Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament -- By: David A. deSilva

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 31:0 (NA 1999)
Article: Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament
Author: David A. deSilva

Patronage and Reciprocity:
The Context of Grace in the New Testament

David A. deSilva

David deSilva (Ph.D. Emory University) is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at ATS.

The term “patronage” refers to a system in which access to goods, positions, or services is enjoyed by means of personal relationships and the exchanging of “favors” rather than by impersonal and impartial systems of distribution. People in the United States and Northern Europe may be culturally conditioned to find the concept of patronage distasteful at first, and not at all a suitable metaphor for talking about God’s relationship to us. When we say “it’s not what you know but whom you know,” it is usually because we sense someone has had an unfair advantage over us or over the friend whom we console with these words. It violates our conviction that everyone should have equal access to employment opportunities (being evaluated on the basis of pertinent skills rather than personal connection) or to services offered by private businesses or civic agencies.1 Where patronage occurs (often deridingly called nepotism: channeling opportunities to relations or personal friends), it is often done “under the table” and kept as quiet as possible.2

We tend to get what we need or want by means of buying and selling, where exchange is precisely measured out ahead of time. You do not leave a department store owing the sales person a favor, nor does the cashier at a restaurant owe me a good turn for the money I gave after dinner. When we seek employment, most often we are hired on the basis of our skills and experience by people we do not know. We prepare for employment not so much by cultivating “connections” (although this is still useful!) as by equipping ourselves with the knowledge and skills that, we hope, a potential employer will recognize as giving us the necessary resources to do the job well. When we fall into hard times, there is a massive public welfare system in place, access to which is offered not as a personal favor but as a bureaucratized “right” of the poor or unemployed. If an alien wants citizenship and the rights that go along with it, he or she applies and undergoes the same process as every other naturalized citizen it is not a favor granted personally by an individual in power.

The world of the authors and readers of the New Testament, however, was a world in which personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection, or opportunities for employment and advancement. Not only was it essential — it was expected and publicized! The giving and

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