14 Nov God’s Public Humiliation – Proper 28, November 13, 2022
Preacher: Rev. Phil Schmidt
The Gospel: Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said,
“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
In the gospel reading we heard how Jesus predicted the total destruction of Jerusalem, saying” “Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” This comment is easy to overlook. It is worth asking, why the Romans were not satisfied with just winning a war against the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but felt compelled to completely devastate their temple, so that “not one stone was left upon another”? The historian Tacitus wrote of the Roman Empire: “They produce desolation and call it peace.” The complete destruction of the temple was not necessary, but it reflects an element of Roman policy – a dynamic which can be seen in all conflict up to the present day. This dynamic could be called “public humiliation”.
The leaders of the Roman empire tried to subdue all people who challenged their authority by publicly humiliating them. This policy had at least three components: total devastation, crucifixion and victory parades in Rome. After Jerusalem was captured and its temple destroyed in the year 70, the survivors were publicly shamed by being crucified or by being transported to Rome as slaves, where they were paraded through the streets – along with sacred objects plundered from the temple. This spectacle was called a triumph procession.
Humiliation is one of the most powerful dynamics of human history. Two days ago, was Remembrance Day, commemorating the cease fire which ended World War I. Eight months later the Treaty of Versailles declared that Germany was alone responsible for all of the destruction and loss of life caused by the war and was heavily punished with excessive reparation demands. Many Germans felt deeply humiliated by this treaty. Adolf Hitler exploited the feeling of shame and used it to mobilize people for an even bigger war.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, there was at least one person, Putin, who regarded this downfall as an unbearable humiliation, which is one of the reasons why he initiated a war against Ukraine, trying to restore greatness by attempting to totally devastate and degrade a neighboring country.
There is a medical doctor and psychologist by the name of Evelin Lindner, who has researched the theme of human dignity, and she believes that the humiliation of honor and dignity may be among the biggest obstacles to establishing a peaceful world community. She has referred to humiliation as the “nuclear bomb of emotions.”
Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Secretary-General of the United Nations, stated: “All the cruel and brutal things, even genocide, start with the humiliation of one individual”. Another commentator referred to humiliation as “perhaps the most toxic dynamic of our age.” Much of the violence we experience today begins with a YouTube video depicting some form of alleged humiliation, which is viewed millions of times and inflames irrational passions.
The authors of the Bible are fully aware of how crucial it is to be protected from humiliation. The word “shame” occurs 164 times in the Bible. A typical passage is Psalm 31:
In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame…Lord, let me not be ashamed for having called upon you: rather, let the wicked be put to shame. (1 + 17)
Again and again, Biblical authors plead to God: “Do not let us be put to shame for trusting in you. Do not let our enemies triumph over us”. The Biblical authors indicate that losing honor and dignity can be worse than losing life.
In this context, the Bible has a breath-taking message. God’s answer to public shaming is astounding. The Biblical authors pleaded with God to put the wicked to shame. God answered this prayer, but he did not put the wicked to shame by devastating them – the strategy of dictators – instead, God did something which sounds utterly ridiculous: namely, on behalf of all people He suffered a public humiliation. A hymn to Christ in the book of Philippians celebrates God, who in Jesus became totally mortal and let himself be degraded by submitting to death by crucifixion.
The most obscene form of public humiliation was a Roman crucifixion, in which the victim was stripped naked and was ridiculed by morbid bystanders. As Jesus hung on the cross, it was God Himself who was being mocked and scorned. On the cross God took upon himself the degradations and violence which people have suffered throughout human history.
But within this disgrace he revealed his absolute sovereignty over all the powers of darkness. When Jesus prayed for the forgiveness for his tormentors, he revealed that nothing can restrain the unlimited grace of God. When Jesus cared for his mother and beloved disciple by entrusting them to each other, he revealed that nothing can conquer the unconditional love of God. When Jesus died on the cross, it was revealed that nothing can restrain the most explosive power imaginable: the power to raise all of the dead to life and bring them to a final accountability.
On Golgotha the world was turned upside down: it was not God in Jesus who was put to shame, but the powers of this world who thought that they could build themselves up by putting others to shame. In Colossians (2: 15) this paradox was expressed in the words:
He (God) stripped naked the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Jesus). (a literal translation)
This language reflects two ways in which the Romans attempted to dehumanize opponents: by crucifixion and by parading the losers of war through the streets of Rome in a so-called triumph procession. Easter was God’s triumph procession, in which he led the captives of death out of darkness into eternal light. The Easter victory revealed that the power of tyrants to degrade and kill is not going to determine the ultimate fate of humanity. The Easter triumph exposed the impotence of all rulers who think that they are gods.
On Golgotha God in Jesus suffered indignities without striking back. This is why Jesus encouraged his followers to turn the other cheek if they were slapped in the face. By refusing to retaliate to an act of contempt, followers of Jesus can demonstrate that human dignity is not defined by the ability to abuse another human being. Human dignity is based upon two things: that all people are created in the image of God and that Jesus died on the cross for all people. Our honor and dignity cannot be eradicated by insults nor defended by force, because dignity is a gift of God’s grace. If someone spits in your face, he cannot diminish your worth as a creation of God. By not retaliating to mockery, we can witness to a dignity which is indestructible.
This type of dignity is illustrated in the Talmud, a book which contains a collection of Jewish Biblical interpretations. There was a Rabbi Meir who served at a synagogue in a village called Hammata. A woman attended his lectures and was fascinated by his teachings. One day the rabbi talked longer than usual and when she came home late her husband was angry. He said:
You neglect your household duties because you are infatuated by your rabbi and spend too much time in the synagogue. I demand that you humiliate the rabbi by spitting in his face.
The next day the wife visited the rabbi and told him what her husband had demanded. The rabbi responded by saying:
I have an inflammation in my right eye. I ask you to spit in my eye 7 times, so that it will be healed. (In earlier times saliva was regarded as a medicine for eye infections.)
The woman was shocked. How could she dare spit in the eye of her revered teacher? However, he insisted and she finally agreed to do it. Then he said:
So, now you can go home to your husband and say that you spit in my face not once, but 7 times. That should satisfy him.
The students of the rabbi overheard this conversation and were outraged. They thought that their teacher had rewarded the maliciousness of the husband, letting him think that he had a right to abuse his wife and to disgrace the rabbi. The students suggested that they should to go to the husband, beat him up, bind him hand and foot until he acknowledged that he had behaved wickedly. The rabbi answered: the dignity of a rabbi is not important, because God himself is willing to suffer humiliation in order to defuse violence. The rabbi was not referring to Golgotha, but to an event in the Hebrew Bible in which God did not defend his honor when it was attacked. In any case, the rabbi who let himself be spit in the face revealed a dignity which was derived from God Himself. He was reckoning that this type of dignity will change people and reduce aggressiveness.
Indestructible dignity is derived from the creation of humanity in the image of God and from the Easter victory in Christ. It is the key to creating a peaceful world. When people no longer need to defend their honor by being rude to a person who has been rude to them, a chain of hostility can be broken. A de-escalation of aggression is only possible when someone is ready to suffer indignity. God Himself was willing to suffer public disgrace. We are called to follow his example. Two passages in the New Testament sum up our calling as followers of Christ (Luke 6:28: 1. Peter 3:9)
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called.