Jerome H. Neyrey. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 1)
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Neyrey organizes his discussion of honor like an anthropologist into 7 categories:
- Definition of honor,
- Sources of honor,
- Conflict and honor,
- Display and recognition of honor,
- Collective honor, and
- Gender and honor (14-15).
Under sources of honor, for example, Neyrey notes that honor can be both ascribed as in being born into a well-known family or achieved as in earning special merit (15).
Shame, by contrast, is the opposite of honor—loss of respect, regard, worth, and value in the eyes of others. A shameless person does not care what people think of them (30). Because honor and shame are displayed publicly, our individualistic culture downplays both honor and shame.
Honor must, of course, be defended. Neyrey notes 4 steps into challenges to honor and response—reposte:
- Claim to honor,
- Challenge to that claim,
- Riposte to the challenge, and
- Public verdict by onlookers (44).
Neyrey (51) sees many examples of challenge and riposte in Matthew. For example in Matthew 9: 1-8 we see:
Claim to honor: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” [Divinity claim] (v 2)
Challenge: “This man is blaspheming.” (v 3)
Riposte: “Which is easier…Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (vv 5-6)
Verdict: “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid…” (v 8)
Much of Neyrey’s book focuses on the details of Matthew’s encomium of Jesus. For example, Matthew portrays Jesus as just in performing his duties to God, his parents, and the dead (109). Jesus is faithful to God (his heavenly patron) even until death (Matt 26:39; 110). He defended the rights of parents over traditions, like “korban” (Matt 15:5). While Neyrey skips over the question of just for the dead, clearly Jesus’ teaching about eternal life would also honor the dead.
A key hypothesis that Neyrey advances is to read the Sermon on the Mount as reforming the honor code of his society. Neyrey writes:
“Jesus did not overthrow the honor code as such, but rather redefined what constitutes honor in his eyes and how his disciples should play the game…For example, he forbade his disciples to play the typical village honor game by forswearing honor claims (i.e. boasting), challenges (i.e. physical and sexual aggressiveness), and ripostes (i.e. seeking satisfaction and revenge). Moreover, he attempted to redefine whose acknowledge (i.e. grant of honor) truly counts…Jesus , then, changed the way the honor game was played and redefined the source of honor, name, acknowledgment by God, not by neighbor.” (164).
Most importantly in this respect, Neyrey suggests that the Greek words “makarios” and “ouai” be translated respectively as esteemed or honorable (not blessed or happy) and as shame on or disrespectable (165-166). In this way, Jesus is redefining the honor code that applies to his disciples.
Neyrey also sees Jesus redefining shame in the last “makario”. This verse in Matthew reads: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute [drive out] you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt 5:11 ESV) Neyrey sees this verse addressing the problem of a son being disinherited for becoming Jesus’ disciple rather than being generally persecuted (169). In other words, what society took as dishonorable, Jesus redefined as honorable.
Following Neyrey, the Sermon on the Mount can be read as Jesus offering more than your typical a pep talk to his disciples who needed reassurance. He was commissioning them to a higher calling. This calling was something worth dying for or, more importantly, something to live for.
Clearly, this reading is as important today as it was then.
Neyrey reads Matthew as implying that: “Discipleship often meant cross-generational conflict within families.” (227) Today we see this dynamic when a Muslim or Jewish child converts to Christianity or when a child from a “good family” suddenly “gets religion” and drops out of college to pursue social ministry.