Inverted honor: resurrection as status reversal

I observed in my last post that a man’s behavior at a feast served to either maintain his father’s honor or incur shame upon his family name. By eating and/or drinking to excess, for instance, a foolish son would publicly dishonor his parents and signal to guests and host alike that his father was unable or unwilling to master his family.

In this sense the banquet table of Jesus’ day functioned as a symbolic locus; a public space where one’s reputation was on display and out in the open. As one sat with both inferiors and superiors, honor could be gained, lost, and most importantly, exchanged.

Resurrection and table-ideology

The two feast-parables contained in Luke 14:7-14 play upon these and other table-related expectations and norms. 

In these parables Jesus directs his fellow Israelites toward certain table-behaviors that he claims will result in eschatological “exaltation” (ὑψόω) and “repayment” (ἀνταποδίδωμι) rather than “humiliation” (ταπεινόω) (14:11; 14). Such rewards and punishments are promised at what Jesus calls the “resurrection of the righteous” (14:14).

As such, these parables provide significant insight into the meaning and motivations underlying the resurrection myth for early Christians.

Parable of the dinner guests

According to the first parable (14:7-11), the resurrection is like a man who, having purposely dishonored himself by sitting in a place beneath his rank, is eventually exalted by the host. Though this man could have taken a “chief seat” or “place of honor” as awarded by his prestige (cf. Mark 12:29), he instead sits with those who are his inferiors. In so doing he assumes a lesser status and broadcasts that debasement to the other guests.

In the end though, instead of retaining this lower position indefinitely, as one might expect, the man who humiliated himself is bestowed a preeminent honor by the one from whom all honor flows at the feast: the host. As he changes seats, he is “honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with [him]”(14:10).

Similarly, Jesus speaks also of a man who seeks to attain the recognition due to him at the feast—a normal practice. He takes a seat of honor, but, unexpectedly, is put to shame when the host reveals a more worthy guest must take his place. In the end, this man who sought to demonstrate his superior rank takes the “lowest place” “with shame” (μετὰ αἰσχύνης) (14:9).

When these short stories are taken as metaphors relating to the “resurrection of the righteous,” they demonstrate the kinds of hopes early Christians invested into the resurrection. They were not, generally speaking, concerned with the physical or metaphysical nature of the risen body or the risen life.

They were instead quite interested in the promise of the inversion of honor and shame. They desired not supernatural bodies per se, but that the last might be made first and the first might be made last. In short, they longed for public vindication.

These Christians then, those who assumed shame for Christ’s sake, hoped to one day be lavished with honor “in the presence of all” at the resurrection. They hoped to be like a man who, though seated with the lowly, is invited to sit at his host’s right hand.

Yet for those who sought to maintain or acquire honor in the present evil age, there would be only humiliation when the eschaton arrived and with it the redemption of the body. Such people would be like a man whose prestige is brought to shame in a single moment, his honor stolen by another.

Parable of the invitation list

The banquet-parable that follows makes more or less the same point. Jesus contrasts two men, the man who invites to his dinner those who could and would reciprocate the offer (friends, brothers, relatives, rich neighbors, etc.), and the man who invites to dinner those who cannot repay (the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, etc.).

This latter banquet-giver has seemingly abandoned the quest for honor altogether.

A banquet-giver [invites guests so that he] can honor his wealthy patrons, repay his clients or put them in his debt, broker new relationships, and generally maintain contacts with his whole network… All persons invite their social network because they always have something to gain by entertaining such a group: invitations, favors, power, honor.¹

In this way, Jesus compares the resurrection to a man who gives a banquet for undesirables rather than for desirables only to somehow, unexpectedly, find himself blessed, his social standing improved a hundredfold. Though he had no reason to believe he would ever be repaid for his services, somehow he was.

Pieter_Aertsen_-_Market_Scene_-_Google_Art_Project

Parables like these support the contention that the resurrection myth, at least so far as early Christians and many second temple Jews were concerned, relieved negative psychological pressures caused by marginalization. Resurrection represented that cathartic moment when the persecuted righteous would finally turn the tables on their enemies. On that day when the dead were raised, honor would turn to shame, and shame to honor—for all the world to see.

Ethics or eschatology?

It should be noted, lastly, that for many readers these parables present Jesus as the purveyor of a more compassionate social system, one that prizes humility and kindness over honor and hierarchy. This attempt to conform Jesus into the mold of a modern ethical thinker, however, is misguided and simplistic.

Ultimately, these parables are grounded in eschatological anticipation and socio-political grievance. They represent not the rejection of hierarchy and honor in and of themselves, but rather the rejection of hierarchy and honor as they were practiced and enjoyed at the close of the present evil age. Jesus longs here not for some sort of egalitarian society, but for true Israelites to assume the halls of power when the day of the Lord comes (cf. Luke 20:16).

To achieve that end, Jesus was more concerned with an eschatology of reversal than with an ethics of humility and compassion. He put before his listeners a test of apocalyptic proportions: Who among you will divest himself of honor in order to reap everlasting glory in the age to come? Who among you will faithfully suffer disrepute for the joy set before him? Who among you will follow me?

 

1—K.C. Hanson & Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, 69.

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