21 March 2014

Ezekiel 16: Honour and Shame

Ezekiel 16

In shame I was born,
in shame cast aside,
unwanted, unloved,
thrown out to die.

I was hopeless till you came,
I was helpless, I was nothing -
yet you saw past my shame
and lifted me.
You lifted me up,
up, up into glory,
a place of honour by your side.

You showered me with blessings,
you covered me with gifts,
you swore me your love:
you were mine, I was yours.
Ashes turned to beauty,
the waif became a queen -
but I forgot
what I had been.

Honour turned to pride,
beauty to a curse.
I abused your gifts,
I threw you aside.

Eagerly, hungrily I sold myself,
gave others what belonged to you,
turned honour in for shame.
I was falling,
falling down -
down, down without seeing
what I was doing to myself.

You made me look in the mirror,
you made me see my disgrace,
let me face the consequences
of my unfaithfulness.
Without you, I have nothing,
all my beauty falls away,
all the blessings turn to ashes,
all my glory becomes shame.
Without you, I am nothing -
a veneer of honour,
chewed up from inside,
a black hole of misery -
that is what's left of me.

In honour let me die,
head held high,
knowing it is right
to bear this punishment -
go on, I will take it;
let justice be done,
let me swallow the bitter dregs
I poured for myself.

my last vestige of pride
you banish to the wind
by lifting up my head
and saying I am free.

In shame I lie before you,
for I cannot comprehend
this painful grace.
Why do you stay faithful
when faithless I have been?
Why lift me back to honour,
forgiving me?

I see now
the glory is not mine.
I see now
all I have is yours.
I see now
my honour is you,
and being with you
the only way to keep it.
I am ashes at your feet -
but in your hands, I'm beautiful.
So take me in your hands,
mold me into something new -
make this unclean vessel pure
not to my glory
but to yours.


[March 2014]

This poem is about the "faithless bride Jerusalem" from a parable in Ez 16. After writing a paper on shame / honour cultures and the Bible last year, I still have the honour / shame topic in my head, and it hit me again when reading Ez 16, especially the last bit. The story paints a journey from shame (as an abandoned child left to die) to honour (being adopted and married by God) to shame (priding herself in her beauty, committing adultery and worshipping idols) where punishment reveals the shamefulness of her sinful actions. Jerusalem is even depicted as worse than Sodom (more shame). But then comes the turning point: new honour, a new covenant. And what does the bride feel at being forgiven and lifted back to honour? She feels shame:

And I will establish My covenant with you. Then you shall know that I am the Lord,  that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your shame, when I provide you an atonement for all you have done, says the Lord God. (Ez 16:62-63)

I considered this: there's something honourable about accepting punishment (stanza 7) and something degrading about being forgiven. In a Chinese TV series I watched once, some of the characters kept insisting on being punished. They actually cried out, "Punish me!" Because they wanted justice to be done and they saw that as honourable. Choosing to suffer punishment is something you can do for yourself. Being reprieved makes you dependent. It makes you have to face what was wrong, and repent; you can't stick your head high anymore, you are not in charge. That's how I'd explain the bride's shame at this point. But it's also the shame of realising she has no honour of her own, but all her honour comes from God and is found in Him alone. She ran away thinking she could do on her own; now she has to realise that all she has comes from God and His great mercy and grace. In herself, there's only shame - in God is honour.

If you find the whole honour / shame topic interesting, you should check out this article about a theology based on shame / honour (particularly relating to Chinese culture).

The picture is "Found" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti - a man finds out his childhood friend is now a prostitute, and she is ashamed.

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