Posts Tagged ‘shame’

True honour

July 14, 2018

Pentecost 8 – 2018

Mark 6:14-29

(Notes while on leave)

Marian Free

In the name of God, who sees who we are and not who we pretend to be. Amen.

If you watch enough gangster or James Bond movies, you will know how precarious life can be for the members of a gang or terrorist group. In order to join the group a person must prove themselves by committing a crime or an act of violence. Once admitted, a member cannot afford to show any sign of weakness lest they be despised, humiliated or even abused by the other members of the gang. The position of leader is even more tenuous than that of members and can only be maintained by a continual show of strength and even violence. Any sign of insurrection or lack of discipline within the group must be dealt with immediately – the perpetrator put back into their place or in the worst-case scenario disposed of in order to establish the fact that the leader is the ultimate power within the group.

This is not a modern problem. Any examination of the ruling class in Great Britain will reveal that many of the Kings (or Queens) obtained their power through subterfuge, brutality, war or murder. If they achieved their goal, they were vulnerable to attack by those whom they had deposed or disenfranchised. The only way to maintain their hold on power was by violence and oppression. Because they had achieved their position by force, they had to hold on to it by force. They could never be sure who their friends were and had to always be on high alert because just as he/she had sought power, so he/she could be sure that someone else was waiting to take the power from them at the first opportunity. (The current documentary about Lady Jane Grey illustrates this most clearly.)

The situation was much the same in the first century. Herod Antipater had a reputation for ruthlessness. He was not a legitimate ruler, but had obtained his power by backing the winner in the battle between Pompey and Julius Caesar. The people resented him because he wasn’t a Jew and just as Rome had appointed him, so Rome could depose him if he didn’t keep the peace and if he didn’t ensure that the nation paid its dues to the Emperor. When Herod died, his son, Herod the Great inherited the kingdom and on his death the kingdom was divided among his three sons one of whom, also named Herod, is the Herod of today’s gospel. Like his father and grandfather before him, Herod was not secure in his position but was dependent on Rome and on his ability to subdue any opposition. He ruled by force – crushing any opposition to ensure that Rome saw him as a person of strength and that the people perceived him as a person not to be crossed.

It is against this background and against the background of a culture of honour and shame that the death of John the Baptist must be understood. (For a brief description of the honour/shame culture see last week’s offering.)

In the context of the time, hosting a feast was a means to reveal one’s wealth and to test the loyalty of one’s constituents. It was also a way to ensure that the guests were in one’s debt. Herod will have observed all the proper protocols in order to ensure that a) his guests would attend, b) that their honour was appropriately recognized and c) so that they would recognize their dependence on him. Seating arrangements would also have been organized to give to each person the respect due to their position relative to everyone else. The food will have been of an appropriate standard and entertainment will have been provided.

It is very unlikely in such a context that the daughter of his Herod’s wife would have danced for the guests. We have to see this as artistic license on the part of the author (or the tradition). (In fact for a member of Herod’s family to have danced before the guests would have been shameful – it would imply that Herod had no self respect and was not able to manage his family.) Even had the daughter danced, the kingdom clearly was not Herod’s to give away.

Taking the account at face value (as Mark would have us do) we have to understand that Herod cannot afford to lose face or to show weakness in front of his guests. To do so would jeopardize not only his status but his grip on power. He must fulfill his promise however reluctant he is.

We live in a world that is vastly different from that of the first century Mediterranean but most of us are still concerned with how others might see us and some of us compromise our values and ideals so as not to be derided or excluded.

Jesus had no such scruples. Jesus was absolutely confident in his own self-identity. He did not hesitate to cause offense or to be considered disreputable. Jesus, though strong enough to take on the authorities in verbal jousts, was not afraid to appear to be weak and vulnerable -both in public and in private. At the last he faced with courage and confidence the humiliation of arrest and crucifixion rather than compromise his values.

Jesus demonstrated that authority and honour did not lie in externals and that it was not dependent on the good opinion of others. He showed us that true honour lies in self assurance, integrity, loyalty and faithfulness and that the only opinion that ultimately matters is that of God.

May we have the courage to do and be likewise.

Living with the promise of the future not the guilt of the past

April 22, 2017

Easter 2 – 2017

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who sets us free from sin and death and who raises us to newness of life with and in and through Jesus Christ. Amen.

