Seneca and Jesus
(Psalm 112:6-9; Luke 15:1, 11-31; Hebrews 12:1-3)
Robinson College Chapel
26th May, 2019
As we continue our Grand Tour through the philosophers of Jesus’ era, this evening we squint in the direction of the first century Roman Stoic, Seneca. He was born at the same time as Jesus, and was in Rome at the same time as Paul. Seneca was a brilliant and influential thinker and writer. He enjoyed a roller coaster career as an orator and playwright in Rome, and was eventually called upon to tutor the teenage emperor, Nero.
He is often considered as a proto-Christian Saint, because his writings on morality and virtue often align so closely with those promoted by Christianity. Christians, for instance, have been quick to point out the similarities of some of their pithy one-liners.
“It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.” (Seneca). “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Jesus)
“You look at the pimples of others when you yourselves are covered with a mass of sores.” (Seneca) “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Jesus).
“It’s in keeping with Nature to show our friends affection and to celebrate their advancement, as if it were our very own.” (Seneca). “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Jesus).
Still, when you consider these kinds of sayings in their historical and literary context, their supposed similarity vanishes in a puff of incense.
But Seneca’s heroic status in Christian eyes is also helped by the fact that he was condemned to death by the nasty emperor Nero - although there is some debate as to whether he endured a terrible death, or deliberately made his enforced suicide unnecessarily theatrical and dramatic. If the 18th Century oil canvas of Seneca’s death is historically accurate, then it’s hard not to imagine a speech bubble next to his head, expressing a virtuous sense of ‘gratitude, for the opportunity to serve the empire I love’ – and all the analytical commentary such a remark might invite.
There is also some debate as to whether his wealth made him a massive hypocrite… a bigger ideological hypocrite than the right-wing evangelist, who last week sued his insurance company after his multi-million-dollar life-size replica of Noah’s Ark suffered rain damage!
Seneca might be seen as an ideological hypocrite, because for all his wealth and privilege – he wrote at great length upon the virtue of giving. It is a magnificent work, and however you want to interpret it, it highlights – from a variety of perspectives – the norms of philanthropy and giving in the first century Roman world. At multiple levels, Seneca makes a virtue of giving – one that in substance aligns with that of Scripture. Giving, even when giving to people who apparently could not give back, was always done with the expectation of a return. Generosity was always geared towards obtaining some form of reward. Benefactions were always granted in order to receive some form of payback. It may be payback in terms of reputation, in terms of honours and influence, in terms of obtaining credit for favours you expect other people to offer to you in return. Always, and without exception, at some level – is the expectation of reciprocity.
Christians often claim that giving should be done completely selflessly – with no expectation of a return. That you are to give without counting the cost. And while, since Martin Luther, Christians have assumed this default morality as a central Christian innovation, you cannot find it in Scripture. It simply isn’t there. Yes, you give to people who are poor and unworthy, but actually – you are still expecting a reward, because ‘the God who sees what is done in secret will reward you.’ Within the cycles of reciprocity, all that is distinctive about Christian and indeed Jewish practices of giving – are that God himself is included in the cycles of exchange. There are, after all, such things as ‘treasures in heaven’.
The notion that there can be such thing as a pure gift, pure acts of selflessness are very much a modern invention. Altruism, for instance, is a French concept from the 19th Century – and gives rise to the secular belief, expressed today by figures like Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer, that it is possible to overcome self-centredness and move towards self-lessness. The assumption here, is that there is a two-dimensional sliding scale with a selfish person at one end, and a selfless person at the other. It’s difficult to imagine such a mechanised, theoretically measurable, two-dimensional binary scale without the advent of modernity. It is probably why post-modern thinkers like Derrida and Bourdieu have ridiculed the idea of a pure gift, of unadulterated unilateral giving.
If you use the writings of Seneca and of the New Testament as windows into widespread practices of gift giving across ancient Mediterranean communities, it is clear that gift giving is a multi-dimensional activity. Their view of the self was not on some scale between egocentric and self-less. Not even Jesus’ great act of self-sacrifice was a selfless act. There was a goal, an expectation in mind. This is a Jesus who acted on the basis of ‘the joy that was set before him’. As we celebrate at communion, that the gift of Jesus was poured out for ‘all people’ – it was, in other words, an indiscriminate gift.
And it is that distinguishes Christian giving and Christian generosity from the kind of giving recognised and recommended by Seneca. The worthiness of the recipient is paramount when it comes to gift giving in the ancient Mediterranean – whereas in the New Testament the worthiness of the recipient is almost irrelevant. In Seneca’s world, if you give to an unworthy or ungrateful person, you are acting immorally, squandering your wealth, being irresponsible with the resources entrusted to you.
For Jesus, the moral or financial or social worth of the individual is an utter irrelevance. The worth of the individual beneficiary of your gift is an irrelevance because every person is made in the image of God. And the goal of gift giving is aimed at nothing other than including that other person as a member of the Kingdom of God – that is the basis for any return. And that is precisely why Jesus was always in trouble for being the friend of sinners. His gift is poured out not just for worthy people, or wealthy people, or influential people, or people in a position to benefit him at some point in the future. It is poured out for all people, indiscriminately. This is the Jesus who welcomes sinners and eats with them. This is the Jesus who squanders his gifts upon those unworthy to receive them. This is the prodigal father, who lavishes his gifts upon the worthy and faithful as well as the unworthy, wasteful failure of a son.
Intercessions on Giving
Lord we thank you for privileges we enjoy, for all the good things you have placed at our disposal, for the power in our hands to change the world for better or worse.
So we pray that you will show us how to be responsible with our resources.
When we are aware of chronic hunger, malnutrition and destitution and the enormous differences that can be made by minor sacrifices on our behalf, show us what it means to see, and hear and respond.
When we see ongoing news of families fleeing North Africa to seek life in Europe, risking all that they have and their own lives, subjecting themselves to virtual slavery, show us what it means to see, and hear, and respond.
When we see are content to see justice granted to human beings only on the basis of their economic status, their ethnicity, or their nation state, show us what it means to be generous with the gifts, the insights, and the voices you have given us.
Forgive us when we are content that our political responsibilities stretch no further than the ballot box, when our social generosity reaches no further than the benefit of those closest to us, when our readiness to give extends no further than the change in our pockets.
Open our eyes to the ethical questions that impact both upon how we get our money, and how we spend it. Give us courage to see the world as it is, readiness to accept our place within it, humble enough to receive help, compassionate enough to offer it.
God of reciprocity, show us our true state, how fortunate we are, how much we can do. Show us why we should give, show us what we should give, show us to whom we should give. To the glory of your name.