [in this case the story of the sheep] is that it creates space. It allows individuals to save face when giving bad news.”[2] No doubt, it also creates a little breathing space which might allow the protagonist to back down with losing too much face him or herself.

Halvor Moxnes provides an almost identical analysis of a parallel passage in Luke (13:10-17). In Luke the person seeking healing is a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. Nonetheless, the story follows the same structure and Moxnes comments on the same drama of challenge and risposte. He comments that “This is only one of many similar stories about Jesus; throughout the Synoptic Gospels challenge and riposte are a common form of interaction between Jesus and his opponents (cf. Matt 4:1–11; Mark 2:1–12; Luke 4:1–13; 10:25–37).”[3]

[1] Werner Mischke; “Honor and Shame in Cross-Cultural relationships;” p15; Jerome H. Neyrey; “Honour and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew;” p20.

[2] Mischke, op.cit., p17.

[3] Halvor Moxnes; “”Honor and Shame,” in The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, R. L. Rohrbaugh, ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1996, p22-23.

Matthew 5 and Matthew 23

K. C. Hanson[1] asks us to consider the blessings and woes of Matthew’s Gospel. He comments that the beatitudes (Matt.5:3-12) “are customarily interpreted as Jesus’ authoritative pronouncement of divine blessing on those who embody the listed characteristics. Some scholars have emphasised the eschatalogical nature of these formulas as promises. English translations, however, obscure the linguistic, and therefore the cultural and theological, distinctions between blessings and makarisms.”[2]

Interestingly, in view of our interest in honour and shame, Jerome Neyrey suggests that a better translation of makarioi, traditionally rendered ‘blessed’, or in some recent translations ‘happy’, would be ‘honoured’:

“In Greek the term is “makarism,” which basically means “how honorable” or “how worthy.” It does not mean that this person is “happy” for being thus. Rather the focus is on the approval and worth which Jesus gives to disciples who have had shameful experiences because of him. This may sound strange, but we ought to think of it as Jesus’ validation of and canonization of those who have paid a great price to follow him.”[3]

“Corresponding to the makarisms, the interpretation of the reproaches (or ‘woes’) in Matt.23:13-36 has been similarly misconstrued. Some have/ taken them to be pronouncements of curses or threats, while others treat them as if they were prophecies of judgement or cries of anguish.”[4]

“Makarisms constitute a positive challenge, affirming the honour of another, calling for a subsequent positve response. Reproaches constitute a negative challenge to another’s honour.”[5]  Essentially they are saying, ‘shamed …’ or ‘shameful are they who …’.

Blessings and curses are formal pronouncements by someone in authority, “not only are they formal proclamations, but they are understood as words of power; the words bring the desired result to fruition. … (Numb.22:6).”[6]  “The blessing is not merely a promise, but a formal conferring of favour and an empowerment which cannot be taken back or transferred (cf. Gen.27:30-40).”[7]

Matthew 5:3-10 – The makarisms of Matt.5:3-10 “offer honour … to whomever behaves in like manner. … The second parts identify the grant of honour for those who act appropriately.”[8]

Matthew 23:13-36 – These reproaches or woes “do not include any formal sentence or threat. Their power, therefore, lies in their success at uncovering shameful behaviours, not in legal or theological adjudication. They are implications of shame on specific groups: scribes and Pharisees.”[9]

There are a large number of these ‘makarisms’ throughout scripture and they share a common perspective on honour and shame. [10] What is particularly interesting in Matthew’s Gospel is that Matthew 5:3-10 provides the introduction to Jesus’ public ministry and Matthew 23:13-31 its conclusion. Consequently these makarisms and reproaches form an honour/shame bracket around Jesus’ public teaching!

[1] K. C. Hanson; “How Honourable! How Shameful! A Cultural Anaysis of Matthew’s Makarisms and Reproaches“; in Semeia 68; “Honour and Shame in the World of the Bible“; 1996; pp81-111, cf. Neyrey; op. cit; p164-189.

[2] Ibid., p81.

[3] Jerome H. Neyrey; “Year A: The Gospel of Matthew;” Univeristy of Notre Dame, 7th March 2011. Web. 28th November 2013.

[4] Hanson., op. cit., p82.

[5] Ibid., p84.

