We’re considering Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien — an excellent book.
Understanding that Jews of Jesus’ day had an honor culture, we can re-read the Sermon on the Mount from an interesting and, I think, enlightening perspective.
(Mat 5:11-12 ESV) 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
When Westerners think of persecution, we think of imprisonment and death. But Jesus addresses loss of honor as persecution. After all, to an Easterner, loss of reputation could be worse than death.
(Mat 5:16 ESV) 16 “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
“Give glory” means “honor.” When God’s children do good works and the world sees their honorable behavior, God’s honor is increased. (And because we are God’s children, our honor increases, too.)
(Mat 5:19 ESV) 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
The typical Western Sunday school class reaction to this passage is, “Well, I’d be happy being least in the kingdom of heaven — anywhere but hell!” But in an honor culture, it’s important to be greatest and not least. Therefore, Jesus explains that obedience brings honor from God.
(Mat 5:22 ESV) 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
If you insult your brother, you dishonor him. You bring him shame. You may tempt him to seek vengeance. Therefore, insulting your brother is a damnable offense. We should not act within the church like the persecutors outside the church!
(Mat 5:32 ESV) 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
I don’t want to re-open the divorce and remarriage question. We covered that very extensively a long time ago. I just want to point out that some commentators, such as Lenski, argue that the passive voice in “makes her commit adultery” could be taken to mean “makes her perceived as an adulteress.” Jesus could be speaking in terms of her dishonor — and the dishonor of whomever she later marries.
I’m not ready to make out a complete case here, but it seems like it might be a fruitful line of inquiry.
(Mat 5:38-40 ESV) 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
I’ve been in classes where the pertinent question was how hard does a slap have to be before you can defend yourself. That’s not Jesus’ point. A slap is a sign of dishonor. In an honor culture, if a man were slapped, he’d be shamed and forced by tradition and mores to seeking vengeance. He had to retaliate. It’s not about self-defense but restoring honor through retaliation.
This is not a lesson on fighting back or self-protection. It’s a lesson opposing the honor-culture’s insistence on getting even at all costs. Jesus is plainly insisting that the days of seeking vengeance are over. It’s better to be shamed than to retaliate.
(Mat 6:1 ESV) “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
Do not serve God to obtain honor from people. Seek only honor from God.
(Mat 7:1-2 ESV) “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”
The essence of an honor culture is that you submit to the judgment of others — and that you are among the others whose judgment people must submit to. Don’t participate in judging. When someone loses face, when a friend is shamed, don’t judge. Don’t treat him with dishonor.
Notice that interpreting this passage in honor-culture terms hardly means they don’t apply to us who live in a guilt culture. The Sermon on the Mount should be central to Western Christianity, just as it should be central to Eastern Christianity.
But when we read the text, rather than seeking to turn Jesus’ words into legislation about how hard you can be slapped or what words you can use to insult someone, first read the text in honor culture terms — as Jesus would have been heard. And then ask how those same principles play out in the modern West.