When a North American reads the description of the cultural values of the Greco-Roman social world into which Christianity was born, they get the sense that they are dealing with a world closer to The Sopranos than the ideals that the United States, for instance, tends to view favorably. The analogy is appropriate, since the Italian Mafia’s values certainly do derive from the Mediterranean world and from a culture whose traditional values are closer to those of the New Testament world than are those prevailing in North America. Patronage (and patronizing), loyalty, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, nepotism, favoritism – all of these things that were considered normative and (on the whole) appropriate in the New Testament world are viewed with (at best) suspicion in ours.
What is particularly ironic, but not always recognized as such, is that many Christians seek to emulate such Mediterranean elements in the pattern the New Testament presents regarding how to relate to God. Yet these same Christians would often regard behaving in the same way towards their clients as God was expected to behave towards his as immoral or at least problematic.
In a society in which we consider it appropriate to reward people based on merit rather than relationship, and sanction rewarding those with whom one has a relationship as a conflict of interests, ought we to rethink religion in such terms as well? Or should Christians, conversely, be seeking to oppose the impersonal pattern of North American society and defending the prioritizing of relationships over merit on religious grounds? One or the other would make sense, but to be counter-cultural by accident in one’s conception of the divine-human relationship, and utterly follow one’s culture in interpersonal human relationships, seems like a rather odd hodge-podge indeed.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he hints at a possible Jewish and Christian challenge to ways of thinking about God based on the culture of patronage. Indeed, he goes so far as to offer instead a merit-based model that had a certain currency in Judaism. “God will give to each person according to what he has done…For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:6,11).
This marks an interesting contrast to the “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” approach that not only prevailed in Paul’s day, but is very popular in certain circles in ours.