“Today is a good day to die”

Sometimes, when thinking about the world of the Bible, I think of…Star Trek. More specifically, I think of Klingons.

I know. Weird. Just go with me on this for a couple of minutes.

As someone born and raised in 20th century America, it can be hard for me to imagine the world in which Jesus walked. To hear Jesus’ words the way the disciples would probably have heard them, against their own cultural background rather than mine, is a challenge.

Some scholars (e.g., David deSilva) argue that the culture of the New Testament was steeped in the values of honor and shame. If you were born into a noble house, honor and worthiness were already ascribed to you. But even if you weren’t, honor could be achieved through acts of valor, sacrifice, and generosity. There were numerous ways in which the culture encouraged the pursuit of honor and the avoidance of dishonor and shame.

The Klingons help me imagine this. They were a warrior race who prized their honor above all. The greatest glory and honor went to those who died in battle of behalf of the Empire; their memories would be celebrated forever in story and song. A warrior anticipating the prospect would say with pride, “Today is a good day to die.”

Conversely, to die a dishonorable death was the greatest shame imaginable, to be avoided at all costs. Not only would the individual be branded a coward, but his or her entire family would be shamed for generations, unless someone restored the family’s honor through some extraordinary measure. An honor/shame culture is thus an inescapably communal culture. “Glory to you,” one Klingon might greet another, “and to your house.”

With his death imminent, Jesus looked to heaven and prayed for glory:

Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. …I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created. (John 17:1, 4-5, CEB)

John’s gospel, right from the start, makes Jesus’ nobility unquestionable. He is the eternal Word through whom all things were created (1:3); as such, he shared the glory of the Father. Over and over, throughout the story, Jesus emphasizes his relationship to the Father. But as the Word made flesh (1:14), his glory wasn’t obvious. Would people have the eyes of faith to see the Father’s glory in Jesus, perhaps through the signs he performed? That is one of the questions driving the drama of the gospel.

And now that the time has come for Jesus to die, he prays that God would glorify him. As we saw in the previous post, he’s prayed such a prayer before (John 12:28); in both cases, the cross is in view. But here’s the problem: in the world of the New Testament, death by crucifixion was the most dishonorable, shameful death imaginable. Furthermore, to be a disciple of someone who had been crucified meant sharing that shame.

No wonder Jesus has to pray for them. They have a different idea of the kind of glory they seek, and it doesn’t involve the shame of crucifixion. A Klingon would never have been able to live it down.

All that to say this: it takes some imagination to enter into the cultural world of the New Testament and thus to appreciate just how radically the cross turned that world upside-down. Paul speaks of the gospel message as “foolishness” to those who don’t believe (1 Cor 1:18-25). But I wonder if we take it too much for granted that we ourselves “get it” — and in so doing, co-opt the gospel by importing it into our own preexisting standards of what is worthy of honor or shame. When we do that, grace may no longer be grace.

Jesus, of course, was no Klingon. His was a different kind of battle. But he might have been able to say, “Today is a good day to die” — because he could see the glory that awaited him, despite shameful appearances to the contrary (cf. Heb 12:2).

The question is whether we can see as he saw.