(Published as pp. 150-78 in Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones, eds., Paul and Seneca in Dialogue.  Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017.  Bracketed numbers in bold refer to page numbers in the published version of this essay.)

“Paul knows no gift of God which does not convey both the obligation and the capacity to serve.”[1]

           With these words, Ernst Käsemann concisely captures the essence of grace, and Paul’s understanding of God’s grace in particular, when rightly understood from within the cultural context, lived social experiences and relationships, and ethical reflection of the first-century Roman Mediterranean.  God’s gift or favor is not a one-way transaction; it is an act that creates relationship with, and makes living out that relationship possible for, human beings.  The perfect gift-in-isolation is not the goal of givers in the first century CE.[2]  The perfect gift that creates, solidifies, celebrates, and deepens relationships of trust, loyalty, and mutuality is the goal of the most enlightened givers in the Greek and Roman periods. 

           In such a context, reciprocity – the moral obligation of a person to respond favorable and generously to one who has shown favor and generosity to that person – is not a theological problem.  It is, rather, an indispensable facet of how God’s grace “works” to reconcile human beings, to restore the relationship human beings ought to have lived out before their Creator from the beginning, and to transform the self-centered, self-serving person into a person whose just acts and other-centered orientation received God’s verdict of “righteous” when he judges all impartially.  God’s acts of favor initiate an ongoing relationship of mutuality; God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom Christ, God’s righteous one, comes to life in each person, empowers human beings to live out this relationship of mutuality.

            [151] This essay is concerned primarily with the ethics of receiving and returning favor for favor shown and the degree to which the ethic evidenced in Seneca, our primary exemplar, permeates Paul’s understanding of God’s gracious interventions in humanity’s situation and the way human beings ought to respond to these interventions (though important distinctions remain between these two ethicists).  In particular, it is concerned with the relationship between an act of favor and the obligation to respond appropriately both in social relationships between human beings and, conceptually at least, in relationships with the divine in both authors. Like many modern theologians in their reservations about linking grace and obligation too closely, Seneca is deeply concerned to protect the virtue and beauty of giving from the kind of calculation that turns a gift into a loan, an attitude of which he is highly critical.  It is equally clear, however, that he would not countenance recipients of favor claiming, ostensibly so as to protect the integrity of the giver’s generosity, that they have received a gift but have no obligation to the giver and no absolute moral demand upon them to make a return.  Indeed, ancient ethicists univocally urge the opposite, and so does Paul.

Seneca on the obligation of gratitude

           Seneca is pointed and unambiguous in his view of the moral obligation of returning favor where favor has been shown: “The giving of a benefit is a social act, it wins the goodwill of someone, it lays someone under obligation” (Ben. 5.11.5).  Seneca refers here to one and the same “someone.”  A gift, whether it consists of material assistance, social influence, or any other form of kindness, most naturally arouses reciprocal feelings of goodwill and appreciation in the one benefited.  Thus “favor (χάρις) gives birth to favor (χάριν),” as Sophocles expresses the natural cycle (Ajax 522).  At the same time, a gift necessitates this very response.  The gift creates an obligation to respond graciously, such that Seneca can refer to the “debt of gratitude” or “owing favor.”[3]  Or, in [152] the words of Euripides, “favor (χάρις) is due for favor (ἀντὶ χάριτος)” (Helen 1234).[4] 

           How can both be true at the same time?  First, let it be admitted that Seneca almost delights in creating paradoxes in his discussion of patronage and friendship and the ethos of reciprocity that creates and maintains these relationships, defying neat systematization (not unlike Paul!).[5]  As in many of those paradoxes, however, the variable is the person whom Seneca visualizes as he speaks.  In the virtuous person who is most attuned to the value of another’s grace and favor, the desire to reciprocate arises naturally without constraint or sense of being burdened; an act of grace “conceives” within such a person a response of gratitude that, in due course, gives birth to a favor in return.  The person who is more self-orientated and inclined to gain rather than to virtue, on the other hand, needs to hear and heed the warning: “Not to return gratitude for benefits is a disgrace, and the whole world counts it as such” [153] (Ben. 3.1.1).[6]  To live as a person of the first type is best, as there is no moral state more blessed than to desire to do what one ought to do.  But, failing that, Seneca will not allow a person to think that he or she may both receive a benefit and also keep back all of himself or herself from the giver.[7]  To do so undermines the primary purpose of favor in the ancient world, which is to create and maintain relationships.[8]  Troels Engberg-Pedersen captures this with poetic aptness and beauty: “The mutual emotional attitude and relationship between giver and receiver … defined the gift element in those acts.  By giving, accepting, and returning benefits between one another, giver and receiver establish, support, and give expression to a personal involvement with one another that generates a space of sharing and community within which they may live.”[9] 

           This is a facet of patronage, friendship, and benefaction that theologians and exegetes guided by certain, typically Protestant theological commitments tend to neglect.  Showing favor and responding with gratitude are not about trying to even out a score or settle accounts or earn future favors or manipulate outcomes.  These practices are about creating relationships of a certain kind and quality and enjoying the wide range of the fruits of such relationships.  Seneca writes that “a benefit is a common bond and binds two persons together” (Ben. 6.41.2).  Because of the social bond that is created by the exchange of favor, “I must be far more careful in selecting my creditor for a benefit than a creditor for a loan.  For to the latter I shall have to return the same amount that I have received, and, when I have returned it, I have paid all my debt [154] and am free; but to the other I must make an additional payment, and, even after I have paid my debt of gratitude, the bond between us still holds.  [Thus] friendship endures”  (Ben. 2.18.5). The social interaction of giving and reciprocating is not a matter, or at least not merely a matter, of the exchange of commodities.  It cannot be reduced to transactions, as it creates a potentially long-lasting connection between the parties involved. Returning a favor is not “repayment,” hence “annulment” of debt.  It represents the ongoing refreshing of the relationship and its character of mutual favor and seeking to please and advance the interests of the other.[10] The practice, therefore, of giving and reciprocating benefits that permeates the first-century Roman world thus becomes “the practice that constitutes the chief bond of human society” (Ben. 1.4.2).  The cycling of gifts creates the social bonds just as surely as the circling of electrons creates molecular bonds, holding together the physical world.

            For a person in the first-century Roman Empire – more particularly, for a first-century recipient of grace – to regard an act of grace as a one-way transaction would be well nigh unthinkable.  If such a person were to regard it as such and leave it at that would be beyond reprehensible.  Rather, an act of grace was a snapshot within an ongoing and ever-flowing relationship – or, to use an image for the relationship current in the first century, a dance.  Although the ideal of reciprocity was often corrupted by the venality of individuals and in need of being recalled to its virtuous basis,[11] this ideal was readily available and ubiquitously inculcated.  One of the cultural icons of this institution and its ethos was the image of the Three Graces, the three goddesses dancing [155] hand-in-hand or arm-over-shoulder in a circle.  Seneca offers an exegesis of the image: “Some would have it appear that there is one for bestowing a benefit, another for receiving it, and a third for returning it…. Why do the sisters hand in hand dance in a ring which returns upon itself?  For the reason that a benefit passing in its course from hand to hand returns nevertheless to the giver; the beauty of the whole is destroyed if the course is anywhere broken, and it has most beauty if it is continuous and maintains an uninterrupted succession…. They are young because the memory of benefits ought not to grow old…. the maidens wear flowing robes, and these, too, are transparent because benefits desire to be seen” (Ben. 1.3.3-5). Seneca expresses hesitations regarding such moral allegorizing (see Ben. 1.3.6-10), or at least its overextension, but his moralizing interpretation of this image says something at the very least about contemporary thinking about grace and reciprocity.[12]  There is, however, also nothing here that is not explicitly affirmed elsewhere in Seneca’s own teachings. 

            Initiating the circle dance with a gift was a matter of choice on the part of the giver; showing gratitude and returning the favor for a gift once accepted was an absolute moral obligation.[13] Just as one partner’s dance step almost simultaneously precipitates the partner’s corresponding movement, “the man who intends to be grateful, immediately, while he is receiving, should turn his thought to repaying” (Ben. 2.25.3).[14]  There is opportunity even in the moment of receiving to allow grace to kindle grace. “When we have decided that we ought to accept, let us accept cheerfully, professing our pleasure and letting the giver have proof of it in order that he may reap instant reward; for, as it is a legitimate source of happiness [156] to see a friend happy, it is a more legitimate one to have made him so.  Let us show how grateful we are for the blessing that has come to us by pouring forth our feelings, and let us bear witness to them, not merely in the hearing of the giver, but everywhere.  He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt” (2.22[.1]). The first phrase is important: accepting is a matter of choice, and thus of personal responsibility (see Ben. 2.18.5, cited above).  Accepting the gift means accepting the relationship with – and the obligation to – the giver.  If one decides to dance, one must dance gracefully and in step with one’s partner.  The first response is one of joy, appreciation, and testimony.  An act of grace should redound to the fame of the giver, contributing positively to his or her reputation as a person of virtue (specifically, of the virtue of generosity).[15]  Saying “thank you” was not to be a private affair (or, at least, not only a private affair), but a broadly public one: “Waiting for there to be no witnesses before one renders thanks amounts to denying one’s obligation” (Ben. 2.23.2). 

