Friday, September 5, 2014

Benefactor--by Linden Malki

At first I thought it odd that Jesus appears to not approve of social and political bigwigs who were called "Benefactors". Aren't the rich and powerful supposed to be generous?   In the Roman Empire of the New Testament era,  "Benefactor" had a very specific meaning.  This was a person of political status or ambition and access to wealth, who sponsored public projects and welfare benefits to the poor--with strings of political obligation attached; something like the "machine politics" we have seen in our own society. The recipients of the benefits were obligated to return favors and political support to the "benefactor".   It also solidifies the status difference between the donor and his clients.   Roman ruins are full of monuments and  inscriptions praising the benefactor with much flattery; their reward was the ego boost and the PR.   It was often ruinously expensive for the politicians,  and was part of the "bread and circus" that kept poor people busy and less likely to revolt. 

Archeologists rarely find monuments and inscriptions of this type in Greek and Jewish communities.  Jews of all economic classes were expected to contribute to the Temple and synagogue treasuries, which not only maintained those facilities but were called on to contribute to the poor.  We see the obligation to feed widows, and to contribute to communities hit by famine, in the early church in Acts and the letters of Paul. These donations were supposed, as far as was possible, to be made anonymously--Jesus criticizes those who draw attention to their giving,  and advises that "the left hand not know what the right hand is doing." We also see in the Gospels that the wealthy in some cases opened their feasts to the poor and disabled, and the Jewish and later Christian communities were known for their generosity to beggars. 

We can see in the Gospels that even in Judea the religious establishment  would draw attention to the money they donated to the synagogue and to the beggars at the temple gates.  It is possible that they saw this as fulfilling their charitable obligations and overlooked the needs of everyday people--like the man on the Jericho road, or the parents they can't afford to help because they already promised the money to the Temple fund.  Jesus also said that if we expect to be rewarded in this life, that is all the reward we deserve.  Jesus often told people who were healed to "tell no one." We are each asked to deal with the needs placed in front of us, without making a big public deal out of it.  The true reward is from God: Well done, good and faithful servant--enter into the joy of your Lord!

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