Honor, and who is honorable, differs not only across time but across cultures in our own time and among different classes even within our own culture. In certain subcultures, like academia or show business, a frivolous matter, like where one sits or when one speaks, can create honor. In some cultures a family’s honor is considered besmirched by behavior that would not create a whisper of dissent elsewhere. Just last month a young Pakistani Muslim woman was killed by her brother as she slept because her provocative (for Pakistan) social media presence on Twitter and Facebook had, to his mind, brought dishonor on the family.
The concept of honor carries relative cultural value; and yet we all understand something of the desire to be shown respect, to be affirmed and valued. Jesus, however, turns human notions of honor upside down when he claims that it is humility that brings honor in the eyes of God. This indicates that although human notions of honor change and shift, from the horrific to the benign, there is genuine honor grounded in the teachings of Scripture.
Sirach, like Jesus, speaks of humility as the central factor in honor before God: “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself; so you will find favor in the sight of the Lord.” Why is this the case? The need to seek out honor is a greater temptation among those with human accomplishments. But those who have accomplished great things also have honors bestowed on them even if they have not sought them out, so the need to keep one’s eyes focused on God’s true greatness becomes even more significant. “For great is the might of the Lord; but by the humble he is glorified.” When people turn to God and not their own achievements, their humility draws people to the source of true greatness.
Psalm 68 also indicates where God’s favor rests, as the psalmist praises God with an image drawn from ancient Near Eastern images of the storm god: “Who rides upon the clouds—his name is the Lord—be exultant before him.” The psalmist offers us an anthropomorphic image of the might of God, creator and controller of the natural world and all that is in it, and then turns to give us an example of God’s great power: “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” God’s power is manifested through the care of those who are most lowly and in need of aid. Human greatness, therefore, must model itself on God, not by exalting itself in honor but by caring for those most in need.
Jesus’ parable of a wedding banquet builds on the image of humility as true honor before God. Jesus notes how people were seeking out the first place of reclining, or the head seat at the table. Jesus warns his disciples not to sit there, because if someone with greater (human) honor arrives, the host would take you to the last place in dishonor. But if you go to the lowest place at the table and are then invited to go to a higher place at the table, you will have glory. For Jesus says all who exalt themselves will be made humble, while all who humble themselves will be made great.
Interestingly, the parable never uses the most common Greek word for honor, timē, but uses descriptions of behavior to indicate how human beings seek out respect, value and honor. The parable sets human honor in its proper place; it is arbitrary and based on shifting cultural considerations. God seeks out humility because humility is not intended to dishonor any particular person but to give glory and honor to God and to respect each person as a creation of God. And who we are as God’s creations is shocking, for as the psalmist in wonder recognizes in Psalm 8, we have been “made a little lower than the angels.” True honor is recognizing in humility our glory before God, not before human beings.