One of the most, if not the most important societal constructs in the world of Jesus’ day, was the construct of honor and shame. It was the system of honor and shame that governed relationships in the ancient world. One that was desirous of pursuing honor, while also being able to function at an honor-pursuit level within society (so this would not apply a child, woman, slave, leper, etc…), would take great pains to perform public actions that would not be damaging to one’s accrued honor, carefully avoiding activities or associations that would tend to bring shame. Honor equaled prestige in the ancient world. Honor was also considered to be a limited good, in that if one gained honor for themselves, it came at the expense of another person’s honor. More honor for one equated to more shame for another, and one could gain honor for self by shaming another person.
We can see this system at work in the records of the life and ministry of Jesus. When Jesus is challenged, in addition to these challenges being akin to rabbinic debates, they are also contests of honor and shame. If His challengers can defeat Him through their questions, asserting their superiority or demonstrating potential flaws in His reasoning or grasp of the law, then they will have shamed Him while gaining honor for themselves. This could serve to stem the tide of His kingdom movement. However, Jesus, who has attracted crowds and prestige, does not seek honor for Himself. He is only concerned with His Father’s honor. As a denizen of the first century Greco-Roman world and as a popular teacher that is increasingly viewed through messianic lenses during the course of His public ministry, He should be quite conscientious of the way that He is perceived by the public; instead, He appears to be almost completely unconcerned with the honor and shame system. It almost seems as if He views it as being quite backwards, with actions seen as most honorable by the wider public perceived by Jesus as being shameful, and vice versa.
At times, Jesus accepts the honors being afforded to Him, but generally, He only accepts honoring or honorific statements when they come from those that do not possess any public honor (tax collectors, lepers, those that have been possessed by demons, unclean women, etc…) When the rich or the rulers attempt to honor Him, perhaps by calling Him “good,” He disavows the approbation. He routinely speaks of the first being last and the last being first. He interacts with tax collectors, who may have money and a measure of power, but are not looked upon as being honorable in the least. He touches lepers. He allows dishonorable women to touch Him. He is more than happy to take the lowest place at a meal, eschewing the places of honor, and instructs His followers to do the same. He washes the feet of His disciples, which is the role of a slave and a reminder of the slave’s shameful place. He allows children, who, as children, do not have a place in the honor and same pursuit (they do not have honor or shame accorded to them), to come to Him. When they do, He tells those who are listening to Him that they must enter the kingdom of God as little children---unconcerned with the pursuit of honor or avoiding shame (which has nothing to do with a “childlike faith”). He ultimately ends up on a cross, which was the lowest and most shameful place of all, going there willingly as He embraced the role of Israel for the world.
These things (the honor and shame culture, along with Jesus’ treatment of this broad social construct) would have been well understood by Jesus’ followers and those that made up the churches that attempted to live out what it meant to be the renewed Israel that represented the rule of God through the remembrance of and reflection upon the orally transmitted Jesus tradition. When Paul writes his letters, especially what are considered to be the early letters, there is no written record of the life of Jesus. There are no Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as we have them in their present form. Paul doesn’t have his own body of work or the letters from other apostles from which to draw, nor do the early believers. They have the words of the apostles. Those apostles shared their stories of Jesus (a relatively unified story to be sure, though with different emphases, as is obvious from the variety of presentations of the life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels) so that those who threw in their lot with the crucified and resurrected King (the church) might do their best to model out the example that He provided, as the movement of the kingdom of God began to spread through the world through the instrument of the church, motivated by the Spirit of God. They too were to be motivated to eschew honor and embrace shame, especially if such brought glory to their King and to their God, extending the reach and rule of that Kingdom, as they conscientiously strived to bring heaven to earth by mimicking the counter-cultural behavior of Jesus.