Isaiah 53 New International Version (NIV)
I was recently talking with my friend, Ben, whose daughter and son-in-law are working as long-term missionaries in Uganda. His daughter works as a dietician and her job involves educating the indigenous people about proper nutrition and basic healthcare and her husband manages the mission compound. They both lead small groups that focus on holistic ministry, caring for the minds, bodies, and souls of the people in their community. It sounds like a great mission to me.
One thing that Ben told me about this mission is that his daughter and son-in-law have had to rethink how they present the gospel because of their cultural context. This is nothing new, as every missionary needs to adapt how they present the message based on the life, experiences, and needs of the people. One of the challenges that Ben sees in this community in Uganda is that they are a shame-based culture, where we in North America are used to a guilt-based culture. In Uganda, and other shame-based cultures, shame is one of the primary motivators for maintaining ethical behavior. If you mess up, you bring shame on yourself and on your family. There are expectation, including your own self-expectations, in a shame-based culture and when you do not meet those expectations, you experience disgrace, disapproval, and exclusion. When you are shamed, there is a devaluation of your worth and your self-esteem. In a guilt-based community, there are legal and/or codified expectations. There might be laws enacted by the governing authorities, or “laws” put in place by churches or even social expectations. In a guilt-based society, failure to adhere to the laws or expectations result in punishment. And it is the fear of punishment that is used to control behavior.
Think how this affects the presentation of the gospel. In a guilt-based culture, we often present the gospel by saying that there are moral expectations of us, moral laws that God has put in place. When we break these laws, we deserve punishment. Thankfully we have grace through Jesus. So for Ben’s family serving in Uganda, the question was how to present the good news in a world that sees the negative results of moral failures differently than we do.
In this conversation with Ben I had two realizations: 1. I’ve read a really good book that talks about exactly this issue. It’s called Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel Green and Mark Baker, and I’ll be drawing from that book quite a bit. The second thing that I realized, and this is just my opinion based on my own observations, I believe that we in North America are becoming more of a shame-based culture. Especially in the last 10 years with the meteoric rise of social media, we seem to be moving more toward shame as a tool to control other people’s behaviors and other people’s feeling of value and worth. Allow me to give an example.
One of the reasons that I was drawn to the subject of shame today comes from recent events in our country. As I’m sure you are aware, the people on the Gulf Coast of Texas have experienced record levels of rainfall over the last week, which has led to flooding and the displacement of many people. Surely you have seen the images of people on the rooves of their houses and the heart-breaking pictures of nursing home residents sitting in wheelchairs, up to their waists in floodwaters within their nursing facilities.
Thankfully, in times like this, people come together and help other people. I’ve seen pictures of men and women in private fishing boats going from house to house, rescuing people and pets. I’ve heard stories of restaurants offering free food to first responders and victims of the hurricane. And time and time again we see large facilities, like convention centers, transformed into temporary shelters. Facilities that aren’t meant to house people are being used to house people.
But one church in the Houston area received a lot of attention because they weren’t opening their doors for their displaced neighbors. This is one of the largest churches in the United States, meeting in an old sporting arena with a capacity of 17,000. I’m not going to name the church or the pastor for reasons that you will soon understand (but I’m sure you can Google it and find out).
The pastor of this church was highly criticized for not providing a temporary shelter. Stories and memes were shared online, questioning his commitment to Christ and his theology. How can you call yourself a Christian and not open your doors to your now-homeless neighbors?
Of course the church responded: their flood gates were about to be breeched. They didn’t have showers or adequate kitchen facilities. There was a larger temporary shelter just down the road. And they hadn’t been asked to house people.
Finally, this church did open their doors on Tuesday and invited workers and victims to come in. And I read online that some were celebrating the fact, and this is a direct quote, that they were able to “shame [the pastor] into helping the homeless.”
I’ll just be honest, this didn’t sit well with me, and I feel a little bit torn over this. On one hand, the church did finally open their doors and invite workers and victims inside where it was safe and dry. On the other hand, is shaming really the best way to do it? Public ridicule led to public outcry. Public outcry led to mass public shaming. And mass public shaming led to a change in behavior.
I can’t 100% endorse this approach, but it was effective and people were cared for.
But I go back to one of the original excuses that the pastor had offered when he first started receiving criticism for not turning his church into temporary housing. He said nobody had asked him to. Perhaps nobody should have to ask him to since, you know, Jesus made it pretty clear that we should be caring for those in need around us. But what if rather than publicly shaming the pastor he had been privately asked? And if he still didn’t respond, maybe two or three witnesses could go to ask him again. And if he still didn’t respond, maybe then the whole church could ask.
I don’t think that shame is a good tool for the church to use to make people do what we want them to do. We all know what it feels like to be shamed, to feel devalued and like less of a person. In fact, I think we are to be in the opposite business. Un-shaming!
You see, there is good news! As Baker and Green note in their book, Jesus takes away our shame. And if we are indeed moving more toward a shame-based society, I think it would be wise to learn how to frame Christianity as a response to shame. Furthermore, as Baker and Green point out, the community we often see depicted in the Bible was shame-based, so to present the message of Christianity as a response to shame might be more biblical and even more accurate. Let’s see why.
