Historical Cultural Context
Honor and Secrecy
As Jesus’ neighbors demonstrate, a major occupation among Mediterranean people is minding everybody else’s business. Life is very public, and everyone tries to know as much about everyone else in the village as possible. This renders it very difficult to make honor claims.
Because of this cultural tendency to nosiness, people are driven to secrecy and deception as a means of preserving honor. Indeed, even though criticized and repudiated, secrecy and deception are perceived as legitimate strategies for preserving honor. The strategy even follows a process, and it is evident in Jesus’ exchange with his disciples in today’s reading.
The process of secrecy involves insiders and outsiders. Basically, an insider (and sometimes his faction) have a secret, which outsiders will try to ferret out. The secrecy process has five stages:
Insider. The insider has a secret; this carries with it power and security.
Outsider. Outsiders try to learn the secret through surveillance, espionage, etc.
Insider. The secret-holder devises security methods, including deception, which includes leaking false information, to preserve the secret.
Outsider. Nosy people must now evaluate what they have previously suspected or spied out and compare it to the fresh information that has been given to them.
Insider. The insider may be satisfied with that confusion or may seek to lead the process further.
In today’s reading, the secrecy process appears to develop in this fashion:
Insider. Jesus knows his self-identity, his origins (see Mark 6:3), but as a typical Mediterranean dyadic personality, he needs to know what others think. He asks his disciples what they have heard.
Outsiders. The crowds think Jesus is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or another ancient prophet come back to life.
Insider. Jesus asks his followers (other insiders) for their opinion. Peter says: “The Messiah of God?” Jesus commands him and the others not to tell anyone. True to the process, Jesus leaves it to the outsiders to weigh all their knowledge and draw a conclusion. The association of Jesus with the Baptist, Elijah, or other prophets, though incorrect, are, in Jesus’ mind, honorable attributes. Why disturb these misconceptions?
Outsiders. The crowds are still left with their three opinions, and if the disciples (insiders) leak the secret, the outsiders will have four opinions to weigh. They must sort all this out.
Insider. Jesus’ full identity and reputation are known to him alone. Others, like the neighbors in his hometown, are still in the dark. They may still try to shame him, but they will never be certain of a good basis for shaming him. His honor remains intact. This is the “payoff” of deception in the service of honor.
Modern believers are understandably troubled by this use of deception as a strategy for maintaining honor. Modern Americans have laws safeguarding truth in advertising and guaranteeing open meetings of governmental agencies. Other agencies assure that weights and measure are honest, and so on, ad infinitum. Lacking these guarantees of honesty and truth, the Mediterranean people whose lives are reflected in the Bible had to rely on oaths or statements such as “Amen, amen” (or “Truly, truly”) to assure others that they were not lying. Even this was much misused, else there would be no need for a commandment forbidding the calling of God to witness to a lie (“using the Lord’s name in vain”).
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University