Our modern culture doesn't emphasize honor and disgrace as the biblical culture did. Back then, people spent lots of time jockeying to get themselves into positions in which they would be honored by others and to avoid those circumstances that brought the disgrace.

Most of us look upon honor and disgrace as extremes lurking on the fringes of our day-to-day existence. Most of them, on the contrary, put these two rankings at the heart of their lives. Every day brought a challenge to achieve recognition and avoid embarrassment.

Jesus addresses this issue in the Gospel (Luke 14: 1, 7-14), giving a suggestion on how to achieve stature at a wedding banquet. "Do not recline at table in the place of honor," He advises. "A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited....Then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. Rather, take the lowest place so the host may say, 'my friend, move up to a higher position.' then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at table."

Status later

But Jesus doesn't stop there. Going counter to His culture, He leaves Emily Post behind and gives a new command to His followers. "When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

He teaches that there's honor and esteem beyond this life. But to achieve such stature, one must do things which provide little prestige and almost no status in this life.

Looking at honor and disgrace from the perspective of faith, Jesus simply reinforces what Scripture's wisdom authors had said centuries before. Though Sirach, for instance, knows nothing of an afterlife (Sir 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29), he's certain that honor in God's eyes is a million times more valuable than any recognition given by humans. "Humble yourself the more, the greater you are," he writes, "and you will find favor with God."

Sirach and the author of Hebrews are tuned to the same frequency. Both are convinced that they don't have to do something stupendous or earth-shaking to achieve God's recognition. Sirach warns his readers, "What is too sublime for you, seek not; into things beyond your strength, search not." He then leads them to explore the God-honored dimension of pursuing wisdom and giving alms. Such ordinary, simple practices, attracting little or no attention, determine how God ranks us.

Jesus and Abel

The author of Hebrews gives a parallel piece or advice (Heb 12: 18-19, 22-24). He presumes his readers weren't around to experience Yahweh's awesome ap-pearances on Mt. Sinai. Instead, he reminds them, "You have approached Mt. Zion and the city of the living God and Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel."

The glory that the ancient Israelites received by being at the foot of Mt. Sinai is nothing compared to the glory that followers of Jesus receive by imitating His dying and rising. Just as the Sinai covenant-making Israelites were sprinkled with sacrificed animal blood to remind them of their new responsibility, so we're sprinkled with the blood of someone who mirrors the murdered Abel to signify our determination to be other Christs. (No wonder early Christians put such great emphasis on receiving the Eucharistic blood of Jesus.)

Yet we receive this great honor by doing the most humbling thing we can imagine: giving ourselves, like Jesus, to those in our midst who are honored least by the world they inhabit.

Only a person of faith can appreciate the significance of this turnabout.

(8/26/04)