Our text for this morning contains one the four passages in the book of Isaiah that we commonly refer to as the Suffering Servant passages. Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and today’s passage—which actually begins in chapter 52—all speak of the servant of the Lord. The servant of the Lord is said to do justice, he is a light to the gentiles, he is physically beaten, and he bears the iniquities of others.
It should not surprise us that Christians have for centuries believed that the Suffering Servant was a prophetic image of the Messiah. Matthew’s Gospel even quotes from the Suffering Servant passages, noting that Jesus fulfills these passages. Furthermore, it should not surprise you that Jewish people do not see this as a reference to Jesus. The traditional interpretation in the Hebrew tradition is that this is a reference to the entire people group known as Israel. Recall that Isaiah was written during and just after the Babylonian Exile. Recall the words made famous by Handel’s Messiah, found in Isaiah 40:1-2, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
Who is right? If I had the definitive answer to that, I’d be a rich man. But I’m not sure that it can’t be both. Did Israel suffer, were they physically tormented, and in their pain did they not bear one another’s iniquities? Sure they did. And didn’t Jesus do the same thing? Yep.
Regardless, I see this as pointing toward Jesus.
These Servant Songs depict the Servant of the Lord experiencing pain and suffering, and often we are told that it is for other people. And this pain and suffering was too much to bear, as it cost him his life. Look at verse 9, “He was assigned a grave with the wicked… though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.”
To be buried among the wicked would have been an insult. It would have been shameful, especially for someone who had done no violence and did not have any deceit in his mouth. In this scenario, the Suffering Servant can identify with the shame of the people. He gets it, he understands it, he has been there. And look what God does in verse 12, “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
The one who was shamed has been exalted.
Whether this is Jesus or Israel, I can’t say. What I can say is that Jesus does the same thing. Let’s just look at Jesus’s life a bit and see how he was able to identify with the shamed people of his day.
The Suffering Servant was buried among the wrong people, but Jesus lived among the wrong people. He ate with the wrong people, the shamed people. When we think about the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and lepers, we need to remember that these people served as the typical example of the social outcast.
But Jesus goes even further. Not only is he willing to participate in our shame, he helped explain to us that this is the way that God is.
Perhaps no parable has been preached on more than the Prodigal Son. We know the story, so I’ll go through it quickly. A father has two sons, and the younger one demands his share of his inheritance before his father has passed away. That is a shameful thing, as the son is saying that he values money, possessions, and experiences more than he values his own relationship with his father. The younger son squanders this money on ethically questionable things and finds himself feeding pigs, an unclean animal by Jewish standards.
But how does the father respond when he sees his son returning home? He girds his loins, lifting up his robe, running through the hills until he can embrace his son. Mature men don’t run. Grown men don’t take well to being disrespected. But this man took on some of the shame from the younger son. And though the identities of the sons in this parable are sometimes debated, I’ve never heard anyone associate the father with anyone other than, well, the Father!
And we must not forget that at the crucifixion, the son of God, God in the flesh, was beaten publically, stripped naked, and put on display for all to see. The cross is the ultimate form of shame, so much so that it was illegal to crucify the average Roman citizen. This was a form of punishment reserved for foreigners, slaves, and insurrectionists. We often see pictures of Jesus on the cross where he is covered up with a nice diaper-like undergarment. No, this was meant to be a shameful event for all to see. A public display of what happens when you cross Rome.
The shame was so much that most of his followers deserted him. He was even deserted by God.
I believe that Jesus removes our shame through two processes: he forgives our failures and participates in our shame. When Jesus tells us that we are forgiven, we have no reason to feel shame. And when Jesus participates in our shame, as he did when he ate with the shamed people of his time, he lifts us up out of shame.
Recall that shame is meant to devalue your worth and your self-esteem. It is a social punishment for your shortcomings. But the life and death of Jesus reveal to us that God’s love is for the disgraced and shamed as well.
I believe that we need to continue to dig into what it means to say that Jesus took our shame because I see more and more people being shamed these days. Open your social media account and you will find people being shamed in many different ways. People are being body shamed, publically ridiculed because they don’t physically look like someone says they should. They could be “too skinny;” they could be “too fat.” I remember the pictures from a few years ago of a person who became known as “dancing man.” He was dancing at a concert, and someone snapped a picture and put it on Instagram with the caption, “Spotted this specimen trying to dance the other week. He stopped when he saw us laughing.”
Do you remember the response from the community? A bunch of models threw him a dance party. How’s that affect someone’s self-esteem and sense of worth!?
I especially like Hebrews 12:2, “[We fix] our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Jesus scorned the shame of the cross. But I don’t know what that means. Other versions say that he despised the shame of the cross. The Greek work that the author of Hebrews uses here is kataphroneo. Kataphroneo is a compound word: kata meaning down, phroneo meaning to think. Jesus thought down the shame of the cross, or we might say that he looked down the shame of the cross. He stared it down and said, “No more.”
Jesus devalued devaluing others. And we are called to do likewise.