Jesus at the Margins: Shame (by John Frye)

This post is by John Frye.

Jesus at the Margins: 2-  Shame

Pastors fix their eyes on Jesus the Good Shepherd. Jesus made being marginal central. He did it primarily by his meal-time practices. In Jesus’ day the Jewish culture operated on the power of shame. We in the West know little about the dehumanizing effects of an extreme shame-based culture. In 1st century Judaism social relationships were arranged hierarchically with those closest to God: the High Priest, then priests, Levites, obedient Jews on down to those most removed from God, the Gentiles, shepherds, tax-collectors, prostitutes and generally the am ha ‘aretz, the “people of the land,” the illiterate human trash. People were kept in their places by stringent social shaming.

Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus into his home and immediately proceeded to exert the power of social shame (see Luke 7: 36-50). By deliberately humiliating Jesus before all his guests, Simon sought to put this upstart “prophet” from Hicksville, Galilee in his proper place. Oops. Shame does not work on Jesus. Rolling with Simon’s shame punch, Jesus proceeds to interpret a redeemed prostitute’s actions for Simon and the guests. All the shame meant to slime Jesus boomeranged onto Simon. The biggest sinner at the meal turns out to be the host Simon the Pharisee!

To be marginalized in Jesus’ day meant to be shamed: publicly humiliated, socially ostracized and spiritually scorned. You were considered, not just someone who did bad things, you were a bad, unclean person. Shame attacks identity, not behavior. To up the ante, the social shame declared that you were cut off from God. You had no place at the holy table. You were an outsider. You were gutter trash. You had no identity other than to be the foil for “the righteous ones” who said things like, “God, I am so glad I am not like that tax-collector/same sex-oriented person/abortion-minded woman/alcoholic/ Hezbollah terrorist over there.”

Jesus prepares his table. The thing one never felt in his presence was shame. You felt welcomed. You felt honored. You felt joy. You felt included. You felt valued. You felt family. You heard “my friend” and looked up and saw that Jesus meant you.

“But I, I am…a very rich and hated tax-collector.”
“I am a…furious zealot with blood on my hands.”
“I am…an unclean woman with an issue of blood.”
“I am a smelly shepherd.”
“I am a desperate prostitute.”
“I am a lonely leper.”
“I am an oppressive Roman centurion.”
“I am a despised Samaritan and immoral woman.”
“I am am ha ‘aretz.”

Jesus looks at us and smiles. He raises his hands and blesses the bread from the earth and the wine from the grape. He blesses as only a Good Host, a Good Shepherd can bless. By the time he stops, we really do not care what we are, but who he is. And one thing he is: he is for us, not against us.

Jesus, as host, says, “Hey, Deborah and Matthew, separate a little bit. We’ve got to make room for father Abraham when he shows up. Good. You guys there, make a place for Isaac. All right, let’s eat.”

Dark shame flees into the night in the presence of Light. Sadly, the fleeing shame that seeps into the crevasses of graceless hearts turns into Christless animosity. Shame hates being shamed. In West Michigan many souls have been driven far from God by the use of religious shame. These victims are the religiously battered. A large segment of well-meaning, but misguided Christians in this region have replaced the Spirit of God with the death-dealing tactic of shame.

Jesus said, “This is My body given for you” and they felt no shame.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • JohnC

    I think this is a great insight into the culture and I appreciate the sentiment – but it leaves me with a question: Was Jesus really this inclusive? I mean he ate with Simon, but he was invited. He said “this is my body given for you”, but he was talking to his close disciples. He attracted social outcasts, but he expected them to change to remain at the table. I doubt that the rich young ruler felt honored or welcome to “come as you are”. Jesus heaped shame on the Pharisees (not just their behaviour). I don’t know, maybe I am missing something, but this otherwise nice article seems to push its point to the detriment of the bigger picture of Jesus… Nevertheless, it encouraged me to be conscious of social shame and not falling into that worldly way of living. Thank you.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Thanks, John. Love this.

  • Dianne P

    I appreciate this writing and also John C’s question. Though I think the answer is – Yes, he really was that inclusive, and more – it would be helpful to have someone with better knowledge than I delve deeper into this.

    Just a lay person with lots of theology books on my shelf (little bit of knowledge, dangerous, etc), I think that Jesus did not always tell people to sin no more. I imagine that anyone who encounters Jesus, then or today, goes away with a transformed life in which one hates sin, but the reality is that we do continue to sin. The challenge is that as we do war against the “sins” in our life, we are increasingly tempted by the sin of pride. Yep, we say all the right words… God’s righteousness, not ours… but I see (others) and feel (me) that sense of self righteousness always sneaking in and looking for some soil and light. And where there is self righteousness, judgment follows. And while not like the “olden days”, shame does indeed flow from judgment.

    The other thought that came to mind was that the disciples of Jesus continued to sin. Of course, Peter comes to mind. The perpetual screw-up. One of my favorite parts of the Bible is when the risen Jesus appears to the guys who are out fishing, then feeds them breakfast and takes Peter for a little “walk and talk” on the beach. Even then (even then!), after everything that has taken place, Peter tries to look back at the other guy, I think John, and say to Jesus – What about him? I picture a DeNiro moment with Jesus focusing in on Peter – Hey, I’m talkin’ to you! Peter should have been drowning in shame at that moment, but Jesus literally reached out in love – Do you love me Peter?

    So yes, I think Jesus was that inclusive, and more so. Maybe we need to add Simon the Pharisee to John Fry’s lists of “But I am…” For he was eating in his house.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    He accepts us as we are. He knows our game. We want to be our own little gods.