[6] Ibid., p85

[7] Ibid., p87

[8] Ibid., p100

[9] Ibid., p102

[10] Ibid., p104

Shame in the Gospels

The Gospels

Jerome H. Neyrey argues that many of Jesus’ parables cannot be properly understood apart from notions of public shame, which are quite different from judicial or internalized conceptions of guilt.[1] “For example, Jesus employs the social usage of someone experiencing shame in the parable of the dishonest, but shrewd, manager, who acknowledges that he is too ashamed to beg (Luke 16:3), or the person who takes the seat of honor at a wedding feast only to be asked to suffer the humiliation and public shame of being moved to the lowest place because a more distinguished guest has arrived (Luke 14:7-11).”[2] (p87).

Timothy Tennent says that “this latter passage is particularly significant because Jesus deliberately contrasts the two values of shame and honor in his exposition of the parable. In a powerful foreshadowing of the cross, Jesus tells his disciples to act like servants and take the lowliest seat in the house, and then, when the host arrives, he will publicly show honor by moving them to a higher place. Then, Jesus concludes, “you will be honored  [lit., there will be glory, doxa, to you] in the presence of all your fellow guests” (Luke 14:10).” [3]

In subsequent posts, I will be looking a passages from the gospels to identify these important themes of honour and shame. Again we will take testimony from expert theologians and I think we will see that Jerome Neyrey is right in asserting that shame and honour are significant in the life and parables of Jesus.

[1] J. H. Neyrey, “Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew,” (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998). See for example, the man without the wedding garment (Matt. 22:11-15), the wicked servant (Matt. 24:51), or the unprepared virgins ( Matt. 25:12).

[2] 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, p87.

[3] Ibid., p87.

Luke 8

A while back I came across some notes on Luke 8. Unfortunately, I did not keep a record of where I found them. I suspect I was reading a Grove booklet at the time, but I don’t know which one. Perhaps someone will let me know if they recognise the notes below. This is another passage where the dynamics of Shame are central!

All the accounts of Jesus’ meeting with women affirm the value of womanhood to him. The passage in Luke 8 is no exception.

For the wounded one, who has thought her womanhood was a liability or nothing more than a source of shame, this acceptance is in itself a healing.

Enclosed in the story of Jairus’ daughter, this account of the woman who bleeds speaks directly to her sense of shame. Stigmatized and excluded by her embarrassing and uncontrollable state, she comes to Jesus from behind, where he cannot see her, and touches the fringe of his clothes. She does not want to be noticed because in her experience notice usually leads to further shame and rejection. Her condition means that she will make him ritually unclean by her touch, and there is nothing she can do about that, but he still represents hope to her – maybe her last hope.

Who knows what she felt about the fact that she was suffering from this humiliating condition. Did she question God, like job, in the long hours of loneliness? Did she rail against him, or shrug her shoulders in resignation? Was it the will of God that she should suffer this? Or was it her own fault -some past transgression the cause of her present trouble?

She had had ten years to reflect on it – years maybe of bitterness and resent­ment, of physical pain and exhaustion. Years of anger at her helplessness, despite having done all she could to get rid of her shame, despite having given all her money to those who claimed to be able to cure her, but who were in reality just as powerless as she was herself. Perhaps now she had moved beyond all of it, to a place of no feeling at all and no hope, deadened within, until another healer comes to town. And he – what does he do? Does he draw her to one side, as he does with some others who come for his heal­ing, knowing how ashamed she feels? Does he sit down quietly with her alone, to answer her questions and enfold her in a new awareness of the love of God?

The wounded one sees it all in her mind’s eye – sees herself as the shamed woman, cut off from others by the unspeakable things that have happened to her and then sees the Christ turn to the woman, demanding that she be exposed for all to see. There was to be no more hiding away, no more pre­tence that all was well, really. There was to be no collusion between the Anointed One of God, and the religious and social attitudes that kept her isolated and increased her shame. He insisted on bringing her out onto cen­tre stage, into the gaze of all those who had shunned her with their remarkable lack of compassion. His action meant that her shame, the shame of humilia­tion not of penitence, was no longer to be the controlling force in her interior life. The power has gone forth from him, to heal her physical state, drawn forth perhaps by the silent pleading of her heart, but that is not enough for him. She must own her actions, be a grown-up, acknowledge how it is with her – and hold her head up high. The wounded one knows that if he had let the woman remain hidden then the spiritual dis­ease, the shame of humiliation, would have remained untouched and unhealed. While the shame of penitence leads to release, the shame of humiliation can only lead to continued captivity Uncomfortable though it was, it was his love which had restored the woman to wholeness. He knew her concealment was important without being told, he cared enough to do something about it, and he had the power and the desire to do so.

