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15th Sunday after Trinity

02 September 2021

12 September, Proper 19: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 116.1-8; James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-end


THERE is, in Common Worship, a form of confession which I don’t like: “We are sorry and ashamed, and repent of all our sins.”

To be ashamed, or feel shame, is normal; so perhaps encouraging people to confess it corporately is no bad thing. A few people lack the capacity for shame, untroubled by criticism of their behaviour or morals. But, for most of us, shame is a fundamental emotion.

Unlike guilt, it is not something that we experience mainly within ourselves. Guilty persons judge themselves in terms of boundaries transgressed, or standards unmet. Shame, though, is more instinctive. An evolutionary biologist might say that complex mammals with social hierarchies develop shame to underpin co-operation and altruism, on which the success of the group depends. Guilt, in contrast, is a human phenomenon, associated more with values and motivations than with behaviour.

I think of guilt as a subset of shame: for example, we do not feel guilt when our attraction to someone is found out, but we may feel shame at having the fact of our attraction exposed. Guilt, on the other hand, attaches to the wrongness of whatever triggers it; it is a form of shame always coupled to a value-judgment upon oneself.

Both these emotions regulate social behaviour. Both can become damaging and destructive to an individual, or a society. In RSV and AV, Isaiah 50.6 is rendered, “I hid not my face from shame and spitting.”

The spitting comes upon the Suffering Servant from outside: the shame, too, is a cruel conduit between his sense of self, his “integrity”, and other people’s adverse opinions of that integrity. It is a perfect storm of negativity, triggered by the scorn of others, which tempts him to lose confidence in his calling, and even perhaps in his God.

Why would the preaching of Jesus evoke this emotion in those who heard him, in that “adulterous and wicked generation”? The Evangelist does not look into the inner dispositions of Jesus’s adversaries and discover their guilt. He looks at the outside: at their behaviour, their attitude (or, we might say, their “affect”).

Their sense of shame at Jesus suggests that they see him as threatening the cohesion of their society, challenging its deluded self-image. This must be because they know that his extraordinary goodness exposes them for what they really are: that despised religious category which consists of people who are hearers, but not doers, of the truth.

One of the more mysterious forms of shame is the third-party kind. Many teenagers go through a phase of being ashamed of their parents. It looks like a kind of converse of the times, years before, when parents blushed for their toddler offspring’s misbehaviour in public.

In this latter case, they have good reason; it is easy to pass adverse judgment on a parent who fails to stop a child screaming in public, or kicking the back of the seat in a bus, or train, or plane. But who looks at the misbehaviour of a parent and then judges their offspring harshly? Yet the emotion is painful and real. If we need evidence that human beings are a social species, and depend on the good will and good opinion of others for their well-being, here we have it.

Jesus suggests that shame can be a two-way process, and this offers some hope to any who are struggling with their conscience and their sense of shame about admitting to being Christian. Can we imagine the Son of God standing in the presence of his Father and experiencing shame for the failure of us — his brothers and sisters — to cleave to him? Perhaps we need to widen the meaning of “ashamed” to include “refuse to acknowledge”. There is surely at least an element of that, here in this Gospel.

In the end, being ashamed of someone or something is, if we act in accordance with it, a form of rejection. Our ultimate fear must be that God will be ashamed of us, that we will have been “weighed in the balance and found wanting (Daniel 5.27)”.

If shame is the mirror-reflection of the altruism that is true love, then love can help us to understand it. To do as God wills for us, we must love with the perfect love that casts out fear (1 John 4.18). That includes the fear of other people’s judgement and contempt.

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