           Displays of gratitude, appreciation, and honor were appropriate responses to the favor and goodwill of the giver, but the actual gift or assistance conferred also calls for some return.[16]  In personal relationships of friendship, where the parties were essentially social equals, it might be possible to find an opportunity to return a gift or assistance of equal or even greater value.[17]  In personal relationships of patronage, however, where one party was socially and/or economically inferior to the other, the junior party would nevertheless do what [157] was within his or her power to do by way of making a return – for example, giving even more attention to increasing the honor of the giver through personal testimony and, in Roman contexts, being visible among the giver’s entourage (Seneca, Ben. 2.22.1; 2.24.4),[18] and offering whatever service might be needed or requested by the patron (Seneca, Ben. 6.41.1-2). Returning a favor with a view to provoking a further favor is as ungracious as giving with a view to preparing the way for a particular return (Ben. 4.20.3).  There is no room in Seneca’s thought for a do ut des (“I give so that you might give”) strategy; it must always be do quia dedisti (“I give because you have given”) or do ut tibi placet (“I give in order to please you”).

            Sometimes the dance step was rigorous, even demanding.  Gratitude required loyalty to one’s partner in a grace relationship, even when costly.  “There is advantage in being grateful; yet I shall be grateful even if it harms me,” if, for example, association with the person to whom I am indebted has become unpopular (Ben. 4.20.1-2).  The ingrate reasons: “I should have liked to return gratitude, but I fear the expense, I fear the danger, I shrink from giving offence; I would rather consult my own interest” (Ben. 4.24.2).  The bond of favor and gratitude was to be held inviolable, certainly above any considerations of self-interest: “If you wish to make a return for a favor, you must be willing to go into exile, or to pour forth your blood, or to undergo poverty, or,…even to let your very innocence be stained and exposed to shameful slanders”(Seneca, Ep. 81.27).[19]

            Receiving favor without reciprocating – without feeling grateful, bearing witness to the value of this act of favor, and being watchful for opportunities to benefit in return – was simply ugly.  It defaced grace.  Seneca indulges a bit further in his use of the image of the Three Graces, commending one comment from Chrysippus, who “urges us by saying that, in view of the fact that the Graces are the daughters of Jupiter, we should fear that by showing a lack of gratitude we might become guilty of sacrilege and do an injustice to such beautiful maidens!” (Ben. 1.4.4).[20]  Seneca classed it as the worst of anti-social crimes: “Homicides, tyrants, thieves, adulterers, robbers, sacrilegious men, and [158] traitors there always will be; but worse than all these is the crime of ingratitude” (Ben. 1.10.4).[21]

           Ingratitude was also highly imprudent.  Even though patrons and benefactors were to give in the interest of the recipient and not in their own interest (Seneca, Ben. 1.2.3; 4.29.3), they had limited resources and needed to give wisely—that is, to individuals or groups that understood how to be grateful (Seneca, Ben. 1.1.2; 3.11.1).[22] The person who understood how to show gratitude developed a kind of positive credit rating in the eyes of future benefactors (Seneca, Ben. 4.18.1),[23] whereas the ingrate was recognized to be poor soil for the crop of favor: “That which must go to a beneficiary of my own choosing will not be given to a man whom I know to be ungrateful” (Ben. 4.28.6).  Snubbing those who have shown favor would potentially diminish the willingness to extend favor on the part of the snubbed and those who have become aware of the snubbing.  While Seneca himself would urge his readers not to allow the vice of others to diminish their own commitment to acting virtuously (specifically, by extending favor and acting generously), it was nevertheless a danger of which he was aware and which he used to caution his readers against ever thinking it advantageous to refrain from returning the favor (Ben. 4.18.1-2).[24]

           Though there was no law on the basis of which gratitude might be compelled or ingratitude punished – indeed, if there were such a possibility the return of favor would no longer be favor (Seneca, Ben. 3.7.1-3) – the sanction of the general contempt of all virtuous people reinforced each individual’s commitment to act nobly as a recipient of favor and to honor the grace relationship (see especially Seneca, Ben. 3.17.1-3; 4.16.2).  Conversely, the affirmation of all virtuous people would provide positive reinforcement in this regard: “What is so praiseworthy, upon what are all our minds so uniformly agreed, as the repayment of good services with gratitude?” (Ben. 4.16.3).

           Critics of attempts to read Paul’s discussions about God’s grace against the background of reciprocity in the Greco-Roman world sometimes seek to [159] distinguish the social practice from God’s giving by pointing out that God’s favor is so immense that it cannot be repaid, almost drawing the corollary that it is pointless for the recipients of God’s favor to regard it as their absolute duty to try.  Seneca, however, is well acquainted with the case of the gift that cannot be repaid. Patrons and benefactors typically had all the resources necessary to out-give their clients. Clients nonetheless would be expected to reciprocate for the benefits they received regardless of their benefactor’s wealth and self-sufficiency. These relationships were voluntary and asymmetrical involving “two parties of unequal status,” who exchange different goods and services.[25] Seneca writes: “No one is justified in making his weakness and his poverty an excuse for ingratitude, in saying: “What am I to do, and how begin?  When can I ever repay to my superiors, who are the lords of creation, the gratitude that is due?” It is easy to repay it – without expenditure if you are miserly, without labour if you are lazy; … for he who receives a benefit gladly has already returned it” (Ben. 2.30.2). The expression of joy, appreciation, and thankfulness is, once again, a good beginning.  The junior party will also respond by giving the gift of increasing his or her patron’s reputation: “I shall never be able to repay to you my gratitude, but, at any rate, I shall not cease from declaring everywhere that I am unable to repay it” (Ben. 2.24.4).  The junior party can match the senior party’s devotion to the relationship, can show himself or herself just as intent on making as fulsome a return as possible as the giver was intent on making a pleasing and beautiful gift.[26]  Thus the giver’s act of favor irrevocably binds the recipient to himself or herself, and, indeed, binds the two parties together.  The recipient [160] will also devote himself or herself to looking for the opportunity to return the favor in some way, perhaps through a service, perhaps through a timely, if smaller-scaled, gift or intervention (Ben. 7.14.4, 6).  In such exchanges, Seneca guides the patron to regard the gift as having been returned and the recipient to understand that he or she has not yet made full and ample return (Ben 7.16.1, 4).  When the latter says “I have done all in my power,” Seneca says, “Well, keep on doing so” (Ben. 7.16.2). 

            Seneca describes the obligation of gratitude not as a burden, but as a delight – at least to the virtuous person who understands the nobility of generous giving and reciprocating and the value of the relationship that is the end served by the means of giving and reciprocating. “The grateful man delights in a benefit over and over, the ungrateful man but once.  But is it possible to compare the lives of these two?  For the one, as a disclaimer of debts and a cheat are apt to be, is downcast and worried.  He denies to his parents, to his protector, to his teachers, the consideration that is their due, while the other is joyous, cheerful, and, watching for an opportunity to repay his gratitude, derives great joy from this very sentiment, and seeks, not how he may default in his obligations, but how he may make very full and rich return” (Ben. 3.17.4). The “disclaimer of debts,” begrudging a return to the generous parties who have benefited him or her, regards the obligation of gratitude merely as a debt, something that will diminish his or her resources, freedom, and pleasure.  Seneca lampoons this person because these attitudes move in the opposite direction of investing in others and in the webs of relationships and mutual bonds that, in his view, weave a strong society.  The generous-hearted soul, by contrast, gives himself or herself to the social dance of grace and finds it to be a delight, no doubt, in large measure, because of the relationships that this dance is creating, cementing, extending.

