St. Paul wrote: “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). This was written to people living in a rigidly hierarchical society. They were forced to honor those people above them on the social ladder but taught not to honor those below them. But things were different in the church. Masters honored slaves, merchants honored peasants, and everyone honored everyone.
That seemed baffling – and dangerous – to the outside world. If you were a citizen, you didn’t honor slaves. And if you were an equestrian, you didn’t honor citizens. So imagine being a wealthy equestrian sitting in a church service for the very first time. The speaker is obviously a slave. “Well, that’s weird,” you think. But when the friend who invited you and shares your social rank stands to praise the slave and honor him for his wisdom, you are appalled.
The social order can’t hold if this kind of thing continues. Slaves will disrespect their masters. Citizens will be telling senators what to do. The whole thing will come crashing down.
Outside the church, people rationed respect (and still do). Inside the church, there was an abundance of it. James Dunn translates this phrase, “Showing the way to one another in respect.” In other words, in the church we are not to wait for others to show respect. We are to go first.
Now, wait a minute! Why should I go first? I’ll show you respect … as soon as you show it to me. I’ve heard husbands say, “As soon as she starts showing me some respect, I’ll start being more loving.” I’ve heard parents say, “My kids aren’t getting anything from me until they start showing me the respect I deserve.”
We think that honor is a zero sum game: giving it to someone else diminishes our own. How will we ever go first when that is what we think? But going first is just what Paul expects us to do.
We’re all saying: “You first!” “No. You first.” And instead of a climate where people thrive, we have a desert of dishonor, where people wither. And going first becomes more difficult by the day.
Paul understood this dynamic perfectly—and issued the instruction anyway. It is because society is a desert of disrespect that showing honor to one another is so important. He urges us to take the lead, to go first. He dares us to walk point.
But how can we honor people who do not honor us? Harder yet, how can we honor people who dishonor us? If we give honor without receiving it, won’t it diminish our supply – and our souls need this stuff. Only if we see how God has honored us, we’ll be able to take the lead in honoring others.
The noun rendered “honor” in this verse is sometimes translated differently. It is rendered “price.” To honor a thing is to set a high price on it. To dishonor a thing is to set a low price on it, that is, to treat it as if it has no value. The connection between “price” and “honor” shines through in Matthew 27:9.
In telling the story of the blood money the Sandhedrin paid Judas to betray Jesus, St. Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah: “They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel…” In Greek that reads, “They took the thirty silver coins, the price of the one whose price the sons of Israel priced.” But it could be translated, “the honor of the one whose honor the sons of Israel honored” – or, rather, dishonored at the insulting price of thirty pieces of silver.
When you honor something, you set a price on it; you value it at a certain amount. Jesus was dishonored by Judas and the sons of Israel when they set so low a price on his life.
Now here is what we need to understand. We are rich in honor because God set so high a price on our lives: “For,” St. Peter says, “you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious [that is the adjective form of the same word] blood of Christ…” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Whether others honor us or not, God himself has bestowed on us the spectacular honor of ransoming us at the highest price ever paid. We need to remember who we are – the highly honored, dearly bought children of God. If we keep that in mind, we can honor others whether or not they honor us.