It’s happened many times over the years, but yesterday as I was burning brush on my property I was thinking and praying about it. You see, I watched it happen again the other day. I watched a teacher being challenged online over nothing – not legitimately questioned about something he was teaching, not challenged on some actual sin in his life, not even something in context with the statement he made. No, my friend was subjected to having to answer for something he neither said, nor believes by someone who routinely makes accusations and paints people in a bad light. Words were put into my friend’s mouth for a very specific reason – even if the person asking wasn’t even consciously aware if why he was doing it.
Something not readily apparent to western Bible readers is the reason for this verse:
Matthew 23:5-6 “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues.”
You might say, “Well, Tyler, they were obviously trying to appear more righteous! What’s so hard to understand about that?”
Yes indeed, but why were they trying to appear more righteous? Why did they feel as though they needed to do it. The answer lies in honor and shame culture, something utterly foreign in the Western world and yet obvious to two-thirds of the world today.
The Pharisees, Chief Priests and Scribes were living in a world where honor was everything – far more important than money. Honor in those days is what we would refer to as renown or reputation except in those days one could be a horrendous wretch of a person and still have high honor. We think of honor as belonging to heroes, and people with great character, but then it could legitimately belong to the most crafty, slanderous, and dishonest person in town, as long as he was dishonest with the right people.
In Messiah’s day, as well as throughout Bible times, honor was a limited commodity – it was believed that there was only so much honor to go around. Each village, each clan, each country, had only so much honor available and it had to be shared among the members of a peer group. You were born into your family’s honor – which was high if your father was a community leader and low if your father was the man who ran from battle or was a beggar. Gaining more honor consumed the public lives of men (and was the real reason that women stayed home, they weren’t being oppressed but protected from this ruthless game) – and it couldn’t be had simply by being a good guy with integrity; that’s our way of achieving honor. Raising one’s own honor level through personal effort could only be done at the expense of others – through military victories that would elevate you about your peers, winning athletic competitions, acting as a benefactor to the community (using your money to build buildings or do public works, like sponsoring an artisan) or – and this was the easiest way – stealing the honor of others through public challenges and hoping to elevate yourself while humiliating the other guy and his family.
We saw two types of people asking Yeshua (Jesus) questions in the gospels – the first were his disciples and those who respected him. They would ask questions in private. The other group asked questions in public, and always for the purpose of “trapping him” or “challenging him” (even “compliments” could be challenges designed to shame the other person). Have you ever noticed how some leaders lamented over his great works?
“All the world is going after Him!” (paraphrase John 12:19) (real meaning: “All the world has stopped going after us!”)
Although Yeshua wasn’t playing the honor/shame game aggressively (He didn’t start those challenges, but He sure finished them), His enemies were. They were shamed on each occasion and we will see language like, “And no one wanted to ask Him anymore questions after that.” Why not? Every miracle raised up Yeshua’s honor and so did every well-answered question – but that’s only half of it, every great accomplishment was taking the honor away from the leaders who challenged Him because that was how the culture operated. They were losing face as He was gaining it. When they lost it through a challenge it was their own fault, Yeshua warned everyone throughout the beatitudes that He was wanting to turn the honor/shame system upside down – the shamed would be honored and the honored would be shamed. He outlined a system where men were not to aggressively try to steal honor from each other, where honor was to come from within – however, if they were going to challenge Him, they were going to lose because He knew their hearts and He had the wisdom to defeat their challenges without resorting to their methods.
Yeshua came to destroy the honor stealing brutality of the first century Greco-Roman culture among His people (among other reasons, of course, He came accomplish many things and will yet accomplish more of the Scriptures when He returns). People who are in covenant and are loyal to God have honor in the Kingdom – but people had lost sight of what it meant to have that kind of honor, because of the corruption of the illegitimate Sadduceean priesthood. Yeshua, on the cross, restored that honor to our relationship with the Father, giving us a high level of honor as children of the Most High. The honor we have through our relationship with the Father through Yeshua is no small thing – it is the most substantial form of honor that we can have in this lifetime. We don’t need to go seeking for more – we just need to live up to what we have been given by doing our own jobs and allowing the King to decide who also gets worldly types of prestige. The Pharisees, Scribes and Chief Priests had a high level of honor through having been given a Covenant relationship and the commandments in order to set them apart in the world – that is an immense honor. But what did they do? Did they live as though they appreciated that enormous honor? No, they made their phylacteries (tefillim) wider and their tassels (tzitziot) longer – in order to look more righteous than those around them. They desired that worldly prestige, the kind that Yeshua was gaining simply because He had favor with men and was doing things that that makes the world marvel – but unlike the men who conspired against Him, Yeshua never used worldly methods to gain prestige.
So we come to the dog eat dog world social media, and there are people out there who are looking at an unimportant pecking order and trying to climb the rungs of the ladder not through living up to the honor they have already been given, but through undermining others and tearing them down in order to make themselves more – not more in the eyes of our King, but more in the eyes of His people. It is a worldly pursuit – one that Yeshua turned down when He refused to perform a sign for those who demanded it of Him.
