Jesus The Shame-Bearer

As we approach the Passion Week, it might help to think about Jesus’ crucifixion in a threefold way:

1. Cross-Bearing: The physical pain of Jesus’ death

2. Sin-Bearing: The spiritual anguish of Jesus’ death

3. Shame-Bearing: The public humiliation of Jesus’ death

We do a pretty good job in our churches of emphasizing (1) the physical suffering of crucifixion and (2) the spiritual anguish Jesus experienced bearing God’s wrath for our sins at Calvary. And so we should. Because most of us do not live in the honor culture like the New Testament world, however, we tend to miss (3) the shame-bearing that public crucifixion entailed. Perhaps a story will help.

My vocational pilgrimage has been delightfully schizophrenic. I still can’t decide whether I want to be a seminary professor or a pastor when I grow up. I have oscillated between the two jobs now from nearly two decades.

After some fifteen years of church ministry and a bit of adjunct teaching, I made the transition to academia in an official capacity in the Fall of 1994. I took a part-time but permanent position with the New Testament faculty at Talbot School of Theology. The plan was to bring me up to full-time when I finished my doctoral program a couple years later.

The two years came and went, and I was itching to get back into full-time church ministry. I told my dean at Talbot to give the job to someone else, and I jumped on board as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, in February, 1996. I will never forget the reaction of one particular group of students at the seminary.

For a variety of reasons, related to the expansion of Christianity in the Pacific Rim and to our own history as a school of theology, Talbot has had the privilege over the years of training large numbers of pastors for the church in Korea.

These young men and their families make tremendous sacrifices to come to the States, learn a new language and culture, and get a top-rate theological education to take back to their homeland. They are some of our hardest working students. They have to be.

One day in early 1996 I announced to my classes that this was my last semester as a professor at Talbot. I was going back into full-time church ministry [Little did I know that I’d be back in the classroom full-time in 2001, but that’s a story for another time.]

The reaction of my Korean students took me completely by surprise. They suddenly began to act quite uncomfortable around me. As I probed a bit, it became clear that these international students felt deeply sorry for me. They were somehow ashamed for me, as well.

Traditional Asian culture, you see, is wedded to honor and shame in much the same way as people in Jesus’ world were. Instead of military victory and public office holding, however, today’s Koreans regard educational achievements and vocational status as the key criteria for honor in the public sphere.

Additionally, and also characteristic of an honor culture, my Korean students view Christian education and ministry in markedly hierarchical terms. At the top of the pecking order is the seminary professor, with his august educational degrees and pedagogical authority. A local church pastor, although still a big fish in a small pond, doesn’t even come close.

The Korean brothers who heard my announcement in class that day couldn’t imagine that a seminary professor would willingly trade a position at the top of the spiritual pecking order for the lesser job of a pastor. They could only assume that someone else made that decision for me, against my will.

So these dear Korean students, sympathetically sharing in the shame they assumed I was experiencing, did not know quite how to respond to their now former, demoted professor.

The point of the above story should be quite obvious: in an honor culture, whether Korean or Roman, to willingly step down the ladder of public esteem is simply unthinkable. A Roman senator named Pliny put it like this, ‘It is more uglifying to lose, than never to get, praise’ (Ep. 8.24.9).

Willingly stepping down the ladder of public esteem, however, is precisely what Jesus did for you and for me in his incarnation and subsequent death on the cross: ‘He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:8). The early Christians were highly sensitive to the utter shame that crucifixion entailed in their social world—thus Paul’s emphatic phrase ‘even death on a cross.’

One of our earliest recorded Easter sermons describes the great paradox of a humiliated God like this:

He who hung the earth [in its place] is fixed there, he who made all things fast is made fast upon the tree, the Master has been insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been slain by an Israelitish hand. O strange murder, strange crime! The Master has been treated in unseemly fashion, his body naked, and not even deemed worthy of a covering, that [his nakedness] might not be seen. Therefore the lights [of heaven] turned away, and the day darkened, that it might hide him who was stripped upon the cross. (Melito or Sardis, Homily on the Passion, 96)

Another ancient Christian preacher similarly reflected,

Where can anything be found more paradoxical than this? This death was the most shameful of all, the most accursed. . . .This was no ordinary death (John Chrysostom, Homily on Philippians, 8.2.5–11).