The story offers the wounded one the first hint of the possibility of resurrec­tion – of a new life in which the experiences of the past are not forgotten or discarded, but which might be filled now with the presence of Christ. She opens her heart to the movement of the story, to the movement of Christ within. She hears his word to her of deliverance from shame. The past be­comes charged with life not death. The remembrance of hurt and humiliation is no longer empty of love. It is lit from within by Jesus. Memory now holds the possibility of further healing and of a greater restoration to life. It is more than a simple restoration though, for in this new life she will begin to know herself and God more fully than ever before, and already there is a joy that contrasts completely with her earlier experience. Through the story of the humiliated and rejected woman, Christ himself has touched her wounded place and begun the process of healing. Christ himself is present within the wounded place at last.

Shame and the Cross

5. Shame and the Cross

A crucifixion was a shame-burdened event, “an utterly offensive affair,” (Hengel: p22; cf., Clapp: p28). The cross was known as a place of shame (Heb.12:2; cf.Albers: p103; Clapp: p28; Moffatt: p197) throughout the Mediterranean: “When Paul spoke … about the ‘crucified Christ’ (1 Cor.1:23; 2:2; Gal.3:1), every hearer in the Greek-speaking East … knew that this ‘Christ’ … had suffered a particularly cruel and shameful death, which as a rule was reserved for hardened criminals, rebellious slaves and rebels against the Roman state. That this crucified Jew, Jesus Christ, could truly be a divine being sent on earth, God’s Son, the Lord of all and the coming judge of the world, must inevitably have been thought by any educated man to be utter ‘madness’.” (Hengel: p83.)

“When Paul talks of the ‘folly’ of the message of the crucified Jesus(1 Cor. 1:18ff), he is therefore not speaking in riddles or using an abstract cipher. He is expressing the harsh experience of his missionary preaching and the offence that it caused. … [Jesus] died like a slave or a common criminal, in torment, on the tree of shame. … He was ‘given up for us all’ on the cross, in a cruel and a contemptible way,” (Hengel: pp89-90).

We need also to recognise that a cross was not so much a place of torture as a place of shame; There were and have been many extremely horrendous ways to die, and many have experienced torture and dying of unimaginable brutality. The cross was not the worst possible way to die. It was a death reserved for those the Roman empire felt free to shame, it was never used by them for their own citizens, for people of honour. It was used for slaves, for foreigners, for insurrectionists, all of whom needed to be shamed in the clearest possible of ways.

“This may be a little hard for us to grasp, for the cross has become an emblem of honour today. We wear polished crosses as jewellery; we “lift high the cross” and bear it into our services with pride. But in the first century the cross was the supreme emblem of shame. To be crucified was to be stripped naked and nailed up high, where one’s vulnerability and agony were exposed to public contempt. As we can learn from accounts of Jesus’ death, crucifixion was as much a ceremony of shame as of torture. In a Jewish culture that avoided any exposure of private bodily parts, crucifixion was shockingly obscene. Furthermore, only the most shameful elements of society were subject to crucifixion. If you were a Roman citizen, you would not be executed in this way; crucifixion was for slaves, prisoners of war, revolutionaries and bandits.” (Jewett: pp42-43.)

Jurgen Moltmann maintains that the only way to know God is to know God hidden in the cross and shame. He calls the crucified Christ alone “humanity’s true theology and knowledge of God.” (Moltmann: p212.)

In addition to the cross itself, the events surrounding the crucifixion were designed to bring the greatest possible humiliation/shame. Torture, mockery and shaming are particularly evident in the passion narratives of Matthew (Mt.26:67f; 27:27-31,39-44; cf.Morris: p686, 709-12, 716-9), Mark (Mk.15: 1,5,13f,16f,29,31f,34; cf., Clapp:p28; Cranfield:p452,456) Luke (Lk.22:63ff; 23:11,35-39; cf.Hendriksen: p996,1001f,1012f,1029ff,1040f; Marshall: p845,856,868ff) and John (Jn.18:34f; 19:1-5; cf., Beasley-Murray: p334-7; Neyrey: p123ff). We see Jesus facing not only physical pain, but deep humiliation/shame.

However, far from seeing the crucifixion as shameful, the early church saw it as the place of Christ’s glory. What was shameful in the eyes of the world was glorious to the eyes of faith (Stott:p40: cf.1 Cor.1:18-25.) Christ’s shame was his true glory. (Carey:p91ff; Neyrey:p114,118f; Stott:p40; cf.Lk.24:26; Jn.7:39; 12:28; 17:5.)


