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 women 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.