Resist the Pressure of Public Opinion
IDEAS concerning what is appropriate or unacceptable and what is praiseworthy or reprehensible differ from place to place. They also change over the course of time. Therefore, when reading Scriptural accounts of events that took place in the distant past, we need to consider popular opinion and values in Bible times rather than impose our own standards on what we read.
For example, take two concepts repeatedly mentioned in the Christian Greek Scriptures—honor and shame. In order to gain a better understanding of the passages that speak of honor and shame, we should reflect on how they were perceived by the people living back then.
Values of the First Century
“Greeks, Romans, and Judeans all considered honor and shame to be pivotal values in their cultures,” says one scholar. “Men lived and died in quest of honor, reputation, fame, approval, and respect.” Such values made them susceptible to the opinions of others.
Status, position, and honor were everything in a society characterized by an acute awareness of rank, ranging from nobility to slavery. Honor was a person’s value not only in his own eyes but in the eyes of others as well. To honor a person meant to acknowledge publicly that he behaved in a way expected of him. Rendering honor also meant being outwardly impressed by a person’s wealth, office, or nobility and therefore according him due attention. Honor could be won by performing virtuous deeds or by excelling over others. In contrast, shame, or dishonor, accompanied public humiliation or ridicule. More than a personal feeling or a response of one’s conscience, it was the result of condemnation by society.
When Jesus spoke about a person’s being assigned “the most prominent place” or “the lowest place” at a feast, it was a matter of honor or shame according to the culture of the day. (Luke 14:8-10) On at least two occasions, Jesus’ disciples disputed over “which one of them seemed to be greatest.” (Luke 9:46; 22:24) They were manifesting a major concern of the society in which they lived. Meanwhile, proud and competitive Jewish religious leaders saw Jesus’ preaching as a challenge to their honor and authority. Their attempts to get the better of him in public debates before crowds, however, invariably resulted in failure.—Luke 13:11-17.
Another concept current in first-century Jewish, Greek, and Roman thinking was the shamefulness of being “seized and publicly charged with wrongdoing.” For a person to be bound or confined was viewed as degrading. Such treatment insulted an individual before friends, family, and the general community—whether he was convicted of a crime or not. The stigma thereafter attached to his reputation could shatter his self-respect and damage his relationship with others. More shameful than being bound was the indignity of being stripped or flogged. Such treatment incited contempt and derision, depriving the person of his honor.
Execution on a torture stake subjected the victim to the worst of all possible indignities. Such an execution was “the penalty for slaves,” says scholar Martin Hengel. “As such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.” Social pressure to renounce a person who was dishonored in this way was brought upon his family and friends. Since Christ died in this manner, all who wanted to be Christians in the first century C.E. thus had to face the challenge of public ridicule. Most people likely considered it absurd for someone to identify himself as a follower of a man who suffered impalement. “We preach Christ impaled,” wrote the apostle Paul, “to the Jews a cause for stumbling but to the nations foolishness.” (1 Cor. 1:23) How did the early Christians face this challenge?
A Different Set of Values
First-century Christians obeyed the law and endeavored to avoid the shame that resulted from wrong conduct. “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a busybody in other people’s matters,” wrote the apostle Peter. (1 Pet. 4:15) However, Jesus foretold that his followers would suffer persecution for his name’s sake. (John 15:20) “If [a person] suffers as a Christian,” wrote Peter, “let him not feel shame, but let him keep on glorifying God.” (1 Pet. 4:16) Not feeling shame when suffering as a follower of Christ amounted to rejecting social norms of the day.
Christians could not allow other people’s standards to dictate their conduct. An impaled Messiah was folly to first-century society. That view could have exerted pressure on Christians to conform to the accepted way of thinking. However, their faith that Jesus was the Messiah required that they follow him, even if they were scoffed at. Jesus stated: “Whoever becomes ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of man will also be ashamed of him when he arrives in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”—Mark 8:38.
Today, we may face pressures aimed at causing us to abandon Christianity. These may come from schoolmates, neighbors, or colleagues who try to involve us in immoral, dishonest, or otherwise questionable activities. Such individuals may try to make us feel ashamed because of our stand for right principles. How should we react?
Imitate Those Who Despised Shame
In order to maintain his integrity to Jehovah, Jesus underwent the most dishonorable execution possible. “He endured a torture stake, despising shame.” (Heb. 12:2) Jesus’ enemies slapped him, spat on him, stripped him, flogged him, impaled him, and reviled him. (Mark 14:65; 15:29-32) Yet, Jesus despised the shame that they attempted to heap on him. How? He refused to shrink from such treatment. Jesus knew that he lost no dignity in Jehovah’s eyes, and he certainly sought no glory from men. Even though Jesus died the death of a slave, Jehovah dignified him by resurrecting him and giving him the most honorable place next to Him. At Philippians 2:8-11, we read: “[Christ Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient as far as death, yes, death on a torture stake. For this very reason also God exalted him to a superior position and kindly gave him the name that is above every other name, so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the ground, and every tongue should openly acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus was not insensitive to the feelings of disgrace that accompanied his execution. Possible dishonor to his Father resulting from Jesus’ being condemned for blasphemy was a matter of concern to God’s Son. Jesus asked Jehovah to spare him such indignity. “Remove this cup from me,” he prayed. But Jesus submitted to God’s will. (Mark 14:36) Still, Jesus withstood the pressures brought to bear on him and despised the shame. After all, such shame would be felt only by those who fully accepted the values common to his day. Jesus clearly did not.
Jesus’ disciples were also arrested and flogged. Such treatment dishonored them in the eyes of many. They were looked down upon and despised. Yet, they were not deterred. True disciples resisted the pressure of public opinion and despised shame. (Matt. 10:17; Acts 5:40; 2 Cor. 11:23-25) They knew that they were to ‘pick up their torture stakes and follow Jesus continually.’—Luke 9:23, 26.
What about us today? Things the world considers foolish, weak, and ignoble, God views as wise, powerful, and honorable. (1 Cor. 1:25-28) Would it not be foolish and shortsighted for us to be influenced entirely by public opinion?
Any who desire honor must give weight to what the world thinks of them. On the other hand, like Jesus and his first-century followers, we desire to have Jehovah as our Friend. Therefore, we will honor what is honorable in his eyes and view as shameful that which he views as shameful.
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Jesus was not influenced by worldly concepts of shame