It should be obvious by now that I don’t believe that shame and guilt are characteristics of a Christian life. As I have repeated throughout Lent, I firmly believe that God loves us unconditionally and that in itself makes us people of worth.

Having said that let me be quite clear about two things. Firstly if we have wronged someone or done something that we should not have done, we must take responsibility for our actions and at that point feeling ashamed and/or guilty is absolutely justified (if not essential). Shame and guilt can become a problem if, having apologized to the offended person and to God we continue to feel bad about what we have done. A second proviso is this, if we have been treated in such a way that leads us to feel polluted, weak or shameful we must not add to those feelings a sense of guilt about not being able to shake such feelings. As we have belatedly learnt, victims of abuse may need more than a lifetime to overcome feelings of shame, despite the fact that they are not/were not at fault. To impose on such people an insistence not to feel guilty is to perpetuate the abuse.

In saying that shame and guilt are not characteristics of a Christian life I mean that we are not intended to carry around our wrongdoings or a sense of worthlessness, because God has already accepted and overlooked our faults. If we are weighed down by actions in our past we may not able to move forward and to get on with living the life that God intends for us.

Jesus’ resurrection assures us that we can leave the past behind and begin again. Knowing the power of the resurrection in our lives enables us to experience the life, joy and freedom that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes possible.

The message of the resurrection is twofold. Jesus’ resurrection opens for us the way to eternal life. What is more important in the present is that the resurrection of Jesus models for all believers the power of dying to our old life and rising to the possibility of a new beginning. As followers of the risen Christ we are encouraged to continually let go of the past – past behaviours, past sins, past sorrows – and to step into a new way of being, a new way of behaving, a new way of living.

If Jesus resurrection were not enough to convince us to leave the past behind and to move into the future, surely Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances confirm Jesus’ loving, forgiving nature and his willingness to overlook past mistakes and to look future possibilities. I don’t need to remind you that all the disciples failed Jesus and failed Jesus badly – betrayal, denial, abandonment. To make matters worse all, with the exception of Judas, had promised to remain true and even to die with Jesus. When it came to the point however, Peter who had assured Jesus that he would never deny him, did so three times. The disciples who had promised to remain even till death disappeared at the first sign of trouble. Jesus died alone, without the comfort of the twelve men who were closest to him.

Yet when Jesus appears to the disciples, he doesn’t mention their failures to support him nor does he express disappointment that they fled when the soldiers came and that even though they know he has been raised from the dead, they are still cowering in terror. Jesus does not hold the disciples to account, nor does he try to make them feel responsible. He does not reprimand them for failing to be true to their word. Jesus does not behave in a way that would cause them to squirm or speak to them in such a way as to humiliate or mortify them.

From Jesus’ point of view it is as though nothing untoward had ever happened, as if everything were as it was before his arrest. When Jesus appears to the disciples, his forgiveness and grace are expressed in four ways: he does not bring up the past; he offers the disciples peace; he commissions them to do his own work and he gives them the Holy Spirit! In other words, even though the disciples have demonstrated that they are completely and utterly untrustworthy, Jesus not only expresses his continued trust in them and in their abilities but he trust them and empowers them to continue the work that the Father sent him to do.In other words, Jesus makes this unlikely, unsuitable group of disciples his agents in the world because Jesus looks not to the past but to the future, Jesus sees not the disciples’ flaws but their potential.

As that old collect says: God who created us, knows of what it is we are made. God knows that we are weak and foolish and timid. God understands that we are likely to fail – not once, but over and over again and, not once, but over and over again God puts us back on our feet and allows us to start over.

This is what it is like with God. Once we have honestly faced up to what we have done, once we have admitted our fault to ourselves and to God, it is as if it never happened. We begin with a completely new slate, restored, whole and at peace with the world and with ourselves.

We owe it to God, we owe it to ourselves to try to accept the peace of the risen Christ and to aim to live each day with the promise of the future, not the guilt of the past.

A matter of moral fibre

July 11, 2015

Pentecost 7

Mark 6:14-29

Marian Free

In the name of God who transcends both time and place and yet is ever present. Amen.