Please see the bibliography on this site.

Shame and the Face of God

4. The Face of God – In the Old Testament there is an interesting dilemma about whether human beings can be permitted to see God’s face, which equates to the overwhelming knowledge of God (cf.Exod.33:20ff; Num.12:8), and live (Gen.32:20; Exod.3:6; 20:19; 24:2,10). Yet there is an association between the face of God and ‘ blessing’ ( Num.6:24ff; Ps.4:6; 67:1), and the hiding of God’s face and divine ‘abandonment’ and ‘disgrace’ (Deut.31:16ff; Ps.22:24; 27:9; Isa.57:17; cf.Ford:p218; Stockitt:p118 ).

Seeking God’s face is associated with the pursuit of holiness and repentance (1 Chron.16:11; 2 Chron.7:14; Ps.24:3-6; 27:8) and the “shining face of God is a summary statement of salvation.” (Ford:p217; cf., Ps.31:6; 67:1f; 80:3,7,19 .) In fact, “to follow the Hebrew word ‘face’, through the Old Testament is to be offered a fresh perspective on salvation from that associated with most doctrines of atonement.” (Ford: p217.)

This is especially true if we juxtapose shame, described by a loss of face or an inability to lift the face (Ezra 9:6; cf., Stockitt: p118), with salvation represented by the ability to look into the ‘shining face of God’. The answer to ‘shame’ is to see God’s face; something greater than empathy, it is the experience of God’s smile of acceptance.

This Old Testament dynamic is worked out in the New Testament – Christ is God incarnate, face-to-face with humanity. Not only can we look to the Transfiguration (Mt.17:2; Lk.9:29;cf., Farrar:p238; Hendriksen: p504, 510; Marshall: p383), to the teaching of Paul (2 Cor.4:6 Lias:1892:p61f; Plummer:p62,121: Thrall:p317; cf.2 Cor.2:10), and the evidence of Revelation (Rev.1:16; 22:4; cf., Stockitt: p119), but if we consider Jesus using ‘facing’ as an interpretative aid: “then its literal and metaphorical ramifications are vast, ranging through the great variety of meetings, dialogues, addresses and conflicts; through ideas of rejection of evil, with conversion and repentance as ‘turning’; the Last Supper authorising a face to face community around a meal; and an eschatology (‘now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’ – 1 Cor.13:12).” (Ford: p220.)

Critically, at the Cross, Jesus cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Mt.27:46) which comes from Psalm 22. Later in that Psalm comes the answer ‘he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help’ (Ps.22:4). There is a suggestion here that we can look to the Cross for a resolution of ‘loss of face’ – of disgrace/shame. On Christ’s face “we see the cost of God’s initiative in bodily form. It is a human face that is in torment, the face of one who is in a place of shame,” (Stockitt: p118). This face was the face that had looked with pain at Peter after his denial (Lk. 22:61). In front of that face Peter’s shame was intense, but in front of that face Peter’s shame was addressed (Jn. 21:15ff; cf., Stockitt: p118).

Also at the Cross we see the dead face of Christ – the dead face of God. The dead face means that we cannot separate the atonement from the physical humanity of Christ. The dead face indicates that the person has died. The dead face, “acts somewhat like a black hole of infinite, impenetrable meaning. … But it is, most importantly, a black hole with a human face. Evil, sin, death, suffering and all the distortions and corruptions of creation can now be identified with this face. There can be no separation of person and work here. The face of this person leads to the heart of his work. Many atonement theories rely too heavily on the language of ‘event’ – one objective happening once for all. … The dead face by no means rules out event language – it is incomprehensible without it. But it ties it into person language in a way that other forms of expression do less adequately.” (Ford: p221.)


David Ford; “The Face on the Cross”; in Anvil, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1994; p215-225.
Robin Stockitt; “‘Love Bade Me Welcome; But My Soul Drew Back’ – Towards an Understanding of Shame”; in Anvil, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1998; p111-119.

For other references see the bibliography on this site.

Shame in the Teaching of Jesus

3. Shame in the teaching of Jesus – If shame is to be considered to have a prominent place in the thinking of New Testament authors, we would expect to encounter in the stories about Jesus in the Gospels.

Examples include:

Luke 11:5-13, where a sleeping man avoids shame (to himself and his village) by granting the request of his neighbour. (Bailey: p119-33; Stockitt: p114.).