Paul and the obligation to reciprocate within human relationships

           It might be objected that Seneca writes from and to the upper echelons of Roman society, and that the sentiments and relationships to which he gives [161] voice are far removed from the general population.  The ethos of reciprocity, however, though not its forms, permeated all levels of society, from the polis to the oikos, from senators to the agrarian peasant villages.[27]  It is therefore not surprising to find this ethos reflected in Paul’s letters to his congregations, all the more as Paul himself would have been located in the upper hues of this spectrum and the members of his congregation would reflect a broad palette of the same.[28] 

            Paul characterized his relationship with the Christians in Philippi as one of friendship.  They enjoy a “partnership” (κοινωνία, Phil 1:5) in the Gospel.  The Philippians have sent Paul material support to help him during a period of imprisonment in the hands of Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25; 4:14-20), showing themselves to be his partners (συγκοινωνήσαντές μου τῇ θλίψει, Phil 4:14) at a time of need.  Most tellingly, Paul speaks of them as the only congregation that has “enacted a relationship with me in the matter of giving and receiving” (ἐκοινώνησεν εἰς λόγον δόσεως καὶ λήμψεως, Phil 4:15), a classic invocation of the language of friendship qua a relationship of reciprocal assistance.  Given Paul’s evident attention to this relationship, it may be preferable to read his affirmation in Phil 1:7 as a statement as “all of you being my grace-partners” or “all of you sharing a relationship of grace with me,” rather than sharing together “in God’s grace,” as the NRSV renders this verse with a note acknowledging the absence of “God’s” as a qualifier in the text.[29] 

            [162] Paul’s assumptions about reciprocity are evident particularly in Phil 2:1-4, where he makes an admittedly unselfish request: “If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, if any experience of love’s consolation, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any experience of compassion or mercy, fill up the measure of my joy so that you may be like-minded, having the same love, harmonious, agreeing – nothing out of strife or empty conceit, but humbly considering one another to surpass yourselves, not looking out each one for his or her own interests but indeed each for the interests of the others.”[30] Paul’s request to “fill up the measure of my joy” that follows upon the “if” clauses commands attention here.  This clause could easily have been omitted, with Paul moving directly into imperatives to “be like-minded,” etc.[31]  Instead, he focuses the various individuals in the congregation, some of whom are clearly not disposed to “be like-minded” (4:2-3), on their debt of gratitude to their imprisoned friend, whose burden they now have the opportunity to ease beyond their material assistance by dealing with those internal problems that give him cause for concern or even grief.  The “if” clauses that serve as preamble to this request recall facets of the congregation’s experience of God’s favor and gifting and perhaps also the experience of intimate human fellowship that followed as a consequence.  These experiences are the direct consequences of Paul’s mediation of divine favor, effected in the preaching of the good news in Philippi and nurturing of this congregation in the new faith.  The propriety of reciprocating – even more fully than they have in the form of the gifts sent [163] through Epaphroditus – becomes an incentive to the believers to deal with the internal discord.  Love for Paul, their partner in the matter of giving and receiving, the partner who has connected them with the Divine Patron,[32] is expected to outweigh internal strife and lead to the restoration of harmony.

            Paul exhibits here a very subtle use of recalling benefits to harness the hearers’ sense of gratitude and obligation so as to motivate a particular return on [164] this new occasion.[33]  He is far less subtle when he writes to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus.  Indeed, by Seneca’s standards, Paul appears rather rude.  Onesimus has likely sought out Paul as a member of Philemon’s circle of friends and patrons, hoping that he might act as a mediator with Philemon in his situation.[34]  He would, nevertheless, have been in considerable danger had he been apprehended en route to Paul, and only a short letter protected him on his return.[35]

            Paul prominently acknowledges Philemon’s favors bestowed on fellow Christians (Phlm 5, 7), perhaps chiefly among those in the congregation meeting in his house (Phlm 1b-2).  He appeals to Philemon now on the basis of the latter’s reputation for and evident commitment to generosity, which Philemon’s “love,” perhaps here specifically the love of amicitia shared between Philemon and Paul, will no doubt support and make effective in this particular instance.  Nevertheless, Paul makes the claim that what he requests he could command (Phlm 8, 14), claiming a degree of superior status in the relationship and also hinting at the possibility of his putting that relationship explicitly on the line should his request be refused.

            The point at which the expectation of reciprocity becomes glaringly explicit is Phlm 17-20: “If, then, you hold me as a partner (κοινωνόν), receive him [Onesimus] as you would receive me.  And if he has wronged you in regard to any matter or owes you anything, charge this to me. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: ‘I will make compensation’ (in order that I may not say to you that you owe me your very self).  Yes, brother, I want to have this benefit from you in the Lord: refresh my heart in Christ!” Among other motivators, here we find Paul using a reminder of his own past benefactions to Philemon as an incentive for – even a rhetorical constraint upon – Philemon to grant Paul’s present request.[36]  Paul’s attempt at “not mentioning” this debt does not begin to soften the fact that he does mention it, and quite openly.[37]  There was a hint of this also in verse 13, where Paul asks Philemon to allow Onesimus to remain with Paul to serve him during his imprisonment in Philemon’s stead or on Philemon’s behalf (ὑπὲρ σοῦ).  The assumption here is that this service is owed Paul; the only question ought to be who will actually discharge this service.  Paul’s logic is simple: “this is your chance, Philemon, to show gratitude for my previous salutary interventions in your life; this is your chance to discharge that debt of gratitude, to give the next Grace a twirl in the dance of reciprocity.”  Once again, any friction in the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus is swallowed up by the bond of friendship with Paul and the obligations to “make his joy complete.”

            [166] A third example of Paul’s expectations of reciprocity in human relationships, particularly extending to relationships within the Church, can be found in Romans 15:25-27: “And now I am going to Jerusalem to do service to the saints.  For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a certain connection[38] with the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem.  For it pleased them, and they are their debtors.  For if the Gentiles received a share in their [i.e., the Jerusalem Christians’] spiritual things, they [i.e., the Gentile Christians] owe it to them to be of service to them in physical things.” Here we find the clearest expression by Paul of the collection as an act of reciprocity, a response of gratitude to the “saints at Jerusalem” for the share the Gentile Christians have enjoyed in the Jewish Christian saints’ spiritual blessings. Interestingly, Paul invokes both topics found also in Seneca in discussing the giving of a benefit and its reception by the intended beneficiary, namely provoking reciprocal favor and incurring an obligation (see discussion of Ben. 5.11.5 above): the Gentile Christians “were pleased” to make this gift to the Christians in Jerusalem, and the Gentile Christians “are indebted” to them so as to do so.[39]

[167] Paul and the obligation to reciprocate in the divine-human relationship

            Greek and Roman ethicists placed the gods on a continuum with human benefactors; they were simply the greatest and most perfect givers of all.  Honoring the divine for its great and innumerable benefits was generally regarded as the appropriate – and essential – return.[40]  The premise of a debt of gratitude owed the deity is rooted not just in Greco-Roman ethics, but in the heritage of the Jewish Scriptures as well.  It is apparent, for example, in the first commandment: “I … brought you out of Egypt; you will have no gods before me” (Exod 20:2-3; Deut 5:6-7).  God’s act of deliverance calls for a response of exclusive loyalty and reverence for the Divine Benefactor.  Certain offerings are conceptualized as gifts “given back” to God in acknowledgment of God’s gifts (Num 18:9: LXX: ἀποδιδόασίν; MT: יָשִׁ֣יבוּ ).  The psalmist asks the rhetorical but necessary question: “What shall I give to the Lord in light of all the gifts he had given to me?” (מָֽה־אָשִׁ֥יב  in Heb Ps 116:12; τί ἀνταποδώσω in LXX Ps 115:3).  He goes on to name a variety of acts that he will undertake as a fitting response, most of these having to do with bearing witness to God’s acts of deliverance and increasing God’s fame in the land.  Jewish authors express the conviction that [168] God’s gift of life necessitates loyalty to God, even at the cost of life itself, which is regarded as a fitting return of the benefit (see, e.g., 4 Macc 13:13; 16:18-19).

            There is considerable resistance to acknowledging the presence of expectations of reciprocity – or, perhaps more precisely, the obligation of reciprocity – on the part of human beings in the New Testament, and especially in Paul, the champion of the Gospel of “grace alone” or “faith alone.”[41] Nevertheless, there are many passages in which Paul appears very much to believe that God’s favor requires a matching human response of gratitude and reciprocal self-giving – at least that the natural, proper, virtuous, and expected response to God’s favor would be a reciprocal self-giving on the part of those who embrace God’s generous gift. 

            One of the most outstanding of these is found toward the climax of Paul’s reflections in 2 Corinthians 1-7 on the nature of his ministry and how it makes the power of God in Christ known and evident in the world: “Christ’s love[42] constrains us, who have decided this: that one person died on behalf of all people, therefore all people died; and he died on behalf of all in order that those who continued living might live no longer for themselves but for the one who died and was raised on their behalf” (2 Cor 5:14-15). Paul declares himself to be motivated, even compelled, by Christ’s love for him and for his fellow human beings.  His mission represents a part of his discharge of his obligation to the Christ who “loved me and gave himself over for me” [169] (Gal 2:20).  Christ having died for Paul, Paul now honors his Benefactor and his Benefactor’s gift by living for him, for his purposes, for his agenda, to the extent that he can say “I’m living, but it’s no longer me, but Christ is living in me” (Gal 2:20a).  Paul feels gratitude toward Christ and has reciprocated Christ’s disposition to be generous: “Goodwill we have repaid with goodwill; for the object we still owe an object” (Ben. 2.35.1), here a life for a life. 

