Who were the Benefactors of whom Jesus spoke on the evening before his death, and why were they given that title?
On the evening before his death, Jesus counseled his apostles not to seek a position of prominence among their fellow believers. He told them: “The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those having authority over them are called Benefactors. You, though, are not to be that way.”—Luke 22:25, 26.
Who were the Benefactors to whom Jesus referred? Inscriptions, coins, and writings reveal that it was a custom in Greek and Roman societies to honor eminent men and rulers with the title of Euergetes, or Benefactor. This honor was given because such men had rendered some valuable public service.
A number of kings bore the title Benefactor. Among these were the Egyptian rulers known as Ptolemy III Euergetes (c. 247-222 B.C.E.) and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II (c. 147-117 B.C.E.). Roman rulers Julius Caesar (48-44 B.C.E.) and Augustus (31 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) also bore the title, as did Herod the Great, king of Judea. In Herod’s case, the honor was probably earned when he imported wheat to relieve a famine among his people and provided clothes for the needy.
According to German Bible scholar Adolf Deissmann, the use of the title Benefactor was widespread. He noted: “It would not be difficult to collect from inscriptions, with very little loss of time, over a hundred instances [of the use of this title].”
So, then, what did Jesus mean when he told his disciples: “You, though, are not to be that way”? Was Jesus telling them not to be public-spirited, that is, not to be concerned about the general welfare of people around them? Not at all. What seems to have concerned Jesus was the motivation behind acts of generosity.
In Jesus’ day, wealthy individuals aimed to gain a good reputation for themselves by sponsoring spectacles and games in the arena, building parks and temples, and supporting similar activities. However, they did so with the objective of winning plaudits, popularity, or votes. “Although there are examples of real generosity from such donors,” says one reference work, “the practice was often inspired by political self-interest.” Such a spirit of ambition and self-interest is what Jesus urged his followers to avoid.
Some years later, the apostle Paul emphasized the same important truth about having the right motive in giving. He wrote to his fellow believers in Corinth: “Let each one do just as he has resolved in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”—2 Cor. 9:7.