This post will be the epitome of a layperson’s understanding of this particular topic, but perhaps it will be new information to some and provide a very general overview. Hopefully you know at this point in your life that most of the Bible wasn’t written directly to you. Yes, it is most assuredly applicable to today, but we were not the intended audience and so reading the Bible can be difficult at times because we are essentially reading someone else’s mail. That all being said, there were a number of social values in the First Century that give us a lens for reading Scripture (think of it like needing a certain pair of glasses to make things more clear). When we read things through this lens, certain Scripture becomes more clear to us.
The social value that I wish to talk about briefly (and also to segue into how we can better use this information today) is that of Honor and Shame. In New Testament times, honor was a highly coveted (quite literally) commodity. A person (and family) did everything they could to gain or simply retain their honor and keep shame at bay. At the time, it was really seen as a commodity, something that there is only so much of. This is one reason that the Pharisees didn’t enjoy Jesus being around. To them, as Jesus gained honor with His teaching and character, they were losing it, because they thought there was only so much to go around. Honor is at least one of the reasons that drunkenness is condemned in the Bible; it’s not that there is some magic blood alcohol content that made a person unholy, but a person would make decisions they might not make sober and these decisions brought shame to that person.
When Jesus came, He did something rather extraordinary. He brought in a reversal theme; he talked about and acted out humility. The idea of humility was not new, but it had definitely been a lost concept with the Pharisees. The word for humble (adj.) in Greek is tapeinos. The word describes a person who withdraws from the honor seeking society and is content with the level of honor that they have. Let me illustrate this. If you go about the next few days putting on a monocle and using your scholarly voice saying, “the Greek word here is actually tapeinos” then you’ve acted completely contrary to the concept of the word. Jesus touches on this in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:1-5 Jesus condemns doing things, even good things, for recognition by others when He says “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (1a) and “when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” (5a)
I feel like it’s pretty easy to fall into that trap. Is our society really any different? Get rich or die tryin’ right? We do a lot of things for status (honor). We wear the right things, do the right things, go the right places (I mean, what’s the use in that $100 outfit if nobody actually SEES you in it?). Like Macklemore, I tend to be like “yo, that’s $50 for a t-shirt…” HOWEVER, even in my “Thrift-Shop-Style” I am still seeking a certain amount of recognition from a different set of peers. You can now start to see the dilemma can’t you? It seems almost impossible to do/wear anything without seeking some sort of recognition.
I have some thoughts on how to BEGIN the process of living a tapeinos kind of life. Firstly, we are a consumerist culture. I am not saying that it’s not ok to have nice things (necessarily), but try to be honest with yourself about whether you’re buying something for need/quality or for recognition. I personally struggle with this just a bit. I’m not exactly a Ralph Lauren type of person…but I am a sincere outdoor enthusiast and I am a fan of Patagonia gear. In this way, I can fall into the trap of brand connotation just as much as the next guy. Granted, their gear is in many ways superior in quality to others, however, not always necessary. I challenge you to do better than me in this. Don’t fall into consumerism.
Secondly, check your motives. Are you seeking to do this in order to help others or to bring glory to yourself? Also there in Matthew 6, Jesus talks about giving when He says, “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (v. 3) Obviously an exaggeration of sorts, but it does call us to check our motives for why we are doing some good work – for the good of another, or for the good of self. I struggle with this when it comes to speaking opportunities and other ministry related events. I truly do want to help those who I am bringing a message to, however, it can certainly feel good having a crap-ton of people come up afterwards and tell me how good a job I did. The following question may help in this: Does owning/wearing/doing this bring God glory? If no, that thing might very well get in between you and God.
If your answer to the question above is yes, the follow up question then is: How can I best get out of the way so that God is glorified, and not me. Essentially, we must pass on the glory. We are commanded to do good things for the Kingdom and for others, but let us not forget the One who gives us the very breath and strength to accomplish these things. Colossians 3:17 speaks of doing all things in the name of our Lord, so that HE may be honored.
At the heart of all of this is the very first step in the call to discipleship in Mark 16:24 when Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves”. I challenge you, dear reader, to deny yourself and live a life of humility, striving to do nothing for the sake of gaining personal honor or status. Disengage from the honor seeking culture and instead live a life so countercultural that the world may “see your good works” – not so that YOU receive honor – but so that they “give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
God Opposes the Proud, but gives Grace to the Humble.” (James 4:6)
Spenser Wilson Bolte is a Youth Ministry graduate of Oklahoma Christian University and is currently pursuing a Marriage and Family Therapy degree at Abilene Christian University. He has interned at several churches in NW Arkansas and aspires to be a Youth & Family Minister wherever God may take him. He writes a personal blog called “The Mind of a Bearded Theologian” at spenserbolte.blogspot.com
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