I was once asked to baptise the baby of a South-East Asian migrant family relatively new to the congregation of which I was minister. I organised to meet them at their home to get to know them and talk about baptism. I rang the bell and the husband answered. He looked around surprised and asked where my wife was. I was unsure why he would think she would be here but sensed there was something I was missing – perhaps something cultural? I made a gentle excuse to ease over the issue and it was accepted. I was invited in and offered a seat. Around the room (I mean literally around the perimeter of the room) were seated several people, predominantly men. After some brief introductions and general chat I was asked if I would like something to drink or eat. I indicated, much as I normally would, that I would have a coffee if they were having one but not to go to any trouble. There was a smile, some words in their native language and much scurrying – predominantly from women.
The host and men who remained talked with me for a while. Suddenly they stood and brought a small table and placed it before me. The women brought out plates of food and set them before me. I was shocked didn’t know what to do. I sat and waited for some cues but none came. Finally my host asked if there was something wrong; why wasn’t I eating? I asked if they were going to join me and was told not until after I began. So I tentatively ate some of the food – I was not really hungry, having had dinner before I came out. They were concerned that I didn’t like the food and I had to reassure them it was lovely. Finally some of the men joined in and began eating but the women watched on. I asked about that and they indicated that they would eat later after I had left. Everything was strange and different to me, one of my earliest experiences of a cultural clash. Somewhere in the evening we did discuss baptism and I got to ask the couple about themselves. They were highly educated with good jobs and well integrated into Australian society but some things remained firmly grounded in their traditional culture. The evening ended with them insisting I take some food for my wife – the implication was she would be hungry by now. I was confused by this experience but recognised that there was the definite possibility of both honouring them or embarrassing and shaming, them.
Until I began to understand how these cultures understood life and relationships I failed to recognise this deeper reality in the words, actions and mission of Jesus. His world was one where shame and honour were paramount amongst the community. Honour was a claim to worth along with the social acknowledgement of worth. It marked one’s social standing within the community and determined how a person interacted with his/her equals, superiors and subordinates in a culture. Shame refers to the way a person recognises and is sensitive to the things others think, say, and do with regard to their honour. Shame can be individual or communal. In Aboriginal Australia there is, by virtue of what colonists did and white culture has maintained, a deep sense of shame. We have deprived them of honour. I very nearly did this to the baptismal family at several points through my own ignorance of their cultural expectations and their inability to correct my Anglo behaviour. I was, as Minister and a white Australian, higher up in the honour standing than they recognised themselves.
It is this very system where the powerful, wealthy, honourable people of the world benefit from the shame and dishonouring of the rest that Jesus refuses to uphold. He challenges the system at its roots and in his view of God’s Reign as the defining paradigm of life, love and truth, he reverses the social order until everyone can find a place. In the passage we read this week (Mark 5:21-43), Jesus engages with 2 remarkably different – in fact completely opposite – people. A man of high standing in the local Jewish community as a leader of the Synagogue came to Jesus. He had a name, Jairus, and his 12 year old daughter was very ill. He knelt before Jesus and pleaded for help with this girl who was dying. Jesus indicated they should go and attend to the girl. He is surrounded by crowds (representing to poor, the ordinary and the lower rungs of social class and honour) and from within the chaos, a woman with a 12-year bleed that won’t stop, desperately reaches out to touch his cloak in the belief that will be enough to heal her. Both she and Jesus feel it and he stops and asks who touched him. The crowd around him scoff for many have touched him but the woman meets his eyes and falls before him confessing. He lifts her up and says, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace, freed from your affliction.’
This interruption is enough for Jairus to receive news his daughter is dead but Jesus told him to have faith she is only asleep. They went into her room and he took her hand. He told her to get up and she opened her eyes, stood and walked around the room. He ordered them to give her something to eat.
These two stories represent extreme opposites – a woman who is as low as possible: unclean from the bleed; impoverished because physicians have taken her money but not cured her; alone and excluded from communal life because she is unclean… The girl has a father who has status and honour and she has lived under protection all the time the woman has been ill. In Jesus both receive what they need and both are called daughter. Therefore both now have equal status because they are children of God and God becomes the one who oversees them, offers acceptance, honour, protection and life.
The shaming of an ill woman, leading to her exclusion from communal and religious participation is unjust and contrary to the way, the Reign, of God. Jesus challenged this and welcomed people of all classes, all levels of honour (or shame), both genders and of ethnic difference into the gracious community of God.
I wonder who the people are that we shame, dishonour, ostracise or demean? I wonder which people our society rejects and excludes and treats as undeserving or even an enemy or threat? Where does racism, fear, ignorance, power or conflict intrude into how we treat people leaving them lost and outcast? How do we treat (shame or dishonour) those who are poor, marginalised or different? Who are the people we especially honour and hold up as ‘better’ than the rest?
The news is filled with the stories of shaming and dishonouring people. Our cultural history is filled with excluding those who we wish to dishonour or whom we shame through ignorance or fear. What does God invite us to do? How might Jesus burst through our pretentious, ignorant and unjust shaming of people to include those we reject into the community of God’s people??