Paul, much like Jesus, does not wish to be viewed as a patron. At the same time, Paul took steps during the course of his ministry to make sure that he is not looked upon as being a client either, as this, according to his way of thinking, would diminish his effectiveness and run contrary to what needs to happen in the communities envisioned by the messianic mission and the kingdom of God. We see an emphasis on this aversion in what we look to as Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. In the eleventh chapter we hear Paul asking “did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you could be exalted, because I proclaimed the Gospel to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so that I could serve you! When I was with you and was in need, I was not a burden to anyone… I kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so… And what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may eliminate any opportunity for those who want a chance to be regarded as our equals in the things they boast about” (11:7-9a,9c,12).
Not only is Paul expressing his independence from this church, while also diminishing the patron-client relationship into which others might naturally enter in their service of the church, we’ll notice that Paul also debases himself by referring to himself as a robber. Such words, along with the other rhetorically oriented words of debasement, demonstrate that Paul is not attempting to elevate himself in any way, but truly desires to serve the churches for their edification.
In chapter twelve, he reiterates and emphasizes his eschewing of patronage and clientage, writing “I will not be a burden to you, because I do not want your possessions, but you. For children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. Now I will most gladly spend and be spent for your lives… I have not burdened you” (12:14b-15a,16b). If we hear Paul’s words merely as some type of erection of spiritual laws and the relationship between children and parents, dismissing the patron-client constructs of his world and forgetting the significant amount of time and attention this congregation received from Paul, we’ll miss a great deal of what is being communicated to the Corinthian church. We do ourselves a tremendous service by gaining familiarity with the cultural dynamics of Paul’s world, which, of course, were the same cultural dynamics at work in the world of Jesus. This opens up the world of the Gospel, making the mental application in vastly different worlds that much easier, while at the same time making the application of the message of the Gospel even more challenging.
In the same letter, however, we see Paul engaging in what appears to be a client-like heralding of the “churches of Macedonia” (8:1b), stressing “that during a severe ordeal of suffering, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in the wealth of their generosity” (8:2). On the surface, this appears to be Paul subordinating himself to this particular church, speaking of them as a client would a patron. Of significance though, is that “they gave according to their means and beyond their means” (8:3a). This is not the act of a patron. In that day, a patron did not diminish his own comfort and standing to serve a client. With that world’s ultimate patron, that being Caesar, always looming in the background as Paul continually operates in a counter-imperial mindset (as does Jesus as well-demonstrated by the Gospel-authors presentation of Him), a distinction between the patronage of Caesar and Jesus is drawn, as Paul writes “For you the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although He was rich, He became poor for your sakes, so that you by His poverty could become rich” (8:9).
This is precisely what Paul has described as the actions of the churches of Macedonia. Indeed, this is the act of a community vested by the Spirit of God. Beyond that, “They did so voluntarily, begging us with great earnestness for the blessing and fellowship of helping the saints” (8:3b-4). Patron’s did not act voluntarily, but rather, they acted upon request, calculating how fulfilling the request and meeting a need would impact their honor standing. Not only is this not what has occurred with the Macedonian churches, but they went to the other end, to the end of shame, begging Paul to allow them to participate. It’s almost as if there are no definitions or culturally recognized categories for what Paul is describing. Conceivably, this can be viewed as something new, and if we take the position that the incarnation, crucifixion, and Resurrection changed everything, then it is difficult to disagree with that assessment.