Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Honor, Part 4 (The Sermon on the Mount)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible  -             By: E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien    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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Honor, Part 4 (The Sermon on the Mount)

  1. Gary says:

    Lenski’s view of Matthew 5:32 was also that of Hugo McCord in a very persuasive article he wrote many years ago.

  2. Price says:

    I wonder how our often demeaning conversations with those that disagree with our personal understanding of IM, or baptism or # of cups or with those outside of our particular faith heritage over countless other issues generate shame and anger that seeks to avenge itself ? I think we often see ourselves as the one who is being “slapped” but perhaps we do more of the slapping than we would care to admit… Just a thought.

  3. Jim Haugland says:

    This series has been very interesting! I can see why God commanded Israel to utterly destroy their enemies because under an honor-vengeance-retribution system if there were any enemies left they would forever hate and seek vengeance upon Isreal. Is there a sobering lesson for us in our war against Muslim terrorist nations??

  4. I always thought that the key to turning the other cheek was in the second slap. I offered the other cheek, because I have been indoctrinated in the immutable requirement to “do what the Bible says”. Now, I have been slapped on the other cheek as well. NOW, what do I do? In one sense, this is not working for me. Follow God and you’ll be rewarded, right? I got another loose tooth. And it has occurred to me that if I keep doing what I am doing, this could go on all day– an entirely unpleasant prospect. Simple obedience-to-the-text is not going to hold up long in this environment. Only if I catch the spiritual vision– of responding to God instead of responding to man– can I walk out the things which Jesus calls me to do. And even then, I cannot do it simply on principle. I have to follow a Person, directly. Stuff That Person Said is not enough to support the radical sort of life for which we are called. And I don’t think Jesus ever intended us to live on a second-hand connection of that sort.

  5. Qandil says:

    Jim Haugland: If I remember correctly, there were only two instances in Scripture where the children of Israel were commanded to carry out a complete genocide of their enemies:

    – Namely, upon initially entering the promised land – where the children of Israel were commanded to utterly wipe out seven specific nations — and ONLY those specifically enumerated nations! (Namely, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites.)

    And, then on one other specific occasion, namely, in the battle, against the Amalekites in 1. Samuel 15, (where Saul, however, was also unfaithful and disobedient.)

    Otherwise, there was NEVER a blanket command or standing order in any other battles for the Israelites to utterly destroy their enemies (carry out a genocide)!!!

    The reason for these seven specific nations to be destroyed upon entering the Land of Canaan had already been enumerated by God to Abraham (originally, it was ten specific nations!), but 450 years of further grace were first to be given them, before Israel was to be allowed to enter the promised land, until the measure of those nations’ sinfulness had apparently passed the point of no return and no repentance. (cf. Genesis 15:13-16!)

    — But by the time Moses and then Joshua were finally to do the deed, the number had dwindled to only seven specifically enumerated nations. (Evidently, the others had already died out in the interim?) (Genesis 15:19-22 additionally enumerates: the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, and the Rephaim; there, however, there is not yet any mention of the Hivites.)

    Besides being appointed as the instrument of God’s divine judgement, the major reason was also so that these thoroughly corrupt nations would not pollute and corrupt Israel’s morals. There is no mention of the practical danger of any survivors seeking vengeance as a consideration. But because the Israelites were initially unfaithful in utterly wiping them out, God then RESCINDED and annulled that original commandment of annihilation, no longer allowing or enabling Israel to either drive them out ore annihilate them!!! (Cf. Judges 2:20-3:5!)

    — Such that when subsequently, Uriah the Hittite served faithfully in David’s army (even though David adulterously sinned against him with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and then had Uriah murdered to cover his own sin), there is no indication that there was any sin or disobedience involved in the fact of there still being Hittites alive and flourishing in Israel.

    — Nor that there was any sin in the fact of Ornan (Araunah) the Jebusite still being alive and owning land in the land of Israel, where David insisted on paying him for his threshing floor, and for his oxen which David sacrificed, after the ark of the Covenant had come to stand there. Several other similar examples could also be cited.

    What is noteworthy, is that despite how grievously the children of Israel suffered at the hands of both the Philistines, and the Midianites, (two other nations also dwelling in the land of Canaan!), NEITHER of these two peoples were EVER included in the list of nations to be wiped out!

    The children of Israel (in stark contrast to what many modern Zionists, both “Christian” and otherwise, often falsely claim!), were never given an EXCLUSIVE title to the land!!! Nor (except in the case of the amalekites), has God’s one-time commandment to completely annihilate those seven specifically enumerated peoples ever been re-iterated or repeated (after God Himself specifically withdrew and cancelled it!), with reference to any of Israel’s other enemies subsequently. (Let alone being applicable by modern-day Israelis to the modern-day Arabs or Palestinians!)

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