What are you ashamed about? Are you ashamed of the things that you have viewed on your screens? Are you ashamed of the many times you were too cowardly to stand up and identify with Jesus? As a parent, you may be ashamed about the many ways in which you have failed your children. As a son or daughter you may remember the sting of hearing a parent say, ‘I am so disappointed in you.’ You may be hiding a shameful secret. ‘What if people knew what I was really like?’ You may be ashamed about the times when you were angry, moody, impatient and oversensitive.
Tim Challies writes, ‘so many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame. They think back to all the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and live under a cloud of shame. This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates. It raises the question, what … is the place of shame, in the Christian life?
Let’s look at the parable of the father who covers his son’s shame.
The young man brought shame upon himself, his family and his community
The younger son is doing something shameful in asking for his share of the estate. ‘…in that culture, the normal response to this level of impudence would be, at the very least, a hard slap across the face from the father. This would have typically been done publically to shame the son who had shown such disdain for the father’ (MacArthur).
The father would have been expected to give the boy a ceremonial slap across the face, a public renunciation, formal dismissal from the family, and possibly even a funeral. That would have been the only way to avoid allowing the boy to bring lasting reproach against the family’s good name. The father ‘was willing to endure the pain of spurned affections and public humiliation rather than disown his son’ (MacArthur). Jesus’ hearers would have considered the father’s response to be shamefully weak.
Sons were to be a source of pride and joy. This son could be seen as a source of embarrassment. The law told children to honour their mother and father. The law said that he deserved to die. As he heads off to squander his wealth in the distant land, he brings disgrace to his family, his village and his religion.
He lives shamefully among the pagans, and then he experiences his own disgrace. When famine comes, he goes to a farmer looking for work. I doubt that this farmer was looking to employ anyone at that time. But in that shame-culture you did not turn down a request for help in that culture. So the farmer offers a job that no self-respecting Jew could accept—feeding unclean pigs.
The hymn-writer, John Newton, pondered the prodigal and has him ask, ‘what have I gained by sin, but hunger, shame and fear? My father’s house abounds in bread, while I am starving here!’
Shame kept him from returning home
Why didn’t he just head home? He stayed in the pigsty because of what he feared would happen if he returned to his village.
Middle-eastern expert, Ken Bailey, explains that had he come home after dishonouring his village among the gentiles, he would have been greeted by people who would have broken a clay pot in front of him and declared that he was dead to them.
For the rest of his days, young lads, with nothing better to do, would have followed him around, taunting him and throwing dung at him. He was also aware that his bitter older brother would never let him forget what he had done.
The shame he expected to be exposed to on returning home would be greater than the shame of feeding those pigs.
The father endures shame to cover his shame
But, what actually happens on his return?
His father saw him from a distance, was filled with compassion and sprinted to meet him. That’s significant. In that culture there was a proverb that said you could tell the manner of a man by the way he walked. Men over thirty did not run. Respectable men walked in a slow dignified manner. Farmers lived in the village and went out to the field; so everyone sees him as he lifts his robes, exposes his knees and races through the village.
One of the reasons he ran was to get there before anybody else. Remember the pot-breaking ceremony? He did not want his son to experience such pain and disgrace. If he gets to the son first, and accepts him, then, because of his status in that society, the rest of the village will have to accept him.
Spurgeon says, ‘had the story been that of a selfish human father only, it might have been written that “as he was coming near, his father ran out, and kicked him.”’ Many fathers would have looked at the emaciated boy, in rags and covered in pigs’ dirt, and contemptuously declared, ‘look at the state of you!’
But not this father! This father orders the best robe and covers the boy’s shame.
But not everyone wants to forget your shame
Apparently the fatted-calf could have fed up to two hundred people. That means that the father is inviting the whole village. He is showing hospitality to the very people who gossiped about his wayward son and looked down their noses when they saw him race out to greet him.
However, while the father may have quickly forgotten the boy’s shame, you can be sure that not everyone in the village was so gracious. His older brother was certainly not okay about it.
Many people don’t want to face their shame
While the younger son faced his shame and had it covered by the father, the older son had a different way of dealing with shame. He denied he had anything to be ashamed of. In that culture nothing was considered worse than shaming someone. Yet it would have been considered embarrassing for the father to have to leave the party and go and plead with the elder son. The elder son is trying to shame his father. There would have been murmuring among the guests as they watched the father leave the room. ‘His older son does not respect him.’
Fathers in that culture did not typically plead. They simply yielded unquestioned authority. No one in that society would have been shocked if the father had order the older son in and given him a public beating for showing such a lack of respect (MacArthur).
His older son refuses to address him with any term of respect—the omission of the address, ‘father’, stands out. Yet the older son can say, ‘I never disobeyed your command.’ I have done nothing to be ashamed of. Like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, he tried to cover over the coldness of his heart towards the father by self-righteous acts of obedience. How tragic it is that many people will ultimately insult God by claiming that ‘I am a good person’ who does not need your grace! Jesus pleads with the self-righteous to acknowledge their contempt for the mercy of God and let him forgive them. We aren’t told if the elder son came into the party, we know that most of the Pharisees and teachers of the law continued to despise the grace of Jesus, but there were some, like Nicodemus, who began to celebrate the fact that God wants the proud and arrogant to come into the party of grace.
Jesus endured shame for us
But we have another older brother. He is like the father who was willing to humble himself to cover our shame. Jesus told this parable on his way to Jerusalem, where he would endure shame for us! The writer to the Hebrews tells us to, ‘fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:2). John Piper explains that Jesus’ ‘friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming mockery; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture.’ Jesus was utterly humiliated so that we would no longer have to live with our shame.
Conclusion: It is sinful to hold on to our shame
Many people don’t want God to deal with their shame. You would rather try to cover your own shame. You try to prove to people that we are better than our shameful actions suggest. You long for the day when the people say, ‘you are so different from that shameful wretch that returned from the distant land.’ The engage is self-justifying behaviour. You are striving to prove yourself. But God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.
As well as pride, unbelief stops people rejoicing that God has covered their shame. It is unbelief when people’s opinion matters more to you than God’s opinion. The people of the village were not okay with what the son did, but he rests content in his father’s acceptance. Does the fact that God is not ashamed of you more than compensate for the things people may say about you? ‘Jesus, I believe; help me in my unbelief!’
Tim Challies writes, ‘when I sin I should feel ashamed; it should cause me to run to my heavenly Father; but, as I receive his forgiveness, I must let go of my shame!’ Indeed, it is wrong for a Christian to hold on to their shame!