The cardinal… is a thief.
l delivered two portraits of his mindless nephew
more than three months ago
to be depicted in the heroic mode
of an Hercules or an Achilles–
so specified our contract.
making that young fool of a nephew
look far more heroic than nature ever intended–
an act on my part far greater than anything accomplished
by Hercules or Achilles.
And what have l, the divine Leonardo da Vinci,
received in payment?
The cardinal’s eternal gratitude?
ln other words, signorina…
less than nothing.
– Leonardo DaVinci, Star Trek Voyager “Scorpion, Part 1”
For most of us, what we might know about the patron/client relationship hails from our studies of the Renaissance era – in the quote above, we can see how that worked in practice – in return for food, board, and materials from the patron, the client was obligated to fulfill any expectation that was in his power to do so. If a patron wanted his client to paint the sky orange, then that’s what he had to do. The reality is, the patron/client system is far older than that day and age. Even Jesus had his patrons.
Jesus’ patrons weren’t the sort of people you’d expect. They were wealthy, but not the most powerful. They were connected, but not the most influential. They were women in a day and age where women weren’t allowed to do very much. It’s important to understand that accepting a gift from someone indebted you to them until such time as that you can give a greater gift in return. That might explain why Paul would go on at length why it’s important to send gifts and yet why he wouldn’t accept gifts – he didn’t want to be indebted to the wrong church that didn’t understand what he was trying to say; yet he was willing to accept gifts from another church that did understand Paul’s ministry. When Jesus allowed the women to provide for his ministry, he was putting himself in their debt – and any good client will always return the favor to his patrons. So why didn’t Jesus’ patrons include men? Probably because they might impress upon him certain conditions of his ministry. Just as an artist might be told to paint the sky orange, Jesus’ male patrons might have said: “We want you to come here and preach this message to us.” They might have been more interested in the prestige of “owning” Jesus and “controlling” his message than actually hearing what he had to say. Men were, after all, culturally predisposed to using their privilege in that way whereas women didn’t really get to do that. And let’s be clear here – the verses do indicate that the women were using their own money, not their husband’s, in order to fund Jesus.
So who were Jesus’ patrons? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons (according to Matthew 27), Salome (According to Mark 15), Joanna the wife of Chuza who was the manager of Herod’s household as well as Susanna (According to Luke 8). These women, among countless others whose names are long forgotten, followed Jesus, provided for his ministry, and cared for his needs in the only acceptable social context that there was. In return, Jesus was expected to pay them back out of his particular skill, bringing them honor in a time where most women were the epitome of shame. When others wouldn’t be caught speaking with women in public because it was dishonorable, Jesus did just that.
Sadly, for the most part, the modern church doesn’t understand the obligations of a patron / client system. In bad form, the client continually drains it’s patrons of all their funds and offers nothing in return. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as we have no cultural ties to the patron / client system and no framework for how that operated outside of the pages of the Bible.
But the early church did. It viewed widows as clients and the church as her patron. Widows were afforded great respect, in return for providing for them, widows had a particular prayer ministry. It was considered bad form for a widow to divulge the name of the patrons in the church who were providing for her because others might try to drain them of their wealth – so there was an air of secrecy to a widow’s ministry. When she was not praying on behalf of her patrons, the client would otherwise be occupied in honoring her patrons; as Jesus did to the women who were his patrons.