On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, there’s an episode in which Worf is drinking with an old family friend named Huraga. As they drink, Huraga asks Worf, “Did I ever tell you how your father saved my family’s honor during our blood feud with the House of Duras?”
Worf’s curt and clearly irritated response is to growl, “Many times.”
An indignant Huraga counters immediately with, “It is a good story!” and Worf – looking chastened – offers the emphatic and conciliatory exclamation, “Yes, and you tell it well.”
Seen on film, it’s an easy scene to like; I chuckled aloud when I saw it recently, if only because we all know someone who tells the same story over and over (or a writer who keeps returning to the same topic…), but reacts with indignation if you illuminate that repetitive tendency. Still, Worf’s response – “and you tell it well” – elicited joy from me for another reason: it was a clever answer in what amounted to a moment of crisis. You see, Worf’s disgust at the prospect of hearing Huraga’s tale again risked embarrassing Huraga, and there’s no honor in embarrassment. The scene’s tension floats only for a few tiny seconds, but Huraga’s honor is at stake in those seconds, all because of Worf’s impatience. Worf’s answer defuses the predicament, and it teaches us a lesson: honorable people do not withhold honor from those to whom it is due.
Call me crazy, but I see something similar in Luke 7. Starting with verse 36, that’s the chapter that tells the story of a woman – described only as ‘a sinner’ – who interrupts Jesus’ dinner with a Pharisee to clean his feet with her tears, hair, and perfume. To us, her willingness to humiliate herself as she honors Jesus is obvious, as is the fact that Jesus preserves some dignity for her in the face of the Pharisee’s indignation.
It’s not quite the same as Worf and Huraga, of course, since the woman identified as a sinner could hardly be described as an honorable person. Nevertheless, Jesus’ response is to give honor to a person acting honorably, and his timing matters. In speaking quickly – while the Pharisee is still reacting to the scene – Jesus protects the woman who is honoring him from suffering additional shame, and in so doing he arguably elevates her to a more honored status than she held before the evening’s events. In this instance she acted honorably, and Jesus does not withhold honor from people to whom it is due.
The Pharisee’s name is Simon, and Luke 7 unfolds less favorably for him. For one thing, when Jesus initially defends the woman by asking whether one forgiven much or forgiven little is inclined to love the forgiver more, Simon’s answer is begrudging and petty – he opens with, “I suppose” even though the answer is clear. That could have been the end of it; Jesus’ point was made, and his question justified the woman’s actions. But Jesus chooses not to stop. Wow, does he not stop.
Jesus proceeds to add still more honor to the woman in question by shaming his host, going on at length about how much better she has treated him than did Simon. Jesus’ rant – note that it is a rant – requires no interpretation. But consider the context. Jesus is a guest at Simon’s house, and the passage clarifies that Jesus is not the only guest. The attack Jesus launches on his host is breathtaking in an honor-based culture; it’s not merely rude, it’s unthinkable. Jesus is with Simon’s people, under Simon’s roof, reclining at Simon’s table, eating (or about to eat) Simon’s food when he launches into a 3-point denunciation of Simon contrasting him unfavorably with a woman of ill repute.
If Jesus’ only concern had been to honor and affirm the woman, none of that was necessary. But unless you’re prepared to suggest Jesus a sadist or say he had a proclivity to fits of pique, the humiliation of Simon must’ve been as important to Jesus as the elevation of the woman.
So what did Simon do to deserve this? He withheld basic courtesies from Jesus. One might not always anoint a guest with oil (Jesus’ third comparison between the two), but in that culture one would typically greet a guest properly (with a kiss – Jesus’ 2nd complaint), and one would definitely provide an opportunity for the washing of the guest’s feet (pause a moment and ponder sweaty, muddy, potentially dung-covered feet mixed with the scent of leather sandals). Simon did none of these things, and in so doing he withheld honor from one to whom it was due, and revealed himself for who he was: a dishonorable man.
Honorable people do not withhold honor from those to whom it is due. Worf doesn’t, and neither does Jesus. Remember, however, that culture’s estimation of who deserves honor may differ from God’s estimation. It does in Luke 7, and so we see a disreputable strumpet receive honor from Jesus while a religious leader receives scorn. Honor where it’s due; not where it’s expected.