Shame, Honor, and Star Trek in John 7

The dream is to be a warrior who dies in battle.  For a Klingon, that is.  There’s no greater call in the life of a Klingon than to give one’s life in battle; obviously, it follows that Klingons don’t generally give up on military missions.  Entering each engagement with a cry of, “Today is a good day to die!” an honorable Klingon warrior is prepared to do just that before he’ll admit defeat or abandon a task once it’s assigned to him.

It’s not just down to bloodlust, either, by the way.  In shame/honor cultures of any stripe, duty is duty.  To give up, be defeated, or talked out of doing what your superiors have instructed you to do is shameful.  At best, it reveals you lacking in those honorable qualities society celebrates.  At worst, it reveals you to be weak of mind, weak of strength, and weak of character, which is just a fancy way of saying it shames you profoundly.

This matters as we move to examine an example of the Bible’s shame/honor theme in the next book of our progression – the Gospel of John – because there is a story at the end of John 7 in which Jesus causes some guards to shame themselves in just that way.  But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.  Let’s begin at the beginning of John 7, when Jesus’ brothers tell him that he should be doing his miracles in Jerusalem, not the comparative backwoods locale of Galilee.

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My post on Worf and the Gospel of Mark addressed the fact that sneaking about is not the path of honor, so bear that in mind as we read that John 7 begins with Jesus sneaking.  Specifically, after his brothers challenge him that if he’s going to act as an honored prophet in Galilee he should go to Jerusalem and claim the honor due to a prophet, Jesus tells them it’s not time yet.  Then, basically when nobody’s looking, he goes to Jerusalem and does exactly what they suggested.  Why?

For 21st Century readers, it’s easy to miss the brothers’ point about Galilee and Jerusalem.  The thing to understand is that Jerusalem was the center of Jewish (which is not to say Roman, necessarily) political, religious and cultural life.  It was the home of the temple, the Sanhedrin, and the historical seat of the Jewish monarchy.  It was, in short, where everything of importance happened in Jewish life, not unlike if New York, Washington, and Los Angeles were all one American city – Los Yorkington, if you will.

Galilee, meanwhile, was as far from Jerusalem in importance and relevance as Monroe, Louisiana is from our hypothetical Los Yorkington.  You can imagine, I’m sure, how silly it would be for someone who claimed they had a message from God for America to spend their time in Monroe instead of Los Yorkington, and this is what Jesus’ brothers tell him.  If he had a message from God, he had to go to the Jewish Los Yorkington: Jerusalem.

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Of course, Jesus does go.  But it’s small consolation to the reader, since Jesus does so stealthily.  In keeping with the theme we’ve seen in previous books, Jesus has little regard for acting in the interest of his own honor; he does things his way.  For once, however, the Gospel writers have actually given us an explanation for why Jesus acts this way in his own words.  In verse 18, Jesus explains (while teaching at the temple, just like his brothers challenged him to do) that he’s concerned only with the honor of the one who sent him.  That’s why Jesus acts in ways that depart from the standards of honor of his culture, and that’s why he sneaks off to the festival: he doesn’t value his own honor.  His brothers may be right that his message needs to be heard in Jerusalem, but he doesn’t have to prove himself to anyone, Jewish leaders and his own brothers included.

Note that Jesus’ refusal to place a priority on his own honor doesn’t upend the status quo (at least not in the moment).  Honor still matters to everyone else, and to that end, the events of the chapter present a problem for the honor of the Jewish authorities.  By verse 25, the fact that Jesus was teaching openly even though everyone knew the authorities had wanted to kill him was creating a PR problem: by allowing him to continue, they were either implicitly endorsing his message (and honoring him) or revealing their inability to stop him (and dishonoring themselves).  Obviously, honor demanded that they stop Jesus.

Except that he couldn’t be, and this is where those guards we mentioned at the beginning enter the story.  The guards sent by the Jewish authorities to arrest Jesus and end his honor and their dishonor did the unthinkable, and accepted the dishonor of neglecting to complete their mission.  Blown away by what they heard, these guards went back to the authorities and said, “no.”

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The entirety of John 7 has to do with shame and with honor, but because the end of the chapter is so terse and has to do only with nameless guards and anonymous authorities (save for Nicodemus, whom we’ve already met in John 3), it’s easy to overlook the most jaw-dropping reversal of the honor system in the entire chapter.  Jesus – even while refusing to assert his own right to honor – is so amazing to behold that the soldiers unrepentantly neglect their duty.  They see something so special in Jesus and his teaching that they’re willing not merely to disobey orders, but to defiantly act in counter-cultural disregard for the primary organizational principle of their society.  Hearing Jesus preach, in other words, has so completely changed their understanding of the world that they’re willing to face the Jewish authorities and embrace the shame that comes from abandoning a mission.

If it hadn’t happened, it would be unimaginable.  Their superiors mock them for it, adding to their shame.  And yet the text of John 7 gives no indication that the soldiers had second thoughts.  Jesus – who couldn’t care less about his own honor – had taught them to be like him.  The Jewish authorities could stuff their honor and their understanding of duty; the temple guards had Jesus.  So the chapter ends with Jesus vindicated, the guards cut loose from their culture by their willingness to hear Jesus out, and the Jewish leaders embarrassed.  The powerful are shamed, the soldiers ignore duty, and a hick from nowhere is king of Los Yorkington.

Worf would never understand John 7.  But in understanding Worf, we get to understand one of the bible’s strangest plot twists.

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