No comments in either of these sermon excerpts about Jesus’ physical suffering. No comments about the atonement. For these early Christian preachers, it was the horror of God the Son’s public humiliation that they wanted to impress upon their congregations.

Jesus, we are told by the author of Hebrews, ‘endured the cross, scorning its shame’ (Heb 12:2).

Much to think about here as we approach Good Friday and Easter.

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6 Comments on “Jesus The Shame-Bearer”

  1. Leah Says:

    Thanks Joe for that great reminder. Really touched my heart. Leah

  2. Greg Says:

    Years ago, I came across a poem by the British writer Stevie Smith about Christianity/Christ that questioned our faith, including the following lines:
    “And Sin, how could he take our sins upon Him? What does it mean?
    To take sin upon one is not the same
    As to have sin inside one and feel guilty.

    It is horrible to feel guilty,
    We feel guilty because we are.
    Was He horrible? Did he feel guilty?”

    The lines stuck with me, as an authentic question, but as I meditated on the issue, reading Isaiah 53, I began to wonder if, in some sense, while Jesus did not bear my experiential guilt (though he did take on my legal guilt), he somehow did bear the shame associated with my sin. In response to the poet, we might say, “No, he WAS not horrible–but yes, he FELT horrible as he bore the shame of our sin, experiencing the feeling of being a wrong-doer, though he did no wrong.”

    Do you think there is a legitimacy to this? Not that we need to answer this question–I just wonder if, in some sense, this would be an answer…

    I know that many Christians struggle with a lingering sense of guilt & shame over past sin. I wonder if contemplating “Jesus, the Shame-bearer” is a way of even adding those feelings of shame as something we recognize Christ bore for us.

    I’m not totally sure if this is theologically accurate, though, which is why I ask!

    • hellerman Says:

      A couple thoughts, Greg, and thanks for the post:

      1. The ‘shame’ I refer to in the post, Greg, has nothing whatsoever to do with the subjective shame we feel, when we internalize guilt as individualistic Westerners. What I have in mind here is the social humiliation Jesus experienced when he was crucified by the Romans in a strong-group, honor-shame culture, where public status among males was everything, and where crucifixion was the most severe status-degradation ritual imaginable. So your question relates to an issue that my post doesn’t really address, and perhaps I should have been more clear about that.

      2. With respect to the point you raise, Greg, I’m not sure I’d say that Jesus experienced the ‘feeling of being a wrong-doer,’ though you just might be on to something here. I’m not sure, in fact, we will ever know much about what Jesus ‘felt’ during the crucifixion, as far as guilt over sin is concerned. What we can say is that the horror that Jesus experienced as a sin-bearer can be fairly summarized by the ‘cup’ imagery in the Gethsemane narrative (Mark 14:32-42). Here Jesus anticipates experiencing something that those of us who have put our faith in him will never have to experience, thanks to his death in our place, namely, the wrath of God, divine judgment against sin.

      Hope that helps.

      Joe


  3. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Joe. All of the comments here surrounding our guilt are accurate: No one is without sin, yet I emphatically emphasize that I believe you are misplacing shame in the crucifixion of the King of Kings. He was a man of sorrows (He was crushed by His Father). The shame is all on us.

    Your rhetoric verges on biblical revisionism: Of course we know what Jesus felt on the cross: great pain and sorrow. He humbled Himself, but any humiliation and shame felt is upon the “other”: you…me…anyone who sees His suffering. Or am I missing something in the Bible which supports Jesus’ feelings of shame and humiliation, either before or after He willingly went to the cross?

    When you took on the duties of pastor perhaps you humbled yourself in the eyes of some students; I cannot say that you were humiliated, however, because in my eyes it is a very high calling–a humble, sober calling. May I ask you a question? Were (are) you ashamed or humiliated in any way by your calling?

    Thanks again for making me use my noodle this morning. Best wishes in your calling!

    Grace & peace to you,

    Donald

    • hellerman Says:

      Donald,

      Thank you for posting a response. I like the dialogue here. I think, however, that like Greg, above, you missed what I had in mind here about ‘shame.’ Please see my response to Greg’s question.

      Joe


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