What Shame

The prodigal son comes home.  But the elder son does not care that his brother is home, "safe and sound." What a shame.  He doesn’t even care that there is a celebration.  Actually, he does care. He hates it. He despises it. He resents it.  Yet, custom requires his presence. The older son has a responsibility. He should work alongside his father as the host. He should be at the door welcoming guests. That is his role as the elder son. He has a place in his father’s home—a place of honor.  But he chooses the place of shame.

He will not go in the house.  He knows that he must serve and welcome the guests. It is his responsibility to make sure that every guest has enough to eat. He must be especially attentive to the honored guests—the village elders, the rabbis, and the teachers of the law.  But here’s the rub.  He would also have to serve his younger brother, the guest honored above all. And this he refuses to do. He will not serve his younger brother; he will not honor his father.  Instead, he chooses to shame his father.  In public.   And yet, we see the father standing there, pleading with his son to come inside and join the celebration.  Accepting his father’s plea would have been the honorable thing to do.  But honoring his father was something the elder brother had no interest in doing.  Instead, he wanted to show contempt for his father.  He wanted his father to bear shame.  Lots of it.  Because the way the elder son saw it, the father had put him to shame by receiving his younger son with such fanfare.

The Pharisees surely realize Jesus is associating them with the elder son.  They are aghast that Jesus hangs around tax collectors and sinners.  They find such actions disgraceful.  Even shameful.  They despise Jesus for this.  A man of God would not associate with such people.  Nevertheless, Jesus is popular.  People come out in droves to hear him speak and to witness his mighty works.  As the Pharisees see it, Jesus is stealing honor from them through his ministry.  It really steams them that Jesus is so highly honored in the land by doing such shameful things as fraternizing with sinful people. 

The Pharisees want to put a stop to this.  Once and for all.  They intend to kill Jesus, but they can’t just hire an assassin to stick a knife in him while he’s walking from one to place to another.  The Pharisees want Jesus dead, sure.   But they want to put him to open shame first.  And they want him to die a cruel, shameful death.  The cross seems to be the ideal solution.  Only the Romans could crucify someone, which meant that the cross was not just the ideal solution, it was the perfect solution.  By getting the Romans to carry out the crucifixion, the Pharisees could avoid becoming ceremonially defiled.   Coming into contact with the dead would make them ceremonially unclean.  They would never want to be guilty of being ceremonially unclean.  Murder, sure.  But ceremonially unclean?  Never.

In first century Middle-Eastern culture, the only way to increase the balance in your honor account was to increase the balance in your adversary’s shame account.  Heap lots of shame on Jesus, the Pharisees thought, and the level honor in their account would increase accordingly.  And that’s what happened.  Sort of.  Jesus absorbed shame beyond comprehension.  And his honor was transferred to others.  But not to the Pharisees.  Rather, to sinners.  Repentant sinners.