March 16, 2019

patronage

You ever read something in a book that leaves you sitting there, mind spinning? It is usually followed by an audible "hmm..."  I will then usually look up from the book and slightly to the left. (I'm not sure if that means anything, but that is how it happens for me. I love it when that happens, and I am usually grateful, because this occurrence goes along with my sermon study as I am preparing for Sunday.

This happened a couple of days ago as I was reading my commentaries for my 1 Corinthians study. This one came from Stephen Um's commentary in 1 Corinthians.


 (Now, I've learned not to share these experiences, because you will never get the same response from someone you are telling this to, as you did yourself, when it first happened. But I am going to try anyway, not because anyone reads this blog, but because it helps me to attempt to type something like this out.) 

As most people know, 1 Corinthians begins with some teaching on unity. Stephen Um, in this context, introduced the idea of "patronage". He says, and I agree, that the Corinthian Church has "adopted wholesale their culture's emphasis on patronage."  He then notes, as the majority of the commentaries do, that the differences that the Corinthian Church were divided along, were not theological differences.

He then defines patronage as "an attempt at self-validation by means of another person's successes and status."  He goes on to say:
"In essence they are thinking, 'I as the client will associate myself with a patron. The more elite, the more wealthy, the more upper class, the more honored my patron is, by my association with that patron I will also be honored, I will also be elevated, I will also be viewed as someone who is extremely important, valuable, worthy, and praiseworthy.'  Seeking validation in something outside of self is a very common phenomenon. People tend to attach themselves to individuals, causes, industries, and dreams that give them a vision of the world as they think it should be. There are identity attachments to schools, roles, jobs, etc."
I've seen and heard this happen... and probably done so myself... when I hear someone say, "... Oh, I attended such-and-such university under the great Dr. So-and-So."  Stephen Um says of this:
"It sounds as though we are praising the institution, but in essence we are praising ourselves. The institution is our patron. We are in union with the name of our institution, relationships, items, products, services, and individuals."
Do you see what he is saying?

Now, this is important because it helps to set the stage of understanding for the challenges of unity in the Corinthian church and in our churches... but listen to this next part... This is the part that got my head spinning:
"Patronage is our escapist fix to numb the suspicion and fear that there is something wrong with the world and that it might be us. We are looking to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, but we attach ourselves to things that cannot hold the weight and that ultimately crumble -- creating walls between us and those who have attached themselves to other things. This is the reason we latch on to causes. They become our surrogate savior. We become fierce evangelists for political parties, diets, methods of parenting and education, etc. These things give us a sense of identity and purpose insofar as they make us different than or distinct from other people. Our patron-based identities necessarily build walls that destroy the shalom that we are seeking."
That first sentence, of this last paragraph, is the portion that left me dazed. It is true. And... in some way... we all do this. We attach ourselves to something or someone and that becomes our identity. I was always a little confused about the Corinthian divisions and Paul's approach... he seems to lump in those that are claiming to be of the "Jesus party" as opposed to the "Apollos Party", the "Paul Party", and the "Peter Party" in with everyone else. It would have seemed that the "Jesus Party" would be the answer, but they are part of the problem as well. They were "building up their identity on the forms and rituals of the Christian faith while lacking the substance." 

What do we need then? What is the answer? How are we going to "unify various factions within a community"?  Stephen Um suggests this: "... there needs to be a shalomic vision that is big enough for everyone."  And this vision is centered on Jesus... not as a patron... but as a savior.

Hopefully I will be able to unpack more of this tomorrow at church.


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