John the Baptist is something of an enigma. He provides an introduction and a foil for Jesus. He precedes the latter and prefigures Jesus. Yet despite his obvious importance, Jesus says that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John (Luke 7:28, Matt 11:11). As I have said on previous occasions, John appears to have been a source of embarrassment for the early Jesus’ followers who are keen to diminish his significance. Luke carefully crafts the introduction to the third gospel to suggest that John’s role is to point towards Jesus and that while the births of both men have supernatural overtones, Jesus is clearly the superior of the two. This emphasis is continued in the narratives of Jesus’ baptism – John doesn’t mention it at all, Luke almost skips over it and Matthew suggests that it only happened at all because Jesus insisted (Matt 3:13-15).

That John was an historical figure seems to be without doubt and that he had followers at the time of Jesus and beyond is unquestionable. Not only does John have to be accounted for by the gospel writers, but the Jewish historian mentions his death in Jewish Antiquities 18:116-19). By all accounts John was an uncomfortable figure. His style of life and his preaching were confronting. His style of dress, choice of lifestyle were hardly conventional and John’s practice of baptism directly critiqued the sacrificial tradition of the Temple in Jerusalem implying as it did that forgiveness could be obtained outside the Temple cult[1].

John was a threat, not only to the religious traditions of the time, but also to the political stability of the nation. Herod had a number of reasons to be alarmed by John’s presence and preaching that had nothing to do with Herod’s personal life. According to Crossan: “what is most explosive about John’s (baptismal) rite is that people cross over into the desert and are baptised in the Jordan as they return to the promised land” (231). Whether or not this was a deliberate inference on the part of John, it certainly had parallels to other movements that “invoked the desert and the Jordan to imagine a new and transcendental conquest of the Promised Land” (op cit 232). In what was already a politically volatile situation, Herod had every reason to be anxious about a man considered to be a prophet, who drew large crowds to him and who played on the imagery of the desert and the Jordan.

Josephus record of John’s death is very different from that of today’s reading. “Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind (sic) might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to await an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and to see his mistake. He was brought in chains to Machaerus [2] …… and there put to death” (Jewish Antiquities, 18:116-119).

In contrast, the Gospel tradition of John’s death not surprisingly places the emphasis on Herod’s immorality rather than his political anxiety. Though all the gospels record John’s death and the Synoptics all mention Herodias as a factor only Mark and Matthew provide the detail of the dinner, the daughter’s dance and Herod’s rash promise to give her whatever she desires.

We know then that Herod put John to death, but the actual circumstances surrounding that death cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.

Josephus emphasises the political threat to Herod’s hold on power. The gospels stress not only Herod’s insecurity, but also his immorality and his weakness. It was “because of his oath and his guests” that Herod acceded to his “daughter’s” request. In a culture that was governed by principles of honour and shame, Herod could not afford to lose face. So, whether or not he himself had qualms about the execution, he was honour bound to keep his promise. To have not done so would have been to lose both credibility and status, something that he could not afford either socially or politically.

The desire to gain and to hold on to power can often lead to the abandonment of moral principles and the adoption of violence towards any threat or opposition. History has shown over and over again that Herod was not unique. Despotic or insecure rulers can be ruthless, cruel, oppressive and unjust in their efforts to maintain their position of strength. (In very recent times we have witnessed the violent suppression of popular movements – especially in the Middle East.)

In the gospels, John’s unwarranted death at the hands of Herod sets the scene for Jesus’ crucifixion – an innocent man will be executed by a representative of Rome; Jesus, like John, will be seen as a threat to the Empire and especially to Pilate’s hold on power: Pilate will be swayed by the crowds just as Herod’s actions were influenced by the presence of his guests.

It is not just those in power who sometimes feel a need to do whatever it takes to hold on to that power, or to retain the respect of their supporters. Many of us are guilty at some time or another of behaving in ways that protect the image of ourselves that we wish to present to the world. It can be embarrassing to admit that we have made a mistake and humiliating to have our position at work, (in the community) undermined. So we cover up our errors or lay the blame elsewhere. We behave in such a way that will ensure the regard of others – sometimes at the expense of someone else.

Today’s gospel does not come with an obvious message, but read in this way, it challenges us to consider our own behaviour and calls us to examine our own integrity. As followers of Jesus, we are called to see weakness as strength, to put ourselves last, to be indifferent to societal measures of status and power and to seek the values of the kingdom rather than the values of this world.

[1] Crossan, John, Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishing, 1991, 235.

[2] The Franciscan Archeological Institute has details of the fortress on its website: http://www.christusrex.org/www1/ofm/fai/FAImachr.html


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