A well-dressed man sits in a palatial room. One by one, people come to him to ask him a favors or to thank him for his generosity and wisdom. Godfather, they say, you are a wise and generous man. I need your help … Some aren’t important enough to speak directly to the Godfather, so they ask his right hand man.
If he helps them, they are his. From that day on they tell everyone what a good man he is and do his bidding. He does not take money for his help. No, he takes favors, and prestige. When he wants anything, they do his will, sometimes including violence. They defend him against attacks, physical or political.
This could be a scenario from a modern gangster movie like The Godfather, but it could also be the work of a wealthy and powerful man in Jesus’ day. The similarities in the two systems are striking! In Jesus’ day, it was called the patronage system. Laws were very different. In almost every case, customs, family ties, face-to-face relationships, and the wishes of powerful men were far more important than what the law said. A very few people held most of the social, economic, and political power in their hands. Like a mafia-controlled city, in order to get ahead (or even stay afloat!) you needed favors from people more powerful than you were … and they didn’t do anything for free. So, in exchange for help with the tax man, or the soldiers, or your neighbors, or your customers, or your competition, you asked for a favor. In return for helping you with your problem, you contributed to your patron’s honor, reputation, and power. The more clients (people who owed him favors) a man had, the more powerful and respected he was.
In order to show off, patrons often held lavish banquets for those who owed them favors, and the more of them you had–and the more respected they were in their own right!–the more everyone looked up to you. And being invited to such a banquet was a great honor, because it proved how valuable you were to your patron, and how much he honored you, which raised your own status and might even get people to come to you for favors, or to intercede with your patron, which would also raise your status by making you a patron yourself.
Remember all those parables about feasts that Jesus told? The disciples and other followers would have been thinking of this. When Jesus told parables which cast God as a rich landowner, a king, or a master, this is the background for how people would have understood those terms. So, for instance, take the parable of the wedding banquet. The insult of the invited guests in refusing to come was much greater than we can imagine. The guests undoubtedly owed their patron quite a lot of the riches they were enjoying, since his patronage had almost certainly brought them power and riches. They were very ungrateful! They would have lost status by being so disrespectful! But the action of the king is even stranger. He didn’t retaliate against the ones who insulted him. Instead, he ordered his servants to go out into the streets and invite everybody! Lame, blind, beggars, the lowest rank of society. None of them could possibly have paid the king back, and they couldn’t add to his honor.
I can just imagine the reaction of Jesus listeners. Why would someone do that? Why benefit those who cant pay you back? We may have a more formal legal and political system, with less nepotism, yet the law of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” is alive and well. Yet God’s system, God’s way of relating to people, is not our way. God gives grace to all, without any hope of payback.
What other parables involving rich men can you think of, and how does this understanding of politics in Jesus day affect your understanding of them? How do you see yourself in these parables, and what do they have to teach us who live in such a different society?