HomeCultureA Lesson in Honor-Shame. Being Like Mephibosheth

A Lesson in Honor-Shame. Being Like Mephibosheth

As Westerners, we have a unique view of reality through which we filter most of our experiences. We have what is called a “guilt-righteousness” point of view. This means that are concerned with issues of right and wrong. When we are offended, when we see certain behaviors, we usually think in terms of who is right and who is wrong. We think about the acts of morality rather than their effects. 

In general, most of the world’s cultures are organized around one or more of three systems. Most of the Western world is organized around guilt-righteousness. Most of Africa is organized around the power-distance or power-fear perspective. And the Middle East has a shame-honor system. Asia has a mix of these. For our purposes, Israel, during David’s time, was organized as a shame-honor system. 

The scriptures show all three ways of organizing societies. The scriptures have elements of the guilt-righteousness perspective, but they also reveal two others: the Power-Distance perspective and the one we are concerned with today, honor-shame. What does it mean to be part of an honor-shame system, and how does that impact our relationships?

Allow me to provide one example of an honor-shame situation from the scripture and see how this perspective teaches us about our relationship with Christ. It is the story of King David and King Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth.

There was a time during David’s reign when he wanted to find a relative of Saul, his predecessor, to whom he could show kindness. Mephibosheth was the son of David’s best friend, Johnathan, whom David made a promise with to show kindness to Johnathan’s descendants. However, because of a terrible accident, Mephibosheth was crippled in both feet and could not get around on his own.

Notice that early in their relationship, Mephibosheth referred to himself as a “dead dog” (II Samuel 9:8). He wasn’t simply being humble, or perhaps, falsely humble. Rather, he was describing his shame. He was from the family of David’s enemy. He was crippled and could do nothing on his own. He lived as an outcast. Do you see the shame-honor system at work? Mephibosheth was truly a “dead dog.” But David was about to pay him great honor. 

When David met Mephibosheth, he did something interesting. He made his servant, Ziba, and all of his family Mephibosheth’s caretakers and gave all of Saul’s property to Mephibosheth for Ziba to manage on his behalf. Then came something remarkable. He ordered that Mephibosheth eat with his family every day and for the royal house to care for his needs. This elevated Mephibosheth to be like one of David’s own sons. This was a great honor to pay him when Mephibosheth had done nothing practical to earn David’s favor.

Years later, when David’s son Absalom usurped the kingdom, Ziba provided supplies for David and his men as they fled, and he told David that Mephibosheth did not come because he was hoping the kingdom would be restored to him. In David’s eyes, this made Mephibosheth a traitor in spite of all of the goodness that David had shown him. Ziba used deception to give false honor to David by giving him supplies. David was tricked into giving Ziba all the land. By giving Ziba, a servant, all of the land that once belonged to Saul, he elevated the honor of Ziba above Mephibosheth and all of the people. 

Now we come to crux of this story. After Absalom had died, David was returning to Jerusalem as king again. Let’s take the rest directly from scripture. 

“Mephibosheth the son of Saul came down to meet the king. He had neither taken care of his feet nor trimmed his beard nor washed his clothes, from the day the king departed until the day he came back in safety. And when he came to Jerusalem to meet the king, the king said to him, “Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?” He answered, “My lord, O king, my servant deceived me, for your servant said to him, ‘I will saddle a donkey for myself, that I may ride on it and go with the king.’ For your servant is lame. He has slandered your servant to my lord the king. But my lord the king is like the angel of God; do therefore what seems good to you. For all my father’s house were but men doomed to death before my lord the king, but you set your servant among those who eat at your table. What further right have I, then, to cry to the king?” And the king said to him, “Why speak any more of your affairs? I have decided: you and Ziba shall divide the land.” And Mephibosheth said to the king, “Oh, let him take it all since my lord the king has come safely home” (II Samuel 19:24-30 ESV).

Most Westerners are concerned with the question of who lied to David, Ziba or Mephibosheth? But that is a guilt-righteousness perspective. There’s nothing wrong with that. Certainly, someone in this story lied and did wrong. But that is not the passage’s chief concern. What is happening here is a type of shame-honor dance. Let’s take a look at the relevant portions of our passage that reveal the shame-honor dynamic. 

First, notice what Mephibosheth actually said, “He has slandered your servant.” In other words, Ziba did not just lie; he brought shame upon Mephibosheth, portraying him as a traitor to David. The lie is important, but the slander is more important. Then, notice what Mephibosheth says, “My lord the king is like an angel of God.” This goes back to David saving Mephibosheth from poverty and shame when they first met. He is paying honor to David. Then he contrasts himself to David, saying that he ate “at your table.” In other words, You made me a part of your family, the royal family. This is remarkable because David was known to have not liked the lame (II Samuel 5:8). The earlier account said that David “hated” the lame. But he made Mephibosheth like a son!

Now look at what Mephibosheth says. “What further right have I, then, to cry to the king?” Here, Mephibosheth places himself at David’s mercy, resuming his original status. He is nothing compared to David. 

At this point, David decides to give both Ziba and Mephibosheth the land, to divide it between them. That’s when we hit the climax of this passage and Mephibosheth says the one thing in an honor-shame system that speaks volumes. He says, “Oh, let him take it all since my lord the king has come safely home.” Let me paraphrase this. Let Ziba have it all. I only want you! 

Keep in mind that David did not want to be shamed either. That had already happened, so David needed to reclaim his honor, so he issued a quick order to divide the land. Some commentators say this is like Solomon who ordered the baby divided to determine its true mother. Something similar may have happened with David. This is David’s way of dividing the land so the truth of who lied can be known. But this wasn’t about the lie. It was about honor. Mephibosheth shows he wants to protect the honor of David as well as reclaim his honor with the king, who had made him like a son. His honor and David’s honor are tied together. The order to divide the land revealed the true loyalist: Mephibosheth. 

Mephibosheth is a model in this passage about what we should be like. Mephibosheth wasn’t concerned with the land, the riches, and the status. He was concerned that David viewed him with shame. He wanted his honor with David restored, and he paid honor to David. This is how we should be with Christ. We get to have many benefits by being part of the kingdom. Indeed, the scripture says that we are co-heirs with Christ, and Jesus has become as a brother to us. However, our desires should not be focused on the benefits of the kingdom but on the king of the kingdom. Let me paraphrase it this way: Lord, let the world have it all. I only want you! 

You have been redeemed by Christ and the Father places great value on you. He has made you part of his house. You have been given great honor as a child of the king. Do you focus on the benefits of the kingdom? Or do you focus on the king?

If we only read this passage through the lens of guilt-righteousness then we will only be concerned with the right and wrong perspective. We want to know who lied and who is guilty. In one way, that’s necessary. But once seen through the honor-shame perspective, the culture in which David and Mephibosheth lived, we see something more important from the immediate meaning of the text all the way to its application in our lives.

I have a header on my Facebook page that spells out the attitude I want to have about Jesus. It says, “The Bible is my constitution, and Jesus is my king.” I want Jesus to be the supreme affection of my life. This was the perspective of Mephibosheth. How about you?

Tom Terry is head of Global Broadcast Strategy for JESUS Film Project and serves as Global English Station Manager for Trans World Radio. Tom is also the author of several books, including Bible studies, and "Like An Eagle," his biography about living in Mongolia for ten years.
- Advertisment -
Four Laws

Most Popular

Recent Comments