    But the law (what we should be doing and not doing) exposes us and we are led to repentance (turning to Jesus for forgiveness).

    Yes, we are accepted. Yes, we do have shame for our guilt. But He declares us holy and righteous for His sake…anyway.

  • scotmcknight

    JohnC, you remind of Luke 15:1-2, 28-32 and not 15:3-27. One did not have to be transformed to sit at the table with Jesus; at table with Jesus transformed.

  • Ann

    Jesus never shamed those who were shamed by society, but I imagine the Pharisee in this story must have felt shame. I would have.

  • Tyler M. Tully

    Thanks John, this was meaningful for me and poignant.

  • Dan Yelovich

    So what does this say about “open communion”? I was taught that the Early Church limited the Lord’s Supper to those that were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. WWJD about open communion?

  • JohnC

    I never meant that we have to be transformed to be allowed at the table, i meant Jesus wasn’t calling people family unconditionally. The missing link for me in the article was repentance. I think the boundaries of Jesus’ inclusivity are defined by repentance. Yes some of his followers were known sinners, but his parable about the prodical son tells a story of the Father’s response to those that come home. And of course he ate with people like Simon who seem to have been unrepentant, but that doesn’t mean Jesus called him ‘family’. Rather more narrowly, He said His family are the people that do God’s will and respond to His Son.

  • Andrew Dowling

    No, its noted in the Gospels that was actually a charge against Jesus. That unlike John the Baptist, he didn’t require repentance for inclusion And how does the Prodigal Son support your theory? The father makes the feast without demanding anything.. EP Sanders notes that if Jesus had required repentance/change of lifestyle, he wouldn’t have attracted any scorn from the Pharisees, as they would have applauded such behavior.

  • JohnC

    Jesus required change from his followers for sure (“follow me”), but not according to the way of the Pharisees. They wanted Torah observance according to the traditional customs, but Jesus was preaching a new and improved kingdom message – which started with the word repent. I gladly affirm that Jesus was approachable, but that is not the same as being unconditionally inclusive as portrayed in this article. Maybe its an issue of what we mean by accepting/inclusive, but surely you can see that the Prodical Son ‘returned’ in order for there to be a feast – that is my understanding of the heart of repentance in the Hebrew -”come home”. Those Jewish sinners who repented like that found Jesus to be very willing to include them…

  • Andrew Dowling

    Where in the Gospels does Jesus ever require someone to repent/change before following him? It’s simply not recorded in the Gospel record.

  • JohnC

    Andrew I think we both agree that Jesus preached repentance – the Gospels are clear on that. Perhaps we are talking past each other. It seems you are emphasizing the fact that Jesus was open to approach and be approached by all. I took that out of the article and it was edifying. But I hope you will also agree with me that Jesus wasn’t going around calling unrepentant sinners that He ate with family. There were times when Jesus was deeply distrustful of people, when he chastised them for not repenting. This article does not make space for this. By inviting the people to come to Him and follow Him, Jesus was inviting them to repent and find forgiveness. That is what true repentance means – turning back to the Father and coming back home. Its just that Jesus was saying “You can do that through me”. THATS what the Pharisees hated. They could handle sinners going to the Temple to repent, but not a new Temple coming to the sinners to forgive.

  • Allen Browne

    The third paragraph especially set me thinking about how the term “sinner” in the Gospels functions precisely as a shame-caster.
    How ironic that we have made name-calling in this way the foundation of the soterian gospel. The gospel of King Jesus liberating humanity from evil’s oppression into God’s reign seems much closer to Jesus’ good news.

  • Marshall

    I’m confused; why do you say that Simon was “deliberately humiliating” Jesus? ESV says when he saw the sinful woman anointing his feet “he said to himself …” That is, it seems to me that he had an understandable reaction of surprise and confusion, and Jesus’ response is of the “knowing his thoughts” kind. Jesus asks permission to comment … still recommended practice for giving personal feedback … and Simon snarklessly gives it. The exchange seems scrupulously polite to me … ??

    Not at all to disagree with the point of the post, I just don’t understand how it applies to this particular passage.

  • labreuer

    Not all meals with Jesus were Passover.

  • John W. Frye

    Marshall, When Jesus entered Simon’s home, Simon did not extend to Jesus the common courtesies that the culture prescribed. This was a deliberate public insult to Jesus. Surely, you knew this about the story.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “But I hope you will also agree with me that Jesus wasn’t going around
    calling unrepentant sinners that He ate with family.”
    I don’t agree with that. Jesus didn’t tell prostitutes that they had to stop prostituting or tax collectors to quit their jobs to follow him. That was part of what was so scandalous about Jesus in that society; he invited everyone to God’s table regardless of who they were or what they did. DId he want people who were leading immoral lives to change their ways? Sure, but there is a huge difference between mandating such change as a requirement to sit at the table and preaching change once the table is already set and filled. Again, there is nowhere in the Gospels where Jesus refuses fellowship to anyone because they failed to repent.

  • JohnC

    John, I was wondering if you could shed any light on whether the way
    Jesus treated his fellow Jews as ‘family’ was perhaps partly motivated by the fact that they were already “sons of the kingdom” through Abraham’s covenant. I have
    always thought that the Prodigal Son story has this dimension, in that
    (unlike a Gentile) the wayward child was already a part of the family of God. I am not going anywhere specific with this question, just wondering how it factors in (if at all)…

  • JohnC

    Sorry, the comment above was supposed to have been a reply to you…


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