The men of Yeshua’s day, because they lived in a society where everyone was observing the Feasts, the Sabbaths, tithing to the Levites and eating kosher, felt they had to do something visible to rise above their peers. They were willing to behave abominably towards their neighbors in order to become greater in the eyes of the public. They didn’t think twice about it, they never questioned whether or not this was a righteous action – “If I am going to be more in the eyes of the people, then he must be less.” This stands in stark contrast to John the Baptist’s response to his disciple’s horror that people were going to Yeshua, instead of their teacher! “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) John embraced the honor status given to him by God, and didn’t seek to hold on to what was being given to Yeshua.
We can’t love that kind of honor, not if it comes at the expense of someone else. Sadly, I have found it hard to navigate social media and even local congregations for fear of crediting another teacher with something I have learned (instead of taking credit for it myself) only to be subjected to a laundry list of things they are falling short in (and this laundry list often has no actual sins on it, just things that the person doesn’t like) and having to listen to someone publicly shaming them. We see the same phenomenon on social media where a person starts bashing this or that teacher behind their back, always with the net result of him or herself looking more righteous for sounding the alarm, or simply looking more righteous because they are obviously better than this teacher or leader who is less discerning and more sinful and therefore suspect and worthy of being undermined and publicly shamed – but generally sin has nothing to do with it. Jealousy is a powerful instigator of sin, a blinding influence that often masquerades as righteousness.
The most common thing I see, however, is when a teacher puts out a teaching or comments on a social media thread and is then subjected to the following public shaming techniques by those who are jealous and want that perceived higher level of honor for themselves.
“Well, maybe turning a blind eye to sin is okay with you, but I will side with Yah!”
(That one gets used even when there is no sin on the horizon, but the attacker wants to elevate something they hate to the level of sin and wants to put the other person on the defense – having to defend against something they have neither said nor believed. It’s just a way to lengthen their tassels without actually having to accomplish anything real. It is a form of self-exaltation that is easy and meaningless, requiring no real righteousness.)
“Are you saying that it’s okay to sin!?”
(Usually the person is equating the mercy of being patient with the ignorant sins of others with approving of full-blown rebellious sin – something the Word doesn’t support, unless you presume it was written in English)
“Well, you can keep listening to men and I will listen to God!”
(Maybe they think that sounds humble, but it sure isn’t humble.)
“So you’re saying that…” or “I guess you just think that..”
(When you can’t trap a person actually being a heretic, putting words in their mouth (aka lying about them through public accusations) is a very effective way to look like the great savior of the faith battling against the evil establishment)
“You are obviously motivated by…”
(Again, this is actually an overt form of lying)
Do you see it? Do you see how each phrase actually involves presumption and oftentimes lying? Do you see how it puts someone on the defensive, having to respond to charges that may be patently false?
What if a person isn’t a quick thinker, or a good speaker or writer? What if their heart doesn’t contain enough sarcasm or guile to fend off the charges cleverly enough for the audience that the accuser is playing for?
There is something similar as well, the anonymous charge that paints the “watchman on the wall” as a hero for pointing out how terrible and dangerous the nameless, faceless people he or she is condemning publicly really are, complete with detailed accounts of their secret motivations and supposed crimes. “Oh, you great hero of the faith standing up to such heresy, bless you!” Of course, because the charges are against nameless, faceless people, what’s the point? The point is the lengthening of tassels and the widening of phylacteries. The point is raising that honor level at the expense of others. The point is looking good, which has always been easier than actually being good.
Ever wonder what the big deal is about the fruit of the Spirit? Why was the promotion of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control such a huge deal? Very simply put – because spiritual maturity in that fruit meant that a person could not and would not go out trying to gain honor at the expense of others. They wouldn’t be like the people who challenged, tested and tried to trap Yeshua. They wouldn’t be like the men who murdered the prophets.
When we do those things to others, it’s like we are building the tombs of the prophets – proving that we are the children of those who murdered them. Yeah, I see people with phylacteries so wide on social media that they can no longer see the faces of the people whom they are shaming, and they certainly can’t access the log in their own eye. Their virtual tassels are so long that people are tripping over them as they drag through the dirt – and not only are those tassels being dragged through the dirt but also our King’s reputation along with it.
My friend told me once after one of these pointless incidents – he is an excellent leader and teacher online – “people like these are the reason I hate making comments on facebook.” How can leadership lead and teachers teach or even be real people around other people if honor assassins are waiting around every corner – looking for a shortcut up that invisible honor ladder and willing to climb it through shaming God with behavior that has all the illusion of righteousness but no real substance and no actual love or maturity? I’m not impressed by those who tell me that such people are “nice to them” or “great guys if you know them” – even the tax collectors and sinners are good to their friends. We are supposed to do better.
So if you are ever wondering why leaders and teachers seem aloof and don’t interact on social media, it’s because of the people who would rather steal honor than earn it or live honorably. They are exhausting, and sadly, they are operating with impunity in plain site and sometimes even to a large cheering audience encouraging them to do more.