October 17, 2012

Shame and Honor Reversed

Matthew 21:28-32

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.”
—Matthew 21:29


Every culture has its particular views of honor and shame. Eastern cultures have strong codes of honor and shame about speaking to family members. In Jewish circles it was notoriously shameful to look your father in the eye and declare, “I will not.” And yet that’s what the first son in this parable does.

In Western society today that would also be disrespectful. But if my son refused me with such a response, I would probably reply, “Well, let’s talk about this”—and I would explain to him why he needed to obey as well as to respect his father. But in first-century Palestine the father would have slapped that son across the face.

On the other hand, the second son in the parable says, politely, “I will, sir”—but then does not obey. The father would have been impressed with the show of respect, but not with the result. This son does not truly honor his father.

Jesus tells this parable to challenge the definitions of honor and shame in Israel. Honor demands both respect and obedience.

What needs to be challenged in our culture today? Is the pursuit of possessions or status more respected than the pursuit of godly living? Do we live by a code of ethics that needs to be shifted by Jesus? What reversals of thinking and living are necessary as we try to apply this parable to our lives?

Lord, turn us upside down till we become right side up. Teach us to follow your ways faithfully. For your sake, Amen.

About the author — Dean Deppe

Dean Deppe has been a pastor in inner-city, suburban, and rural ­churches. Currently he teaches New Testament theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. His courses include one on the parables of Jesus. He and his wife have four grown children.

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