            It is to this same response of gratitude, of returning a life to the one who gave his over “for all,” that Paul calls all people in his mission (2 Cor 5:14-15), announcing  Christ’s gracious act and calling all to live within and from the reciprocal relationship God has initiated in Christ.  This is a key statement reflecting the ethos of reciprocity and the expectations attached to receiving benefits (even, in this case, presented in terms of the benefactor’s purposes or expectations).[43]  Many commentators notice here the purpose of Christ’s death, namely to free human beings from a self-centered to an other-centered (by means of becoming Christ-centered) existence.[44] Fewer recognize the element of reciprocal obligation on the part of human beings to respond in this manner, namely by giving up their self-serving lives and using their remaining time in the flesh to serve Christ’s interests instead.  C. K. Barrett and Victor P. Furnish are notable exceptions: “His once-for-all death is the death of all men, so far as they are willing to die with him; there is no question of such a change taking place apart from the realm of actual obedience and unselfish living…. Whereas [170] Christ lives, he lives to God (Rom. vi. 10b), and corresponding to this is the new life lived in indebtedness and obedience to Christ by those who have died in his death and risen in his resurrection.”[45] Thus, faith is understood to be truly liberating precisely because it places one under the claim as well as the gift of Christ’s love (v. 14a).[46] “All” have (potentially) died to their sinful, self-centered drives that pervert their lives and invite God’s wrath, and Paul calls all people, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, to receive this liberating gift and experience the liberation fully in their reciprocal offering of themselves to Christ who, by the Spirit, can live in and through them a life that invites God’s pleasure and approval.[47] 

            In connection with this statement, Paul’s warning against receiving God’s grace “in vain” (2 Cor 6:1): God’s favor in Christ only begins with the death of Jesus on behalf of those who receive this gift; it does not achieve its end until Christ has come alive in the believer, transforming his or her life into a God-centered, other-centered life of righteousness, giving to the Creator as the Creator honors, living before the Creator as pleases the Creator.  The obligation to respond is not an obligation to match the gift; it is an obligation to allow God’s gift to have its full effect by allowing the love of Christ to change one’s own orientation to living.

            Paul’s convictions concerning human obligation to the divine Benefactor also emerges clearly in Romans.  A failure of gratitude lies at the heart of every human ill: “God’s anger is revealed from heaven upon every act of impiety and injustice enacted by human beings who suppress the truth with injustice…. because, though knowing [the existence of] God, they neither brought God honor nor expressed gratitude, but rather they became empty-headed in their reasoning and their uncomprehending hearts were benighted…. [They] distorted the truth about God with a lie and [171] they revered and served the created thing in place of the Creator who is blessed forever” (Rom 1:18, 21, 25). God’s existence and creative activity were on display throughout creation, to be read and known by all (Rom 1:19-20; see also Wis 13:1, 5-9).  Nevertheless, rather than give the One God the return of gratitude that was his due for the gift of existence, people denied that they had been benefitted by him and gave the honor due God to idols.[48]  Dunn comments: “Paul is obviously thinking more in terms of thanksgiving as characteristic of a whole life, as the appropriate response of one whose daily experience is shaped by the recognition that he [or she] stands in debt to God, that his [or her] very life and experience of living is a gift from God…. This failure to give God his due and to receive life as God’s gift is Paul’s way of expressing the primal sin of humankind.”[49] God’s response of “anger” is the response of the slighted Benefactor (see Aristotle, Rhet. 2.2.8).  It is the verbal cue that affront (refusal to honor) had been offered on the part of the beneficiaries to the benefactor.[50]  An important purpose and effect of Paul’s mission is the reversal of the general population’s [172] ungrateful behavior, their highly insulting in denying their Creator his due acknowledgement, in favor of awakening to God’s gifts and their reciprocal obligations (1 Thess 1:9).

            This debt of gratitude for the gift of life itself does not go away.  The question becomes, how does God bring it about that human beings receive and respond to God’s gift of life appropriately?  The very fact that God would invest himself in this question is a further act of generous favor: wrath – the satisfaction of God’s slighted honor as the unrequited Benefactor – would have been the expected and fully justified response, with no way out or way back provided.[51]  God’s love shown in Christ is the further act of grace that has the power to quicken gratitude even in the soil of the ingrate’s heart (see Seneca, Ben. 7.31.1-7.32.1).  Paul expects, and suggests rather plainly that God expects, this second act of χάρις to produce rather different results from the first acts of χάρις manifested in creation and the preservation of life.  God’s forbearance is intended to lead to repentance (Rom 2:4); God’s gift of the life of his Son on behalf of human beings is intended to lead these human beings into changed lives such that they no longer use their created bodies to multiply sin (affronts against the Creator) but to do what is righteous (in line with the values and purposes of the Creator; 6:1-23). Now the response of the redeemed to his or her Redeemer will bring him or her also in line with the response of the created to their Creator, “one whose daily experience is shaped by the recognition that he [or she] stands in debt to God.”[52]

            [173] Paul is careful to stress that, though God’s act in Christ is performed on behalf of all people, it is also performed on behalf of each person.  Paul’s emphasis on God’s love is important in this regard as a signal of God’s personal investment in each (potential) recipient of his favor.[53] “One will scarcely die on behalf of a just person (for on behalf of a good person someone might indeed dare to die), but God demonstrates his love for us because, while we were still sinners, Christ dies on our behalf” (Rom 5:7-8). The personal character of this love is experienced by means of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the believers’ lives: “God’s love has been poured out into hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:5).

Seneca had written that the person who was included in a general benefit, for example, a grant of citizenship to all Gauls or an exemption from taxation for all Spaniards, would not feel particularly indebted to the giver beyond being part of a group that had benefited.  “’The emperor,’ he says, ‘had no thought of me at the time when he benefited us all; he did not desire to give citizenship to me personally, nor did he direct his attention to me; so why should I feel indebted to one who did not put me before himself when he was thinking of doing what he did?’” (Ben. 6.19.2-4). A gift given to an entire population does not make the individual a personal debtor, since “an act that lays me under obligation must have been done because of me” (Ben. 6.19.5). “The feeling of indebtedness presupposes that the gift has been given to me personally” (Ben. 6.18.2).[54] Paul does not allow God’s benefits in Christ to be such “general” benefits without also being intensely personal benefits.  The Christ “who loved us” (Gal 1:4) is also the Christ “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:19-20), as well as each among [174] Paul’s audience, binding each to himself in a personal relationship of reciprocity.[55] 

            Later in Romans 8, Paul draws the conclusion that, on the basis of Christ’s dying and rising on our behalf and, thus, our dying with him to one kind of life and rising with him to another kind of life, “we are debtors (ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν).”  Robert Jewett observes that Paul “always employs this term as a predicate nominative with the verb εἰμί (‘to be’), reflecting a social status of having received patronage and being required to render reciprocal service.”[56] The full clause in which it appears is frequently translated, particularly in markedly conservative translations, as “We are not indebted to the flesh” (HCSB, GW, TLB, NLT, The Voice).  It is, however, translated more accurately (note the position of the negating adverb: ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ), “we are indebted, not to the flesh” (as in the KJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, GNT).  The NIV is particularly strong: “we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it” (similarly, CEB).  The syntax of a positive statement of obligation followed by a negation of one possible creditor for this obligation suggests that there is a positive statement of the actual creditor forthcoming.  Paul does not finish this sentence in this way, since he is moved to expand on the consequences of “living according to the flesh” in 8:13a: “for if you live in line with your self-serving impulses (“flesh”), you are going to die.”  The introduction of the alternative in 8:13b (“but if by means of the Spirit you put the deeds of the body to death, you will live”), however, invites us to complete Paul’s thought thus: “we are indebted, not to the flesh to live in line with the flesh, but to the Spirit to live in line with the Spirit.” For, indeed, it is those who are guided by the Spirit who are truly God’s children (8:14).

            Paul’s framing of the relationship of the redeemed with the Divine in terms of God’s beneficence and the obligation to respond gratefully, although [175] objectionable to some on theological grounds,[57] is actually quite moderate in comparison with another prominent framing of this relationship.  This alternative frame appears between his expressions of human failure to return gratitude and God’s loving favor nevertheless (Romans 1 and 5) and his expressions of our obligation now to live no longer to gratify our self-centered impulses but to allow the Spirit to lead – the metaphor of slaves of one master being purchased to become slaves of a new master, still much to the benefit of the slaves in question.[58]  Even though Paul admits that the slavery metaphor arises from his felt need to “speak in human terms” (Rom 6:19), it nevertheless conveys unambiguously the nature of the obligation and response expected on the part of those redeemed from another kind of slavery that led to death (both natural death and death in a more ultimate sense).

