How Jesus Changed the Honor Code
Was Jesus teaching an “honor code”? One dimension of Jesus’ earthly ministry was helping people realign their notions of “honorability” and “shamefulness” with God’s values of honor and shame. Jesus’ teachings reveals how people access true and eternal honor from God (in rather unexpected ways). Here are three ways Jesus’ teaching taught God’s honor code.
1-The Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12)
The Greek word makaroi in the beatitudes is often translated “blessed,” but scholars tell us “honored” would be a more culturally accurate translation. The beatitudes were not pithy sayings for ensuring our happiness or moral rules for entering heaven, but subversive declarations of honor and worth. Here are some of the beatitudes (ESV) with the word makaroi translated as “honored.”
- Honored are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Honored are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
- Honored are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- Honored are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Honored are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Note the logic of each statement: Honored are the (culturally) shamed, for God will honor them.
Statements by Jesus often reverse who will be honored (and shamed). In God’s economy, all of society’s marks for shame (i.e., cross, being last, denying self, being a servant, dying) become badges of honor.
- “[B]ut whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Mt 20:26-27).
- “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mt 19:30).
- “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25).
- “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8:11-12).
3-Parables of Inclusion/Exclusion
Jesus parables often redefine who’s in and who’s out—who God accepts and who God rejects—again, in unexpected ways. These narratives of inclusion and exclusion declare honor and shame from God’s perspective. And remember, Jesus’ parables here are not to be read as ahistorical tracts about how individuals get to heaven, but historically-rooted statements on what group is truly God’s group (hint: it’s no longer physical descendants of Abraham).
- Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)—The utterly disgraceful son gets honored with a robe, signet ring, and large feast, while the “honorable” son finds himself standing on the outside yelling at the father.
- Wicked Tenants in the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-11)—Jesus redefines Israel from an elect nation with privileged status to ungrateful servants requiring expulsion. The parable is not simply a moral lesson on stewardship. Rather, it reconstructs who is to be honored and shamed in light of Jesus’ coming—“The owner will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
- The Great Dinner (Luke 14:15-24)—The regular folk are too busy to eat, so the master instructs his servant, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” This is a picture of the Messianic banquet in the kingdom.
Jesus’ teaching helps people understand the true nature of honor and shame, and how they can access heavenly honor in the kingdom (i.e., become a part of the Messiah’s family). Jesus reveals a new (and subversive) “honor code” through his teaching. And not only did Jesus teach this honor code, he embodied God’s honor in his life … and death.
So, how can we use Jesus’ new honor code to transform moral and ethical behavior? How do NT epistles flush out Jesus’ new honor code?