Being Ashamed of Jesus
There is a rather chilling statement by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark that I can’t escape. After foretelling his crucifixion for the first time, and announcing that those who want to be his followers will need to “take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus says “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38).
The Greek word for shame in the New Testament is epaischunomai. According to Ched Myers in Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story, it is a verb that “denotes identification with someone or something which, according to the prevailing social dynamics, would result in loss of status.” What we see in a variety of places in the New Testament is that this kind of shame must have been a real issue in the life of the early Church. Paul writes to Timothy, “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God” (1:8). In the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel” (1:16a).
In an honor culture like first century Palestine, honor is all about one’s social standing, one’s rightful place in society. It determines who you interact with and how. The last thing you want to do is anything that would compromise your honor and bring shame on you and your group. What the above references make clear is that following someone who was crucified—a shameful death—and being associated with the Gospel threatens your social standing.
Of course, in some ways it is no different now. If I am truly honest with myself, I could identify any number of times that I have been “ashamed” of Jesus and the Gospel. As a preacher, I have often been afraid to challenge a congregation with the full implications of the Gospel because I was afraid of my loss of status in their eyes. Surprise! Like most people I like to be liked. I am also aware of how many times I have been in uncomfortable conversations about important issues of the day and rationalized why I didn’t need to stand with Jesus in that moment. I think that also this has something to do with what it means “to be ashamed of (Jesus) and (his) words in this adulterous and sinful generation.” In both these kinds of situations, I refused to honor Jesus because I was more afraid of being shamed by those around me.
As I try to be a disciple of Jesus, I believe these challenging words of Jesus can be a source of strength rather than a threat. I believe that they can call me to discover what truly honors me: following Jesus. I think they can help me see that I would much rather lose the respect of others, as painful as that might be, than not be true to my calling. In fact, what I find out time and again is that there are few things as life-giving than doing the right thing.
When we are not ashamed to stand with Jesus in the challenging moments of life, we experience life-giving energy. We experience what it is to be truly free.