            Human sin (their failure to live out a response of obedient gratitude to their Creator) was followed by the further generous acts of God, extending the means of reconciliation and restoration to a grace-relationship.  Continuing to live for one’s own ends, however, is not a feasible response to grace: “Are we to persist in sin in order that favor may be multiplied further?  Certainly not!” (Rom 6:1); “Shall we keep on sinning because we are not under law but under favor?  Certainly not!” (Rom 6:15).  Being “under grace” and having experienced Christ’s deliverance from slavery to sin mean investing ourselves fully in a reciprocal God-ward act: “Don’t offer your life-in-the-body to sin as a vehicle for unjust action, but offer yourself to God as people now living from among the dead and offer your life-in-the-body to God as a vehicle for just action” (Rom [176] 6:13).  The person who has previously failed to respond to God’s creative gift is now, by virtue of encountering and receiving God’s love in Christ, awakened to gratitude and its obligations and, thereby, positioned to give God his due – to act justly rather than unjustly.[59]  Paul is clear that one’s failure to allow God’s favor thus to re-orient him or her means that he or she remains Sin’s slave and has only death to which to look forward: “Don’t you know that … you are slaves of the entity whom you actually obey, whether you serve as Sin’s slaves, with the result that you die, or Obedience’s slaves, with the result that you live justly?” (Rom 6:16). 

           “Eternal life” remains God’s gift (Rom 6:23) – but to those whose lives reflect their reception and response to his beneficent creating and redeeming interventions, or, in Paul’s more crass metaphor, to those who have indeed lived as God’s slaves, putting their lives at his disposal rather than at the disposal of their own sinful, self-centered, self-gratifying impulses (Rom 6:20-22).  God’s gift will result in human acknowledgment of the Creator-Redeemer and in transformed lives characterized by just action as gratitude, the experience of divine love, and the Holy Spirit work upon the human heart.[60]

Conclusion: Paul, “Good News,” and the Obligation of Gratitude

           It remains true that “the χάρις of Christ stands in opposition to the do ut des mentality of the Graeco-Roman world” (though Seneca notably also stands against such a mentality) and that “to think otherwise is to return to justification [177] by works … and to reverse the direction of our indebtedness to God.”[61]  Paul is clear that no human being, qua creature, can indebt God with a view to leveraging future favors: “Who has anticipated God in giving a gift, so that it will be repaid to him or her?” (Rom 11:35). The rationale is telling: “Because all things are from him and through his agency and directed unto him” (Rom 11:36), an obvious formula about creation, and thus indebtedness to God – specifically, indebtedness to give back to God – as the starting point for every created being.[62]

           Nevertheless, Paul does advocate very strongly a do quia dedisti mentality which is entirely in keeping with Greco-Roman convictions about the absolute necessity of meeting favor with favor, of recipients of favors responding to their benefactors and friends with equal commitment and investment.  This is true for him both in regard to human relationships and relationships between human beings and the divine.[63] Reciprocity demands that the recipients of God’s favor, particularly as shown in Christ, honor their Creator-Redeemer with their speech, hearts, and actions subsequent to receiving grace, that they at last live “toward” and “for” the Giver.  This is not, by any stretch, a return to “salvation by works,” but it does promote “salvation as the result of God’s gracious action having its full effect in and upon the recipients of God’s favor,” where that effect includes the response of re-oriented lives that God’s favor naturally and necessarily provokes where it is well received.

           Where transactional understandings of God’s grace (an isolated act that transfers something irrevocably to me on the basis of “belief”) trump dynamic, relational understandings of grace, theologians are wrenching Paul and his message out of the social, ethical, and lived contexts in which Paul was shaped and his gospel formulated, preached, and heard.  There is an almost automatic response on the part of many Christian exegetes and theologians to demonstrate that Paul or some other New Testament author is in some way different from and, therefore, “better than” the classical authors with whom he is being compared.  In regard to the obligation of gratitude, however, Paul would rather challenge all Christian disciples, in their response to the overwhelming favor of God in Jesus the Messiah, to live up at least to the measure of virtue [178] promoted by classical authors.  Theology that excuses us for doing less does not serve God’s purposes for the relationship God has sought to renew and redeem in his giving.  


[1] Ernst Kasemann, “The ‘Righteousness of God’ in Paul,” pp. 168-193 in New Testament Questions of Today (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 170.

[2] This is ably addressed by John Barclay in his contribution to this volume, building upon the essay by Troels Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship: Seneca and Paul in Romans 1-8 on the Logic of God’s χάρις and Its Human Response,” HTR 101.1 (2008) 15-44.  Both scholars rightly critique the application of the theories of gift (or the impossibility of the pure gift) advanced in authors such as Jacques Derrida.

[3] “We need to be taught to give willingly, to receive willingly, to return willingly, and to set before us the high aim of striving, not merely to equal, but to surpass in deed and spirit those who have placed us under obligation (quibus obligati sunt), for he who has a debt of gratitude (qui referre gratiam debet) to pay never catches up with the favor unless he outstrips it; the one should be taught to make no record of the amount, the other to feel indebted for more than the amount” (Ben. 1.4.3). Cicero had previously asserted that no duty (thus, moral obligation) is more important than returning gratitude to one’s benefactors (Off. 1.47); see also Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 8.14.3 (1163b12-15).

[4] The polyvalence of χάρις is an interesting reflection of the social scripts and their ethos, as it is sometimes used to denote a person’s disposition to benefit another, or to show favor (Aristotle, Rhet. 2.7.1 [1385a16-20]; Gen 6:8; 18:3; Exod 33:13; Prov 3:34; 22:1; Luke 1:30; Rom 5:15, 17; Heb 4:16; Jas 4:6); sometimes to denote the favors given (this is particularly the case in the inscriptions gathered in Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field [St. Louis, MO: Clayton House,1982], see esp. p. 328; see also Esth 6:3; Sir 3:31; Wis 3:14; 8:21; 4 Macc 5:9; 11:12; Rom 12:3, 6; Heb 12:15; 1 Pet 1:10, 13; 3:7; 4:10; 5:15), almost exclusively in this sense when it appears in the plural; and sometimes to denote the recipient’s reciprocal response (Demosthenes, De Corona 131; 2 Macc 3:33; 3 Macc 1:9; Luke 17:9; Rom 6:17; 7:25; 1 Cor 10:30; 2 Cor 8:16; 9:15; 1 Tim 1:12; 2 Tim 1:3; Heb 12:28; see, further, D. A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000], 104-105; James R. Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace in its Graeco-Roman Context [WUNT 2/172; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003], 179-183). “We observe a subtle interplay of meaning that shifts from benefactor to beneficiary, with χάρις in each case spelling out the appropriate behavior and responsibilities of each party.  Thus the semantic versatility of χάρις ensured that the word became intimately identified with hellenistic reciprocity rituals” (Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 51).

[5] See D. A. deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 240-244; idem., Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 116-119.  It is worth noting that this paradox continues essentially unchanged to this day among Mediterranean communities.  See Julian Pitt-Rivers, “Postscript: The Place of Grace in Anthropology,” pp. 215–46 in Honor and Grace in Anthropology (ed. John G. Peristiany and Julian Pitt-Rivers; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 231, 233: “You cannot pay for a favor in any way or it ceases to be one, you can only thank, though on a later occasion you can demonstrate gratitude by making an equally ‘free’ gift in return”; “A gift is not a gift unless it is a free gift, i.e., involving no obligation on the part of the receiver, and yet … it nevertheless requires to be returned.”

[6] In Ben. 1.1.13, Seneca equates the failure to reciprocate with “sinning” (qui beneficium non reddit, magis peccat).  This is just one half, however, of one of Seneca’s paradoxes, the other half of which is directed to the person who refuses to give a benefit out of fear that the recipient will prove ungrateful: to act thus is perhaps to sin less, but it is still to sin, and to do so “earlier” (qui non dat, citius).

[7] To continue the conceit of conception, one simply may not keep within oneself the baby that has come to full term.

[8] This is well and rightly recognized in the literature on gifts and reciprocity.  Thus, for example, C. A. Gregory, Gifts and Commodities (London: Academic Press, 1982), 19: “What a gift transactor desires is the personal relationship that the exchange of gifts creates and not the things themselves”; Miriam Griffin, “De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003) 92-113, esp. p. 97, specifically commenting on Seneca’s De beneficiis, “Acts of beneficence are presented as creating a relationship of amicitia.” See also Cicero, Off. 1.56.

