In the ancient world, crucifixion wasn’t only about death. It was about disgrace. The problem with getting yourself crucified wasn’t just that it would kill you, but that it would also humiliate you. Today we tend to assume that the worst thing about crucifixion was the physical suffering. But in a culture of honour and shame, humiliation – the pain of the soul – can be even worse than the pain of the body.
The horror of humiliation is expressed in many of Israel’s psalms. A list of horrors recorded in Psalm 79 culminates in the worst fate of all: public disgrace. “We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those around us” (Ps 79:1-4). We have been butchered – and, what’s worse, humiliated!
Jesus went to his death reciting another psalm of humiliation: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? … I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads” (Ps 22). To be crucified was to be cast out of the community, rejected by God and humanity. It was a disgrace worse than death.
It was the humiliation of Jesus’ death that made such a deep impression on the first Christians. Quoting an early Christian hymn, Paul describes Jesus’ whole life as a descent into humiliation and disgrace. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave”, and he “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). The world was saved by Jesus’ shame: that is the scandalous message of the cross.
And Jesus’ followers were the first people in the history of the world to describe humility as a virtue. Paul reminds the Philippian Christians that they ought to have the “same mind” as Christ (Phil 2:5), renouncing honour and becoming like slaves in service to one another. In ancient Roman culture, the whole purpose of life was to acquire honour and to shun everything that might diminish one’s reputation. To be humble was a bad thing. It was the worst thing that could happen to a person. Yet the earliest Christians went about proclaiming the dignity of humility. Paul calls himself a “slave of Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:1), as if it were the highest honour in the world.
In the first century, this message of humility was a shocking thing to hear. Yet today if you asked anyone on the street whether it’s better to devote life to self-aggrandisement or to humble service, they would admit that a life of service is better. Throughout the western world, the message of the cross has inverted the ancient values of honour and shame. Jesus’ shocking claim that it is better to serve than to be served (Mark 10:45) is accepted today as if it were just plain commonsense. The message of the cross has bequeathed this gift to our culture.
Yet because today we take humility for granted, it’s easy to forget the real scandal of the gospel: that the world was judged and redeemed by a shameful death. This death has given us a whole new moral framework. Up has become down; down has become up. In Jesus, God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).
Ben Myers is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at United Theological College