Luke 15:11-32, where Jesus speaks of a family that experiences deep shame, the younger son’s requesting the money and leaving home would have brought untold shame on his family (Bailey: p165; Musk: p163; Nouwen: p36).On his shameful return to his village he expects scornful mocking by the community (Bailey: p178). The father’s actions, within the culture of Jesus’ day, were incredible. He took on himself the shame of the prodigal – running through the village, embracing both the shame and his son (Bailey: p181; Musk: p163). This story of shame, perhaps “more than any other story in the Gospel, … expresses the boundlessness of God’s compassionate love.” (Nouwen: p36; cf., Musk: p164.)

In John 8:2-11 we see Jesus dealing with the shame of the woman caught in adultery. He “shatters the solidarity of the shamers,” (Clapp: p28 cf., Jn 8:7) and, unlike the Pharisees who use shame to hurt and destroy, “Jesus uses shame to affirm and rescue a degraded woman. He does not deny the shame of her sin, but he refuses to let shame have the last word or define her.” (Clapp: p28 cf.,Jn 8:11.)


Kenneth Bailey; “Poet and Peasant”; Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1983.
Rodney Clapp; “Shame Crucified”; in Christianity Today, March 11,1991; p26-29.
Bill A. Musk; “Honour and Shame”; in Evangelical Review of Theology, Vol. 20, No. 2, April 1996; p156-167
Henri J. M. Nouwen; “The Return of the Prodigal Son”; Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1997.
Robin Stockitt; “‘Love Bade Me Welcome; But My Soul Drew Back’ – Towards an Understanding of Shame”; in Anvil, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1998; p111-119.

Shame and Honour in the New Testament

2. Honour, shame and holiness/righteousness are significant in different parts of the New Testament. So I’ve made this the second theme relating to shame in the New Testament.

We will return to this theme later, so, just for now, here are a couple of pointers to places where the pivotal values of honour and shame appear:

a) K. C. Hanson demonstrates the honour/shame dynamic behind the ‘makarisms’ of the Gospels, suggesting that honour (Mt.5:3ff) and shame (Mt.23.13ff) bracket the Lord’s ministry. (Hanson: p81ff. – ‘makarisms’ = ‘blessings/woes in Matthew)

b) Halvor Moxnes highlights the themes of honour, shame and righteousness, as an important part of the epistle to the Romans (Moxnes: p61ff). Paul, in Romans, spoke to a society with a strong honour code, which as a result was highly stratified, and had a strong sense of shame. His message to Christians subverted the relationship between honour and shame, in that he juxtaposed shame with ‘holiness’. He challenged Christians to step outside of a dynamic which was endemic in society; to have a separate identity based, not on honour/competition but on holiness/righteousness. He highlighted that the resources available to achieve this came from God and could be experienced in the life of the Spirit.


K. C. Hanson; “How Honourable! How Shameful! A Cultural Analysis of Matthew’s Makarisms and Reproaches”; in Semeia 68; “Honour and Shame in the World of the Bible”; 1996; p81-111.
Halvor Moxnes; “Honour and Righteousness in Romans”; in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Issue 32, 1988; p61-77.

Shame in the New Testament – some themes

In the last few posts we have considered some Old Testament passages in which shame is a significant theme, or where shame seems to have an impact on events. In due course we will consider some New Testament passages where this is also true. But first, some of the themes within the New Testament that are shame related.

I consider that the key elements of the New Testament approach to shame are:

(a) lack of a ‘sense of awe’;

(b) honour and shame;

(c) shame in the teaching of Jesus;

(d) the face of God; and

(e) shame and the Cross and the Passion of Christ.

We’ll take each of these in turn over the next few days:

1.  A sense of awe and discretion-shame seem to be absent from the pages of the New Testament. Indeed there is even seems to be an unabashed shamelessness evident:  “At almost every point of symbolic significance, shame – conceived as a sense of awe, a reticence before the holy – is abolished. There are no holy places that one may no longer enter into: there is no temple in the Revelation of John. There are no holy things that one may no longer touch: Peter, with his Old Testament scruples about unclean animals, is told that there are no unclean things now. When Jesus dies, the veil of the temple is rent in two. … Jesus does away with special holy places and permits free access to God.” (Schneider: p115, cf., Mt.27:51; Mk.15:38; Lk.23:45; Acts.10:9ff,24ff; Rev.21:22.)