[9] Troels Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 20.  See also John Barclay, in this volume: “benefits are designed to create or cement relations of mutuality, such that a return to the giver does not diminish or pollute the gift, but constitutes its fulfillment.”

[10] I would hesitate to agree with Stephen C. Mott (“The Power of Giving and Receiving: Reciprocity in Hellenistic Benevolence,” pp.60-72 in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation. Studies in Honor of Merill C. Tenney [ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975], 60-61) that “the act of benefitting sets up a chain of obligations” (emphasis mine) with the result that the return of a favor obliges the initiating giver to give again, particularly in relationships that are clearly between people of unequal status and resources.  It would be more accurate to say (and a more accurate analysis even of his example of King Attalos and the Sicyonians) that returning a favor disposes a benefactor to continue to show favor toward that particular recipient (see Josephus, A. J. 4.8.13 §212).  In the case of longstanding friendship, of course, where parity exists and where the question of “who started it” has receded in a long history of mutual assistance, support, and delight, Mott’s observation would be accurate.

[11] Miriam Griffin (“De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” 113) rightly observes that Seneca reinforces “the code at its most demanding level.” Regarding philosophical critiques of the ethos of reciprocity, see, further, Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 194-195.

[12] Indeed, this line of commentary on the Three Graces extends at least as far back as Aristotle, who spoke of the public shrines dedicated to the Graces as reminders to all to return kindnesses (Eth. Nic. 5.5.7).

[13] Seneca, Ben. 1.4.3; see also Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 1163b12-15; Isocrates, Demon. 26; Sir 35:2.

[14] The language of “repaying” is imprecise (Latin, de reddendo cogitet).  It is not the return of a favor qua recompense or repayment so much as a reciprocal act of seeking-to-benefit-in-return.  See Robert Parker, “Pleasing Thighs: Reciprocity in Greek Religion,” pp. 105-26 in Reciprocity in Ancient Greece (ed. Christopher Gill, Norman Postlethwaite, and Richard Seaford; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), especially 108-109.

[15] This was a long-standing element of reciprocity, constant from the Greek period into and through the Roman period.  See, e.g., J. H. Quincey, “Greek Expressions of Thanks,” JHS 86 (1966), esp. 157: “Greeks saw an obligation created by a favor received and sought to discharge it,” often using praise as a readily available and eagerly received medium. Jerome H. Neyrey, S. J. (“Lost in Translation: Did It Matter If Christians ‘Thanked’ God or ‘Gave God Glory’?” CBQ 71 [2009] 1-23) is correct to insist that verbs of honoring or testifying retain their semantic value in translation, rather than being rendered merely as “thanking,” and that even where verbs of thanking are employed there is also an element of rendering public honor and testimony.

[16] “When a benefit has been graciously received, the giver has forthwith received gratitude in return, but not yet his full reward; my indebtedness, therefore, is for something apart from the benefit, for the benefit itself I have repaid in full by cheerfully accepting it” (Ben. 2.33.3); “Goodwill we have repaid with goodwill; for the object we still owe an object” (2.35.1).

[17] On the distinction between patronage and friendship, see Richard P. Saller, “Patronage and friendship in early imperial Rome: drawing the distinction,” pp. 49-62 in Patronage in Ancient Society (ed. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill; London: Routledge, 1989); idem, Personal Patronage under the Early Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 8-11.

[18] See also Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 1163b1-5, 12-18.

[19] Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (“Patronage in Roman Society,” 82) observes that, in practice, clients might readily desert a patron who fell into political trouble.  Seneca clearly writes against such practice as a fundamental violation of the mutual obligations forged by the grace relationship.

[20] Dio Chrysostom would agree that ingratitude was tantamount to sacrilege against these goddesses (Or. 31.37).

[21] Creating another paradox, Seneca writes: “Do you beware of committing this crime as being the greatest there is; if another commits it, pardon it as being the most trivial” (1.10.5, emphasis mine).  The one giving is urged always to be gracious, the one receiving to honor the gift and the intentions and goodwill behind it.

[22] See also Isocrates, Demon. 24; Sir 12:1. Although Seneca himself does not go so far, other writers from the Greek and Roman periods bear witness to the fact that affronted benefactors could become dangerous enemies (Aristotle, Rhet. 2.2.8; 3 Macc 3:20-22 a; 4 Macc 8:5-8; 9:10).  Ingratitude could turn favor into all-out wrath.  This, too, persists in a modern Mediterranean context (see Pitt-Rivers, “Postscript,” 236).

[23] See also Anaximenes, Rhet. Alex. 1421b33-1422a2; Sir 3:31.

[24] See also Cicero De Offic. 2.63.

[25] B. J. Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace: Paul on Benefaction and the Corinthians’ Ingratitude (2 Cor 6:1),” BBR 24.2 (2014) 207-226, esp. p. 213; see also Miriam Griffin, “De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003) 92-113, esp. p. 95.  Aristotle viewed this as a typical situation (see Eth. Nic. 8.14.2 [1163b1-5]).

[26] “A man may have received more than he gave, greater ones, more frequent ones, yet, for all that, he has not been conquered.  If you reckon those that you have given over against those that you have received, it is true, perhaps, that benefits are surpassed by benefits; but, if you match the giver against the recipient, taking into consideration, as you must, their intentions in themselves, the palm will belong to neither” (5.3.3); “If he matches his benefactor in spirit, even though he cannot match him in deeds.  So long as he continues in this state of mind, so long as he holds the desire to give proof of a grateful heart, what difference does it make on which side the greater number of gifts is reckoned?” (5.4.1).

[27] See Harrison’s illuminating study of charis and reciprocity in non-literary papyri (Paul’s Language of Grace, 64-95); also Peter Garnsey and Greg Woolf, “Patronage of the rural poor in the Roman world,” pp. 153-170 in Patronage in Ancient Society (ed. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill; London: Routledge, 1989); deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 99-100; Hesiod, Works and Days 342-51; 401-404.

[28] On the diversity in social level within a Pauline congregation, see the classic studies of Gerd Theissen (The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982], 69-119) and Wayne A. Meeks (The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983], 51-73 ) as well as the overview by Bengt Holmberg (Sociology and the New Testament: An Appraisal [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990], 21-76).  Markers suggestive of a higher rather than a lower status for Paul include: Roman citizenship; formal education (in Tarsus and Jerusalem); and social networks (personal connection with the rabbi Gamaliel, a commission from the high priest).  All of this depends, of course, on the reliability of the picture of Paul in Acts to this extent.

[29] That God is a third party within this grace-relationship, however, is also evident from 4:10-20.  See further D. Briones, “Paul’s Intentional ‘Thankless Thanks’ in Philippians 4.10-20,” JSNT 34 (2011) 47-69 as well as Barclay’s essay in this volume.  Ben Witherington III (Friendship and Finances in Philippi [Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994], 122-133) offers an instructive delineation of the fine lines that Paul is attempting to walk in the span of these few verses.

[30] Attention is frequently given to the significance of the textual variant in this verse, namely the presence or absence of καὶ in the second clause: μὴ τὰ ἑαυτῶν ἕκαστος σκοποῦντες ἀλλὰ [καὶ] τὰ ἑτέρων ἕκαστοι (Phil 2:4).  External evidence strongly supports its presence (the text-critical quadrifecta of P46, א, A, and B); the two cardinal rules of textual criticism would omit it as the shorter and more difficult meaning.  If its inclusion is accepted, it is hardly clear that the word should be read as “also” (thus affirming self-centered concern as long as it coexists alongside concern for others), all the more as there is nothing to qualify the negation of self-centered concern in the first clause (no “not only for one’s own interests,” as inserted in some fashion by ESV, NLT, NASB, HCSB, NET), and not rather as an intensifier (“even, indeed”).   

[31] So, rightly, Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 183.   Peter T. O’Brien (Commentary on Philippians [NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991],176) recognizes this to provide additional motivation for the Philippians to resolve their internal issues.

