Sometimes, I'm not as quick at returning phone calls as I should be. Last Friday, a good friend of mine called. This past Monday, I was finally able to return his call. After apologizing for taking three days to call him back, I reflexively asked, "So what's up? Is something wrong?" This buddy of mine is in ministry at a church in Dallas and many times our conversations turn to the challenges of church work. Thus, I assumed that he had called me because he was facing some difficulty that he wanted some counsel on. I assumed incorrectly. "I didn't call you for anything in particular," he responded, "I just wanted to say hello."
Although I'm ashamed to admit it, I hardly ever call anyone "just to say hello." For my phone calls are usually made with some goal in mind: a task to complete; a deadline to meet; a question that I need answered. But my buddy called me "just to say hello." And perhaps, even in the midst of our hurried lives and crowded calendars, this is a practice that many of us would do well to recapture.
In our reading for today from Romans 16, Paul rips off the lengthiest list of "hellos" of any of his letters. This is probably because Paul had not yet visited the church at Rome when we wrote Romans, so his greetings were extensive because he was not able to offer them in person. What is especially fascinating, however, is that Paul's practice of offering "holy hellos" was not common in the ancient world. Primitive church scholar Hans Windisch, who taught at Leipzig, Leiden, Kiel, and Halle before his untimely death in 1935, writes, "In letters of the pre-Christian period, greetings are not too common and there are no long series of greetings." Thus, even in the first century, it seems people had little time to pick up the phone "just to say hello." Indeed, normally, "hellos" were reserved only for those of high status, such as priests, rulers, and rabbis, as the ancient Jewish historian Josephus informs us: "Alexander, when he saw... the high priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head, having the golden plate whereon the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first greeted the high priest" (Antiquities, 11.331). Alexander the Great, a man himself worthy of a great greeting, extends a greeting to the high priest of Israel. Such are the kinds of people for whom "hellos" were reserved. For common folk rarely offered "hellos" and never received them.
Paul, however, describes a different tact when it comes to the kinds of "hellos" that Christians should proffer. This tact is perhaps most clearly expressed in verse 23: "Erastus, who is the city's director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings." Erastus was well known in the ancient world as a prominent politician from Corinth. Indeed, a Latin inscription near the Corinthian theatre reads, "Erastus, commissioner of public works, bore the expense of this pavement." Erastus, it seems, was quite wealthy and donated much of his massive fortune to the betterment of his hometown. Here was a man whom many would have greeted and who would have greeted other dignitaries because of his status. But then there is Quartus. And we know much less about Quartus because he was nothing but a lowly slave. And yet, Quartus too greets the Roman church. And it can only be assumed that the Roman church returns the favor.
For Christians, then, "hellos" became something not reserved only for the elite, but for everyone, whether they be powerful politicians or supine serfs. So today, I offer you this challenge: In a world where, much like in the first century, we all too often only say "hello" to those from whom we need something or to those whom we consider important, call someone today "just to say hello." Call someone with no favors to ask, no networking to do, and no hidden agenda in mind. Call someone simply to check up on them. For sometimes a simple "hello" from a concerned soul is what a person needs more than anything else. And, if you would, share this challenge with others as well. For together, we can make today a day of "hellos" that are meant not only to accomplish tasks, but to touch hearts. And in the end, that's more important anyway.