The turning of the New Year led me to reflect on a very peculiar New Testament text. January is, of course, the month that we focus on personal change, both incremental and dramatic. Families flock back to churches everywhere. New gym memberships quadruple in popularity. We eat more greens. It’s like an annual self-help festival.
The documents of the New Testament easily fit into our January schema, because Scriptural authors seem to always be attempting to get their audiences to change their ways in some way. The priests called this change purity. The prophets called it justice. John the Baptist and his Nazarene cousin, Jesus, called it repentance. And at the close of the curious letter of 2 Thessalonians, Paul called it…earning power.
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ [them are fightin’ words], we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10)
Given the fact that 2 Thessalonians would have been read aloud to the house church (virtually everyone was illiterate in the first century Roman Empire), I can only imagine the congregational reaction. “Pastor Paul would rather me starve to death than fail to follow his example!” That’s a little strong, isn’t it, Apostle?
Yet it is not at all the negative judgment of this passage that is so shocking. It is the alternative lifestyle that it demands. Paul is, in essence, calling every last Christian to be a benefactor.
In the cities of Paul’s churches, Thessalonica included, a carefully crafted economic ecosystem made the world go round. Walk into any ancient city, turn around 360 degrees, and this ecosystem was visible in every direction. It was created by, of all things, inscriptions carved in stone.
In these inscriptions lay the grave distance and the sobering similarity between the ancients and us. We create economic ecosystems with commercials, sexually charged images, and media messages throbbing on screens large and small. In the end, these messages and images are meant to do one thing: stimulate the economy. The ancients achieved the same economic bump with inscriptions.
Here is what I mean.
The glue that held the ancient city together was the network of benefactors that funded the city. These benefactors not only paid for roads, latrines, aqueducts, and other public works projects, but were expected to provide food in times of shortage, games and festivals for the entire city to enjoy, even temples of worship. Because there could be no urban development without the proper care and feeding of the city’s benefactors, standard customs arose to insure that benefactors continued to spend their money on the city’s needs. One of these customs was aretology: a set of vocabulary, formulas, and proclamations that heaped honor upon the benefactor. The ubiquitous inscriptions in ancient Thessalonica were expressions of this aretology.
Here is a representative inscription from the first century, to benefactor Skythes:
Skythes, son of Archidamus, has been good to the citizens, eagerly coming forward and without hesitation to offer a benefaction. This is right and proper for a man who loves his city and is concerned for honor and good standing among the citizens. Accordingly, we the People, being grateful to him and having seen his fine and noble character, resolve to praise Skythes because of the diligence and the forethought he has in both sacred and secular affairs and, in addition, resolved by popular decision, to crown him with a gold crown during the games at the Festival of Dionysus. We will announce at the games when the citizens are assembled: ‘The people crown Skythes of Archidamus a fine and noble man who is well-disposed to the city,’ so that all may know the people are eager to honor its best men, so that they might eagerly continue to give benefactions.
As is evident, the citizens of ancient cities had plenty at stake in keeping their benefactors buttered up.
The tension reflected in Paul’s instructions in 2 Thessalonians reflects this ancient institution of the benefactor. Not only did the early Christians direct all of their aretological muscle away from earthly benefactors and toward the resurrected Jesus (Erastus is the city manager of Corinth – a wealthy and honored position – yet just gets lumped in with all the other Christians in the greeting list of Romans 16), but they disallowed their house church members from participating in the primary welfare system of the ancient world that was – you guessed it – provided by benefactors.
Because benefactors controlled such vast wealth in the ancient city they needed a mechanism to shore up their influence. They did this by amassing a retinue of followers, typically called, in Latin, clientes (hence, our English word, clients). Clients were called not only to defend their benefactor’s honor, but to look out for his interests in courts, in politics, and in financial transactions. So what’s in it for the client? Look at it like a paid internship with a very meager job description. In short, for a Thessalonian to score a clientship with a benefactor meant that they could quit their day job. They could kick back into a life of ease under the watchful provision of the benefactor.
“What do you mean if we don’t work, we don’t eat, Pastor Paul? You’re taking away our golden ticket!”
Against this context, it is truly remarkable that the earliest Christian teaching disallowed new converts to become clients. Before reminding the Thessalonians that he had consciously disavowed his own honored rights in order to stay away from the appearance of clientship, Paul includes this rule in the preaching they had originally received. Along with the announcement of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and second coming, early Christian preaching championed the death of the client system among all the baptized. Why? The reason is certainly not some right wing attack on the social safety net (Paul essentially invented a robust system of care for the needy in his churches; see 1 Timothy 4:3, for one example). Nor is Paul asserting some sort of primitive Marxist critique of the “trickle-down” economics of the city. Paul did not watch Fox News or MSNBC. These were not his categories. So what is Paul’s point?
The revolution of early Christianity was to call every believer, young and old, rich and poor, male and female, to cease any pursuit of clientship, so that they might attain to their God-given calling to be benefactors. And because our early Christian ancestors believed that God had called them to such a station in their city, Christianity transformed the Roman world in time.
In 2014, may our resolutions be those not of client consumers, but of benefactors. May our families, our churches, and our cities raise their chisels to our accomplishments. Let the inscriptions commence.