Context helps:

People of the Ancient Near East were, as a rule, traders par excellence, and Jews no less so. Patronage/clientalism resulted whenever there was inequality of power or resources in the trading relationship. Literally every man/family in these societies was a client/“in debt” to some higher up the socio-economic chain, as well as a patron to others below them. This was rampant in the nations around Israel and constantly encroaching on its practices as well. It was true also of the Roman Empire and everywhere its influence reached. The Mafia continues the practice, as well as most modern societies to varying degrees (e.g., congressional bill riders and other quid pro quo practices, to say nothing of buying votes, gerrymandering, etc.).

Jesus and other New Testament teachers taught in keeping with God’s injunction through Moses nearly two millennia prior: “I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt where you used to live, nor as they do in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you. . . . Keep my decrees and laws, for the one who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord” (Lev. 18:1-5). This included rules about how to treat strangers and the poor (Lev. 19:33-34, etc.). The clientalism of the nations around was a degrading, enslaving substitute for biblical love and generosity (gifted by God who alone is good).

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he included: “Father . . . forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mat. 6:12 & Luk. 11:4). Paul took up the theme when he wrote to the believers in Rome: “Owe no one anything but to love one another, for love fulfills the law” (Rom. 13:8).

What a radical injunction! Paul had just written: “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (12:18). They were saying, God loves and forgives you, so to the extent you can, live as free people; extricate yourselves from being in debt/owing clientalism to or enslaving/claiming patronage from anyone; instead live loving and being generous.

Definition: Patronage/Clientalism: Power to confer favors, give support and protection, or to appoint to office or position. Providers of patronage (patrons) and receivers (clients) form a network through which access to various resources is obtained. It originates from unequal distribution of power and, since ancient times, is closely linked with corruption. (patronage.


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