Why did he run in this heat?
Why in this heat did the father run to welcome his returning son? I was discussing with one of my daughters how to communicate the Good News of Jesus in our culture where sin is now seen as no big deal. Rather than sin, she suggested, how about shame? She may have been closer to the world of the New Testament than she realised. This is the view of an excellent series on honour and shame in BRF Guidelines, written by a theologian with a Third World perspective. For the people in the Bible were acutely aware of honour and shame, just as much – even more so – than innocence and guilt. Family and kinship ties were of paramount importance; fathers were pivotal. So what is honour and shame? Essentially, they are relational – how you with your family relate to other people, how you fit in. Honour means approval, it gives dignity, it bestows significance. Conversely, shame means a loss of reputation not just for the individual but the whole family. In fact, only this week our central heating engineer expressed his concern for the family of the Premier League footballer arrested on suspicion of child sex abuses. They and not just him will pay the price should he be found guilty: a deep sense of shame, their reputation ruined even though they themselves may be above reproach. For sin involves far more than just the individual sinner. “An explanation of sin should not focus on the ‘breaching of rules’ so much as the rupture of fellowship.” (Melba Padilla Maggay) A good place to take a close look at all the importance of honour and shame is in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). This is one of those parables from Jesus which we think we know so well but understand only through the eyes of our own culture. Above all, it is a story of honour and shame. “Global South theologians understand this parable is about the father, who willingly dishonours himself numerous times to reach out to both his lost sons.” (Philip Grasham) The story begins with a shameful act, the younger son selling his inheritance and leaving his family behind. “By doing so, he cut the family wide open, abandoned his household responsibilities and assumed he could survive, even flourish, without the love and support of his family.” The whole village or town would have been shocked, not least when the older son failed to step forward to mediate between his father and his brother. As a result the family is deeply shamed, especially the father. Then the younger son comes to his senses – and when his father sees him coming from afar, “he is filled with compassion.” (v20) As we saw in my blog five weeks back, the father runs toward him, making a complete spectacle of himself. He runs because of his delight but he also runs to reach his returning son before anyone else does. He runs to avert any confrontation of his son from a townsperson angered by the shame the son had brought onto his family. And his prepared speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you (guilt). I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” (shame) The wonder of the parable is the gracious over-the-top response of the father: robe, ring, sandals. The fatted calf shows that he wants everyone to see that he has accepted back his wayward child as an honoured, forgiven son. The elder son doesn’t see it that way. So once again the father demeans himself by leaving the party to persuade this son to join the festivities. Instead he is shown reproach and rebellion, even as he speaks “Everything I have is yours.” This is a story in which the father, such is his love and compassion, abandons his honour and shamelessly embraced both sons. We dare to believe that this is a true picture of God’s love and compassion to us. And that makes a huge difference to how we live our lives. For Jesus turned honour and shame on its head: he scandalously embraced those whose lives were besmirched with shame. He still does. And more, at the cross he took shame head-on: “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame.” (Hebrews 12:2). Incredibly, such is his victory, that even this sign of deepest shame has been transformed to a place of honour. For in the humiliation of the cross “Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15). The great shamer with all his pretence has been shamed. All this means that whoever we are, whatever we may have done, we are welcomed into God’s family as beloved children, assured of our status, confident in our inheritance.
As the apostle Paul rejoices, quoting the Hebrew prophet Isaiah : “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame. (Romans 10:11). In fact, the very opposite. So to conclude with a text which inspired Eric Liddell about to run his Olympic final: “Those who honours me I will honour.” (I Samuel 2:30) #honour #shame