[32] David Downs (“Was God Paul’s Patron? The Economy of Patronage in Pauline Theology” pp. 129-156 in Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception [ed. Bruce Longenecker and Kelly Liebengood; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) challenges the propriety of using the term “patron” or “benefactor” to characterize God in Paul’s theology, primarily on the grounds of Paul’s not using the term to refer to God (preferring the language of parent and, therefore, kinship relations, pp. 155-56) and of “the unbalanced and potentially exploitative

nature of patron-client relationships” which would be unseemly if applied to the relationship between God and human beings.  While this is not the place for a detailed critique of Downs’s essay, my reasons for rejecting his arguments are, briefly, as follows. (1) Downs claims that “nowhere in the Corinthian correspondence is God described with terminology taken from the realm of the Roman patronage system” (132 n.9), but he really means that God is not named using the nouns for “patron” or “benefactor.”  God is certainly described as a benefactor by virtue of the fact that Paul speaks often of the good things that God has done and the good gifts God has given.  The prominence of the terminology of “grace” (χάρις) in Paul, moreover, evidences Paul’s use of “terminology taken from the realm of … patronage” (though, it is true, not particularly the Roman patronage system).  (2) Adoption of an adult child, while establishing a kinship relationship, is the ultimate act of patronage.  Julius Caesar did not abandon his role as Octavian’s patron by becoming his father; he consummated that role in this act.  That Paul speaks of God as adoptive father (Rom 8:15, 23; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5) to himself and to the converts is no argument against Paul’s conceiving of God as their benefactor and patron.  (3) Just because a system could be perverted, it does not follow that Paul cannot think of patron-client or benefactor-beneficiary relationships  at their best as illustrative of divine-human relationships.  (4)  A lot of Jewish authors contemporaneous with Paul speak of God’s benefits and the reciprocal obligations of human beings (4 Maccabees, Hebrews), some even going so far as to use the language of “benefactor” (e.g., Philo); Paul stands more squarely within this trend than against it, particularly once point 2 above is understood.  (5) While Downs is correct that Paul does not conceive of God’s economy as one of limited goods (pp. 152-54), it does not follow that God cannot be the ultimate Patron or Benefactor in an economy of unlimited goods.  The point of differentiation is not the relational model, but the conceptualization of the “market.”  Downs is, of course, correct to distance Paul’s conception of the relationship between the Divine Patron and the human recipients of divine χάρις from the peculiar forms and practices of Roman patron-client relations (e.g., the morning salutation, though one wonders if the development of the practice of morning prayer in the Roman church was not thought of as a kind of parallel to this by the worshipers), but this distinction is hardly novel.

[33] One cannot help but draw the comparison with Seneca’s musings concerning how he would formulate such a reminder as motivator, drawing upon lines from Vergil’s Aeneid and the relationship of Dido and Aeneas: “Not even when complaining of him [the friend slow to reciprocate] would I ever say ‘Needy I found him, a wretch, cast up on the shore/And, fool, the half of my kingdom I made his store.’ This is not to remind, but to reproach…. It would be enough, and more than enough, to refresh his memory with the gentle and friendly words: ‘If I to you by aught have help or pleasure brought’ and he, in turn, would say:  ‘Brought me help? “Needy you found me, a wretch, cast up on the shore!”’” (7.25.2)  Paul comes close to the tone and effect of Dido’s “If I to you by aught have help or pleasure brought” in Phil 2:1.

[34] See Peter Lampe, “Keine ‘Sklavenflucht’ des Onesimus,” ZNW 76 (1985) 135-37; Joseph Fitzmyer, Philemon (AB; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 20; Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 328-329.  For a more thorough review of how Paul has crafted his appeal by playing both on the conventions of friendship and brokerage and on the rhetoric of making a public request for favour, see D. A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 671-75.

[35] Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, The Letter to Philemon (ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 228.

[36] Seneca was very cautious about recalling former benefits as a motivator for a return of favor, a practice about which he can write scathingly (Ben. 2.11.1-2).  He does leave room for such reminders, however, where the stakes are compellingly high – “if … the safety of my children is at stake, if my wife is threatened with danger, if the safety of my country and my liberty impel me to a course that I should prefer not to take” (Ben. 5.20.7).  He denies that he thus “turns a benefit into a loan,” for his aim is merely to remind and to awaken the goodwill that is latent and dormant (5.21.2), giving the friend or client “an opportunity to show his gratitude” (5.22.2-5.23.1).  In every case, this is to be done “modestly, with no air of making a demand or of claiming a legal right” (7.23.3). On this point, see also Stephan J. Joubert, Paul as Benefactor: Reciprocity, Strategy and Theological Reflection in Paul’s Collection (WUNT 2/124; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 46; Oropeza, “Expectation of Grace,” 215.  The recent essay by Thomas Blanton (“The benefactor’s account-book: the rhetoric of gift reciprocation according to Seneca and Paul,” NTS  59 [2013] 396-414 ) draws a sharp contrast here between Seneca, who refuses to turn a benefaction into a loan, and Paul, whose economic location does not afford him the same luxury as he attempts to obtain Onesimus’s services from Philemon.

[37] Harrison (Paul’s Language of Grace, 329) reads Phlm 18-19a as “Paul … abandon[ing] his traditional right to reciprocity from Philemon, his client, when he offers to reimburse personally any losses that Philemon may have incurred through Onesimus’ absence.”  I would read this, instead, as an ironic “I. O. U.” on which it would be impossible for Philemon in good faith to collect – “[I make this offer] in order that I might not have to say to you that you owe me your very self” (v. 19b).

[38] See Gerald Peterman, “Social Reciprocity and Gentile Debt to Jews in Romans 15:26-27,” JETS 50.4 (2007) 735-46, on the idiom κοινωνίαν τινὰ ποιήσασθαι (15:26) as more likely meaning “establish fellowship” than “make a contribution,” emphasizing the relational consequences of gift-giving (esp. pp. 735-40).  BDAG, 553, prefers this meaning for the idiom as well, based on Peterman’s earlier article, “Romans 15.26: ‘Make a Contribution’ or ‘Establish Fellowship’,” NTS 40 (1994) 457-63.  David Downs (The Offering of the Gentiles: Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem in Its Chronological, Cultural, and Cultic Contexts [WUNT 2/248; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008], 17 n.55) rightly notes that in other instances this formula is used to express the expectation not only of friendship but of the sharing of actual resources, though the formula κοινωνίαν  ποιήσασθαι is significantly qualified to make this more precise nuance clear (in Demosthenes, 3 Philip. 28.1-6, “to establish a fellowship of help and friendship,” κοινωνίαν βοηθείας καὶ φιλίαν … ποιήσασθαι).  Of course Paul also expects that this “connection” will be established on the basis of an act of friendship involving the sharing of material resources, as is appropriate for friends who “hold all things as common property” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 9.8.2 1168b7-9), but Peterman is right that the act is more than a “contribution”; it is an act that binds two parties together in a relationship.

[39] Expectations of reciprocity appear to be at work also in Rom 1:11-15, where the step Paul takes from his affirmation of a desire to benefit the Christians in Rome to an affirmation of his intention that they should mutually benefit one another could be explained in terms of reciprocity rather than the apostle’s modesty, as well as in Rom 16:2 and Paul’s commendation of Phoebe, who has acted as a benefactor to him “and to many” in Corinth/Cenchraea, whom Paul’s contacts in Rome (e.g., Prisca, Aquila, Paul’s relatives named in his greetings) can now receive as a friend and to whom they can and should extend every courtesy (see Susan Mathew, Women in the Greetings of Romans 16.1-16: A Study of Mutuality and Women’s Ministry in the Letter to the Romans [LNTS; London: Bloomsbury, 2013], 83-85).  On Phoebe’s role as “benefactor” in a relationship of equals with Paul rather than as “patron” in an unequal one, see Erlend D. MacGillivray, “Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships to New Testament Texts,” NovT 53 (2011) 183-199.  Nevertheless, the fact of her benefitting “many” attests to her prominence and, from a social point of view, precedence within the Christian community. Harrison (Paul’s Language of Grace, 325-26) raises questions about how effective Paul’s commendation of Phoebe would be if Romans 16 is indeed addressed to a congregation that does not know Paul personally.  However, Paul knows a good number of people in the Roman churches (Rom 16:3-15), and these individuals would, at the very least, seek to “repay Phoebe on [Paul’s] behalf,” if not act as catalysts for the broader house churches to receive Phoebe.

[40] See Seneca, Ben. 1.1.9; 2.30.1-2; 4.26.1; 4.28.1; Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 8.14.4 (1163b16-18); Philo, Plant. 126-131.  Mott (“Power of Giving,” 64-65) finds several references in Philo on the failure to honor the divine as the greatest species of ingratitude among the genus of responses to benefactors: Philo, Leg. 118; Op.169; Q.G. 2.50; Q.E. 2.49.

[41] It is relevant, though it would take us too far afield here, to consider the role of the πίστις word group in the context of relationships of patronage, friendship, and benefaction.  πίστις (“faith”) is not merely believing something about what God has done, but keeping faith within the grace-relationship that God has created – or, better, that God has revived after humanity had already proven unfaithful in the past.  See deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 115-116; Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 29, 31

[42] While the phrase ἡ γὰρ ἀγάπη τοῦ Χριστοῦ can be construed on the basis of either a subjective genitive (“Christ’s love” for others) or an objective genitive (our “love for Christ”), the subjective genitive has the stronger support among commentators and their arguments.  See Frank J. Matera, II Corinthians (NTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 132-33; Raymond F. Collins, Second Corinthians (Paideia; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 118; C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (HNTC; London: Harper & Row, 1973), 167 (though he allows more room for a plenary sense); Margaret E. Thrall, 2 Corinthians 1-7 (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994), 408-409; Victor P. Furnish, II Corinthians (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1984), 309, 326. See also Rom 5:5, 8; 8:35; 2 Cor 13:13; Gal 2:20.

