Magazine article The Christian Century

Status or Service?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Status or Service?

Article excerpt

Status was important in the Roman world of the first century. One knew ones value by one's place in the social pecking order. The Roman social pyramid had the emperor at its apex. Everyone else (senators, equestrians and the mass of the citizens) knew where they stood in relation to those above and below them. Slaves stood at the very bottom.

Like Rome, every provincial city had its own status pyramid. People strove to maintain their position in many ways. Public honor was gained by making outstanding gifts to ones city: a building, or an endowment to pay for education, to keep the local bath or gymnasium in operation, to support some public need. Patronage was built into the system. "Clients" (dependents) gave respect and status to their patron and expected from them favors, advocacy in obtaining positions, and general support. When Jesus urged the Pharisees to give Caesar his due, that message fit well into the social structure.

Entertainment options in the Roman world were very sparse in contrast to our world. It was an oral world, where people delighted in good speech. Orators such as Dio Chrysostom and Aelius Aristides traveled the world giving speeches to great public acclaim, while lesser rhetoricians @public orators and teachers of speaking) achieved status by demonstrating skill in giving impromptu speeches on topics given to them. Philosophers and other wandering teachers did the same. Traveling from place to place, they lived off the fees people paid to hear them speak or to be taught rhetoric or philosophy.

Paul fits into this status pyramid only partially. His earliest letter, I Thessalonians, offers insight into an aspect of his lifestyle that was surprising in that status-oriented society. He arrived in Thessalonica as if he were a traveling rhetorician, but with quite a difference. He had been manhandled in Philippi, yet found the courage to speak boldly.

Paul describes his proclamation in Thessalonica in language that separates him from the traveling rhetoricians. His speech was honest, without words of flattery. He did not look for personal reputation (i.e., status recognition) or financial profit. He worked to support himself. In each of these claims Paul uses the language that Dio Chrysostom used a generation later to satirize false philosophic teachers.

How does one escape the urge for status in a society saturated with praise for the successful, self-made person@ Paul suggests the way one must go. He has a strong sense of call by God. "Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak . …

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