In Luke 6:35, Jesus told his disciples to lend expecting nothing in return. This was radically counter-cultural in a world in which people didn’t even give gifts without expecting something in return.
It’s counter-cultural to us as well. However, in the Western world, at least our economy runs on rules.
In the Roman Empire of the first century, the economy ran on relationships. There were master-slave relationships, but there were also patron-client relationships.
This system extended to all kinds of businesses. If wealthy customers (patrons) bought from you or hired you on a regular basis, you did special favors for them when they asked. Money always came with strings attached.
E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien explain the patron-client relationship in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (IVP Books, 2012).
In the seventh chapter, Richards and O’Brien show how relationship-based economics lies in the background of several New Testament texts.
For example, it helps us understand why Paul was so careful not to accept personal support from the church in Corinth:
“First, the patron-client relationship may have been a major challenge for Paul. How could Paul accept gifts, for example, without becoming someone’s client? It appears that on several occasions Paul did not want to depend upon gifts from the church in Corinth because of the massive influence a patron could exert. So he earned his living instead (1 Cor 4:12; 9:6)”
But Paul did receive support from the church in Philippi. It seems they were mature enough to understand the revolutionary nature of Christian giving.
But just in case they forgot…
When Paul wrote Philippians, he was in prison. He wasn’t able to work to make money. Epaphroditus came to him with a large gift from the church in Philippi. So Paul wrote to say thank you, but he qualified his appreciation to the point that Richards and O’Brien call Philippians a “thankless thank-you letter”:
“The strings-attached nature of patronage may explain why Paul’s letter to the Philippians appears to be a thankless thank-you letter.”
As they explain, Paul needed to receive the gift while making it clear that it did not establish the typical patron-client relationship.
In such a relationship, Paul would be obligated to come to Philippi whenever they said they needed him there. He couldn’t do that. He had to be free to go wherever God sent him at any time.
What’s more, the bulk of the offering may have come from just one individual in Philippi. He couldn’t give the impression that such a person was buying influence.
And so, as soon as he begins to thank them for the gift, he says this:
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” (Philippians 4:11, ESV)
And just to be clear he says again a little later:
“Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.” (Philippians 4:17, ESV)
The next verse shows that Paul really does appreciate the gift. He just wants to be sure they know that they have actually given it to God:
“I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:18-19, ESV)
Paul does not say, “…and if you ever need anything, just ask me.”
Not only does he not say that, he doesn’t want them to assume that.
Instead, he makes it clear that what they gave to him, they gave to God, and so he says, “…and if you ever need anything, just ask my God.”
“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
It’s beautiful and encouraging verse. It’s a faith-inspiring promise.
It might also be Paul’s brilliantly tactful way of saying, “Thank you for the gift. I owe you nothing.”