[43] N. T. Wright reads 2 Cor 5:14–21 in the context of Paul’s extensive defense of his apostleship in 2:14–6:13, which is surely correct, but this leads Wright to incorrect conclusions about the limits on the meaning this verse, namely that 2 Cor 5:15b is all about Paul living for Jesus and not a general statement that all indeed are bound now to live for the one who died and was raised on their behalf (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009], 161). The phrase “being convinced that” is vitally important here: Paul steps out of his discussion of himself and his team as ambassadors to speak of the fundamental convictions that drive him in his mission, and this conviction quite naturally applies to all human beings for whom Christ died.  Paul’s mission is thus indeed to bring about the obedient response to the self-giving patron and the return on the part of all benefitted (a life for a life) that the patron merits, calling “all” – “those who [still] live” and are thus able to receive and give back to the one who died for them – to render to Christ his due by yielding their lives to him, even as Paul does (see Gal 2:19–20) and as Paul hopes will occur in his converts (see Gal 4:19).

[44] See, e.g., Collins, Second Corinthians, 119; Matera, II Corinthians, 135; Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth:A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 394; Thrall, 2 Corinthians 1-7, 411-12.

[45] Barrett, Second Epistle, 169.

[46] Furnish, II Corinthians, 328.

[47] Thus rightly Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace,” 220: “believers must relocate the concept of obligation in terms of living for Christ’s sake, and they are to interpret it in light of being controlled by God’s Spirit.” See also D. A. deSilva, Transformation: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 10-14, 38-43, 58-63.

[48] Craig Keener, Romans (NCCS; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 34, also regards this as a case of “humanity abandoning gratitude toward God.”  Engberg-Pedersen (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 24) suggests that “Paul argues that human beings (that is, non-Jews) should have grasped (1:20), praised, and given thanks to (1:21) God for his works in the world “since the creation” (1:20). However, in spite of the fact that Paul does speak in 1:21 of “giving thanks” to God (even using the very term for gratiam referre: εύχαρίζεσθαι), what he emphasizes in 1:20 about God’s creation of the world is not so much God’s gift as his “power” (δύναμις) and “divine majesty” (θειότης). Correspondingly, what was missing in human beings is not so much the proper reaction to a gift but giving God “honor” (δοξάζειν, 1:21, 23).”   I think, however, that the obligation of gratitude (and thus honoring God in gratitude for the gift of life itself and the sustaining bounty of creation) would be sufficiently embedded in both Gentile and Jewish culture for Paul to assume this.  It is inherent in Paul’s reference to God as “Creator” (1:25) and in the denial of God’s expectation of “thanks/acknowledgement as giver” (1:21).

[49] J. D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC; Waco, TX: Word, 1988), 59.  He helpfully refers readers also to 4 Ezra 8.60: “those who were created … have been ungrateful to him who prepared life for them now.”

[50] See also Col 3:5, where God’s wrath falls upon the disobedient, revealing an underlying assumption of a just claim to obedience on the part of vastly inferior parties whom one has benefitted (again, here, with the very gift of existence). Philo may indeed have suggested that all creation is to respond to the Creator’s benefits with thanksgiving and praise, as mortals have no power to render anything else in return (Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 129), but Paul does suggest other components to our response to God’s generous acts in creation and redemption, particularly a change in life orientation to serve God rather than “the flesh” or “sin.”

[51] “Surely beneficiaries have to respond worthily to their benefactor – or admit their inability to do so – if munificence was to be extended and maintained?  Yet God had responded in an unprecedented way to His dishonoring as the cosmic and covenantal Benefactor.  Instead of avenging His honor, He had demonstrated forbearance and extended χάρις to the ungrateful in His crucified Son” (Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 219).

[52] Dunn, Romans 1-8, 59. Engberg-Pedersen (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 28) concludes that the Christ-event “shows that God staged his relationship with human beings precisely in the form of a gift in order to achieve his own aims.” As God’s dealings with humanity in Rom 1:18-32, 2:23-24, and 8:3-4 suggest, these aims include an interest in God’s creatures honoring God and doing the divine will.  Human responses of faithfulness (πίστις) and love are means of reciprocating the gift and thus fulfilling the divine will. The magnificent love and grace of God in the giving of Christ expects a response, so much that no one “acts rightly, then, if he does not respond to that act in kind …. Any other response will amount to annulling God’s gift” (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 41). See also Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace,” 220: “Now that God has granted them Christ and salvation, believers must assent to the Spirit’s work in their bodies both collectively and individually.”

[53] Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 27.

[54] See also Stephan Joubert, Paul as Benefactor: Reciprocity, Strategy, and Theological Reflection in Paul’s Collection (WUNT 2/124; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 51: “For a service to qualify as a benefit it must have been undertaken because of a specific individual, and not just bestowed on him as one of the crowd.”

[55] Troels Engberg-Pedersen (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 41) perceptively adds: “With human beings meeting God’s love with a love of their own in a mutual, interlocking pattern, there is nothing they may wish to do other than fulfilling God’s will. Everything is ready, therefore, to make them return God’s gift (compare the idea in Seneca of beneficium reddere) by actually fulfilling his will. In this way, by God’s use of the gift-giving system, the original purpose of the covenant is achieved.”

[56] Robert Jewett, Romans (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 493, adding that “commentators consistently overlook this social background in interpreting v.12.”  He refers readers further to Mark Reasoner, The Strong and the Weak. Romans 14.1-15.13 in Context (SNTSMS 103; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 176-86.

[57] For example, Jason Whitlark objects that “reciprocity transforms grace into debt” (“Enabling χάρις: Transformation of the Convention of Reciprocity by Philo and in Ephesians,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 30 [2003] 325-357, especially 356) and cautions that introducing reciprocity as “the dynamic upon which salvation is based” results in a soteriological scheme of “covenantal nomism or a synergistic semi-Pelagianism” (“Enabling χάρις,” 341).  The specter of semi-Pelagianism and other theological convictions, however, here stand in the way of actually hearing Paul and acknowledging the more complex relationship between grace, reciprocity, generous response, and debt that comes into play in discussions of gratitude contemporary with Paul.

[58] On Paul’s use of slavery metaphors in Romans 6, see the masterful study in John Byron, Slavery Metaphors in Early Judaism and Pauline Christianity (WUNT 2/162; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 207-219.  The grace-gratitude paradigm is also taken further to redemption-ownership in 1 Cor 6:19-20: “You don’t belong to yourselves, for you were purchased (ἠγοράσθητε) for a price: bring honor to God, then, with your body.”  This is clearly an underlying paradigm for Paul, underscoring obligation to live for the redeemer/benefactor, with the latter becoming actually the far gentler metaphor.

[59] “Now that they are ‘under grace,’ the faithful in Christ are under obligation, ‘to which Paul calls for willing assent to serve the purposes of grace by yielding their bodies as [spiritual] weapons employed by the God and Father of Jesus Christ, serving their fellows in righteousness’” (Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace,” 220, quoting Robert Jewett, Romans, 412. See also the analysis of Paul’s metaphor of the Christians as obligated beneficiaries in Rom 6:12-23 in Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 234-242.

[60] Other passages that could profitably be analyzed from this vantage point include Paul’s warnings in regard to responding properly to God’s favor in Gal 4:8-11; 5:1-4; the thanksgiving and benediction sections in each of Paul’s letters (1 Cor 1:4-7; 2 Cor 1:3-7; 2:14-16; Phil 1:3-5; Col 1:3-5a; 1 Thess 1:2-3; 3:9-10; Phlm 4-5); exhortations to congregations to dwell on God’s favors by engaging in ongoing thanksgiving (Col 2:6-7; 3:16-17; 4:2; 1 Thess 5:16-18); and Paul’s understanding of God’s provision as supplying Christians with the means to accomplish God’s ends, as especially in 2 Cor 9:8-15 (where dedit ut dare possumus).  A particularly helpful study in regard to the last of these texts is Stephan Joubert, “Religious reciprocity in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15: Generosity and gratitude as legitimate responses to the χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ,” Neotestamentica 33.1 (1999) 79-90.

[61] Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 350.

[62] See also Col 1:16: “All things were created through him and unto him.”

[63] Theologians go astray when they seek to answer the question “What will God do if we don’t do the right and honorable thing within this relationship?” and formulate their conclusions about divine grace and human response on the basis of their answers.  Paul is not interested in asking this question, only in urging his hearers: “Do the right and honorable thing within this relationship!”