Can a Seat be Given Up? Jesus at Table with Derrida

Brueghel, Peasant Wedding
Last week our household received a parish newsletter which included a thoughtful reflection by one of the clergy on this Gospel set for last Sunday, and which we have heard again this evening, exhorting the readers to humility and generosity just as Jesus urged deference in seating at banquets, and selfishness in invitations. Scrolling down the page however one then encountered an advertisement for a concert featuring the storied music program of the same parish, which proclaimed "10 Days Left for exclusive access to the best seats in the house!"

While this reflects a rather common reality of not quite seeing the point, or of just how hard it is to do so, it is also not hard to see that some quite concrete responses to Jesus' teaching about seats at table could quickly be self-defeating. The earnest disciple might consistently take the lowest seat, so as to be exalted; but then the lowest seat simply becomes a launching pad to the highest (and also to the honored procession from bottom to top), and the quest for honor or power has not been avoided, just elaborated. 

We have all encountered this sort of humility game, and maybe even played it: "after you!" "No, after you!' etc." Church history is full of both the cynical and the well-intentioned versions of re-purposing the language and symbolism of humility ("servant of the servants of God," anyone?) in ways that do not really break the cycle of competition and precedence, but in trying to solve it (or exploit it) render it endless. Faith is then just a way to win the game of musical chairs, and deference becomes a tool rather than a gift.

Well-intentioned or not, we find ourselves in that cycle whenever we imagine we can make faith a transaction or technique. There are many versions of this, wherein the good life or salvation itself are presented as the rewards merely for a different set of practices or investments made with specialized knowledge of religious expertise. Yet if our theological and ethical reflection really starts with a sort of Christianized version of how to win, how to advance, how to accumulate, we have surely missed the point and we labor in vain. Is it possible not just to do better about seating, but actually to give up the seat? Can a gift be given?

Philosophers and theologians argue about whether there really is such a thing as a gift. If a gift exists, it is a transfer in which the result is not just another transaction, resulting in a different sort of advantage from the one that having the object given had previously bestowed on us; as Aquinas says, following Aristotle, "a giving...can have no return." If there is such a thing as a true gift, it anticipates no return for the object or act.  Derrida famously denied the possibility of the gift, believing that every (so-called) gift creates some counter-gift or obligation, even if just gratitude itself. Yet he acknowledged a desire for gift that haunts us. 

The second teaching of this Gospel about meals may be a required inter-text for the first: "do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid." There is once again a way of missing the point, where the practice of charity is simply investing in a better and heavenly accumulation of capital, a pension plan that will pay even better than the CPG (that would be a miracle, surely).

While Jesus may seem to be playing the reciprocity game at first, if with an eschatological twist, in practice the imperative of charity - not philanthropy, but the ethic of agape, of self-giving love - defers the quest for return and reward to an impossible horizon, to what Jesus calls the "resurrection of the righteous," and thus ends it.

It is not just that this involves a longer term for deposit before cashing out. You have probably read Luke before, and know the end of the story; the "resurrection of the righteous" is not merely a way of talking about the future here.  Jesus the righteous one has in fact undergone resurrection, and dying has offered an embodied gift of self which ends all ideas of salvation as technique or transaction. The time to which he refers is thus not just a future too distant to care about, but a different kind of present which he has begun, in which his economy of gift supplants all religious or political economies of reciprocity and advantage.

These stories were told at and about meals, and this celebration of the Eucharist inevitably raises these questions quite tangibly. Is a gift being given here, or are we just jostling for position? 

When we do liturgical studies we may of course find ourselves reflecting critically on the seating arrangements, or on the company assembled, but it's typically a bad sign when we think liturgical changes are the answer to eschatological or even just ethical problems. This is not the sacrament of ecclesial equality - the Church is not the sacrament of itself - but the sacrament of the world to which God calls us where all are fed equally, and where gifts can be given.  It is the effective symbol not of what the Church is meant to look like, but what the world is meant to look like when gifts are possible. 

It is tempting to think we are here at YDS to learn how to transact justly, or to acquire skill or technique will make us better followers of Jesus so we can fix all problems of power and precedence for others. This partly true but it cannot be wholly true, since these things might simply be better transactions and techniques, means to achieve better outcomes even while missing the point. Better economies of advantage are not the solution on offer.

What the meal enacts, creates, is this gift centered on the once-given body of its founder, shared with us and whom we become by accepting it. The gift of Christ in the Eucharist is the gift that not only abandons precedence, or that gives up one seat for a worse one, but gives up but any seat to wash feet; the gift, who is also the giver, is the one who shares with denier and betrayer and not only with the ostensibly worthy, not to gain advantage but only to give it. 

Thus we find not only that the Eucharist is a gift, but that it deconstructs the very logic of whatever is not gift; that is, we find that we are here at this table, not to be schooled on transaction or technique; not on how to do better at inviting other people, or how to give other people invitations or gifts that convey appropriate obligation and advantage, so much as to give in to the fact that we ourselves are the invited, who cannot repay. 

Here we enter the economy of gift and become those who embody and thus carry forward the liberation which is his inestimable gift; because it is the gift that bestows no obligation at all - other than everything.

Based on a sermon given at the Berkeley Divinity School Community Eucharist in Marquand Chapel, August 31 2022.


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