There are a few words that I use very carefully around my children. One of those words, which seems to carry immense weight, is ashamed. To describe my feelings toward one of my children as ashamed seems particularly harsh and the kind of damaging description that, if applied to firmly or repeatedly, might require even more therapy than a clergyperson's kid normally endures. So, when I hear Jesus say that he will be ashamed of those who are ashamed of him and his words, it makes me squirm a little bit.
But what does "ashamed" mean in Mark 8, when we hear it on Sunday? The Greek word is a form of the verb "ἐπαισχύνομαι," which is universally translated as "ashamed." I looked in over a dozen other translations of Mark 8:38, and none of them uses any word besides "ashamed." Google says that, in English, the word "ashamed" comes from the Old English "āscamian" which is the intensifier "a" + the verb that means "to shame." But what does the Greek word really mean? What does it come from?
Strong's Greek Concordance indicates that the verb "ἐπαισχύνομαι" or "epaischunomai" comes from "epi," which means "on" as an intensifying prefix that implies "fitting," + the verb "aisxynō," which means to "disgrace" or "dishonor." So it is, in effect, a "fitting disgrace" or a "dishonor that befits someone." The implication, therefore, is that the shame is the natural, appropriate, perhaps even necessary consequence. Strong's goes so far as to say that "epaisxynomai ('dishonor') refers to being disgraced, bringing on 'fitting' shame that matches the error of wrongly identifying (aligning) with something" (emphasis in original). That sounds a little like the context of Mark 8 influencing the definition, but it still hits home.
In the ordinary English sense of shame, a "fitting disgrace" makes sense. I don't decide I want to be ashamed of my children when they screw up. It just happens. They have done something so egregious as to necessitate or invoke within me my shame. Maybe that shifts the way I hear Jesus' words to his disciples and the crowd: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me...Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." If we are scandalized by Jesus' invitation to take up our cross and to lose our life, doesn't that bring upon us a fitting disgrace? Jesus isn't punishing us when he comes in glory with the holy angels. The truth is revealed. Those who attribute disgrace to the Crucified One will discover their own disgrace. That's the reversal that God's reign represents.