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Center for Action and Contemplation
Freedom from Shame
Freedom from Shame

Upending the Social Order

Monday, May 8, 2023

Father Richard points out how Jesus upended the social norms of his time by honoring people’s identity as beloved children of God:  

A telling phrase used in the Acts of the Apostles describes the new sect of Judaism that upsets the old-world order in Thessalonica. Christians there were dragged before the city council and referred to as “the people who have been turning the whole world upside down…. They have broken Caesar’s edicts” (Acts 17:6–7). No one is called before the city council for mere inner beliefs or new attitudes unless they are also upsetting the social order. The import of Jesus’ teaching and almost all his healing was a rearranging of social relationships and therefore of social order. He could not have gone around eating with the underclass, touching the untouchables, healing on the Sabbath, and collaborating with upstarts like John the Baptist down at the river without turning traditional societies upside down.  

Jesus refuses to abide by the honor/shame system that dominated the Mediterranean culture of his time. He refuses to live up to what is considered honorable and refuses to shame what people consider shameful. (If that is not apparent in our reading of the Gospels, we need to read them again.) This does not gain him many friends. It’s perhaps the thing that most bothers the priests and the elders. In response to his ignoring the debt codes and purity codes, they decided to kill him (see Mark 3:6, 11:18; Matthew 12:14; Luke 19:47; John 11:53).  

In New Testament times, shame and honor were the basis of moral values that people felt compelled to follow. If a situation called for retaliation, people were expected to retaliate. Not to retaliate would have been considered immoral, because they would have abandoned their honor. People were bound to be true to the honor of their village, their family, and themselves. For Jesus to walk into the midst of that cultural system and say, “Do not retaliate” and “Love your enemies” was to subvert the whole honor/shame system itself.  

Once challenged, Jesus’ listeners were given a new place to find their identity: not in their social positions of honor or shame but in God. Who we are in God is who we are. That’s the end of ups and downs. Our value no longer depends upon whether our family or village likes us, or whether we’re good-looking, wealthy, or obedient to the laws. Jesus’ message is incredibly subversive in any honor/shame society. As he takes away old foundations, he offers a new, more solid one: neither shame-based nor guilt-based but based in who we are in God.  

Who we are in God is a beloved child. Our identity is no longer dependent on the estimation of our culture or even on our own estimation of ourselves. Through prayer, and the awareness of God within us, we continually discover our true identity, “life … hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).  


Adapted from Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Alternative Plan: The Sermon on the Mount (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 1996, 2022), 21–22, 25, 75–76.  

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Exercise in Grief and Lamentation credits from left to right: Unknown, Jessie Jones, Jennifer Tompos. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

On retreat, the CAC staff used watercolors to connect to our collective grief. This is one of the watercolor paintings that came from that exercise. 

Story from Our Community:  

I have been reading your daily meditations for several years. More often than not, I find material presented that is inspiring and/or educational for me. Surprisingly, the story from the community sometimes is what touches me on the deepest level. I find myself surprised that someone else has felt and experienced exactly what I have and yet I could not see it clearly for myself until reading the writer’s words. This makes me feel less weird, less alone. Thank you for realizing the importance of including a space for your readers to share their wisdom. —Kathy C. 

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