Further, Jesus challenges the traditional meaning of the Sabbath (Mt.12:1ff; Lk.13:10ff.), and introduces familiarity into relationship with God. Paul defeats ‘Judaisers’ who want to impose Jewish rituals on new Gentile believers. (Acts 15: 1-35.)

This might appear to suggest that all vestiges of shame/awe can be cast off, and perhaps explains the absence of shame in the traditional thinking of Western society and the Western church. This is, I believe, not what was intended. We are intended to read the New Testament against the backcloth of the Old.

The New Testament: “adds an important dynamic to the picture. The religious encounter is not only one of reticence before that which one venerates; it also involves the revelation of what is hidden. Religion may be understood as the dialectic of covering and uncovering of the sacred in time and space. … The freedom and intimacy of the New Testament presuppose the restraint and respect of the Old Testament. The invitation to address God as ‘Abba‘ is issued to those who dared not utter His name.” (Schneider: p116.)

This does not, however, go far enough. The ‘dynamic of covering and uncovering’ is essential to religious experience, but so also is the sense that ‘shame’ has been dealt with. This is not to imply that we are now to be ‘shameless’, or that ‘shame’ should no longer be part of the experience of Christians, but rather to note that the experience of shame, first noted at the Fall, has been realigned or renewed by the work of the ‘Second Adam’.


Carl D. Schneider; “Shame, Exposure, and Privacy“; Beacon Press, Boston, 1977.


John J. Pilch’s in ‘Introducing the Cultural Context of the Old Testament’ focuses on Wisdom literature, and to help his readers understand how important honour and shame were in Ancient Israel, Pilch takes them on a journey of discovery around the book of Proverbs (Pilch: pp49-70). He comments: “The core values of Mediterranean culture are ‘honor and shame’” (Pilch: p49). He explains it like this:

“The central or core value of our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith is ‘interpersonal contentment’. This value dictates that people should be content with what they have and not worry about getting ahead of others, achieving more than others, or being better than others. This, in fact, is what Mediterranean people are ‘anxious’ about: not to infringe on others, and not to allow others to infringe on them.

“Such anxiety revolves especially around the value feeling of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’. Whatever the status into which a person is born is ‘honourable’ and must be maintained throughout life. Indeed, being born into honour is the chief way of getting it. The reason for genealogies in the Bible is to let the reader know that the person to whom this genealogy is applied is honourable because the entire ancestral line is full of honourable people.” (Pilch: p52.)

Pilch then goes on to help his students reflect on a whole series of different verses from Proverbs (3:9, 16, 35; 4:8; 5:9; 6:33; 8:18; 11:16; 13:18; 14:31; 15:33; 18:3, 12; 20:3; 21:21; 22:4; 26:1, 8; 27:18; 29:23). His asertion is that these proverbs are intended to direct and control people’s behaviour and to do so they include sanctions and rewards. It seems as though the writer’s carrot and stick (my words) are honour and shame. Take Proverbs 13:18 as an example:

“He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame,
    But whoever heeds correction is honoured.”

“Honor is contrasted with disgrace (shame). … Honor results from heeding instruction, particularly reproof (discipline). The book of Proverbs is … ‘wisdom literature’ which is practical, down-to-earth advice on successful living. Such wisdom helps a person maintain honor” (Pilch: p57), and avoid being shamed.

Pilch then encourages his readers to look at references to shame in Proverbs ( which include: Proverbs 10:5; 12:4; 13:5; 14:35; 17:2; 18:3; 19:26; 25:8-10; 28:7; 29:15). Shame, he says, “in a positive view, is a sensitivity to one’s honor and a determination to guard and maintain it. In a negative view it is the result of a loss of honor” (Pilch: p61). Consider Proverbs 28:7 as an example:

“He who keeps the law is a discerning son,
    but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father.”

“Gluttony bespeaks having more than enough. The Mediterranean cultural obligation when one has more than enough is to share with those who do not have enough. To be capable of gluttony means one has refused to share, and this is shameful. Notice who bears the shame. The father is tainted by the son’s misbehaviour.” (Pilch: p63). Pilch goes on to elain that shame and honour are never purely personal matters. The son shames the father, the father bears that shame as a deep pain negating his honor, his place in the community, he is reduced as a person.

Shame in Proverbs, then, is a sanction. It seems to affect the family of a miscreant rather than necessarily the miscreant him/herself. For those who are shamed, there is little they can do to change the circumstances. Shame overwhelms them but they have nowhere to turn to resolve their predicament. Their honour has been taken away.


Please see the bibliography on this site.