The New Testament was written in a world that operated in a social context of patronage and reciprocity. This is a complicated way of saying that you got things done by “knowing people.” Society at every level functioned by people operating as “patrons” for others (“clients”), who then repaid these favors by trumpeting the virtues and honor (etc.) of their patrons. Things got done because of these personal relationships, and patronage was an accepted part of society, in a matter that would likely be seen as “corrupt” today.
This patron/client relationship can help us understand the relationship Christians have to God. He’s the patron, and we are His clients. He’s decided to help us out by providing the gift of salvation, and we’re obligated to proclaim and trumpet His grace, goodness, mercy and kindness to anyone who will listen.
In his wonderful book, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, David deSilva explains some of these implications (pgs. 155 – 156):
The fundamental ethos governing relationships of patrons and clients, benefactors and beneficiaries, and friends is that grace must answer grace. The receiving of favor must lead to the return of gratitude, or else the beauty and nobility of the relationship is defaced (dis-graced). As we grow in our appreciation of God’s beneficence, we are thereby impelled to energize our commitment to make an appropriate response of gratitude to God. When the magnificence of God’s generosity is considered, gratitude and its fruits must of necessity fill our speech, attitudes and actions.
The New Testament authors outline what a just and suitable response would entail, guiding us to act as honorable recipients of favor and averting us from feeling an ugly response of ingratitude, neglect or disloyalty, which would also lead to the danger of exclusion from future favors yet to be conferred. We come to engage evangelism more naturally (but also necessarily) now now as a contest for winning souls, but as an opportunity to spread the fame of God and testify to the good things God has done in our behalf.
The obligations of gratitude demand that we not hold our tongue in this reward! We begin to understand that obedience to God – throwing ourselves and our resources into the work of caring for the global church – is not something we ought to do over and above the demands of everyday life. Rather, these pursuits are placed at the center of each day’s agenda. As God did not bestow on us what was merely left over after he satisfied himself, so we are called on to make a like exchange by giving our all and our best to God’s service, first.
Moreover, we discover that loyalty to such a patron must be preserved without wavering. This can embolden us in our struggles with our sins, as we consider how indulging them enacts disloyalty toward the one we should only please. It can also embolden our confrontations with an unbelieving world that finds wholehearted loyalty to this God and his ways a threat and reproach to its way of life. Gratitude provides a clarifying focus to the Christian for his or her life, a single value that, lived out as the New Testament authors direct, will result in a vibrant, fruitful discipleship.