The Pharisee and the gift

Caputo ( The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) , 217 ) points to Derrida’s discussion of Matthew 6 as the initiation of “the duel between Christian and Jew.” Caputo sums up Derrida’s characterization: “This duel is always cast by Christianity as a war between the New Law of the Gift and the Old Law of pharisees, between the spirit of love and cold commerce and money changers . . . , between the living word (Word) and the dead letter, between the supple breath of the Spirit . . . and the wooden inflexibility of the Law, between the alienated, duty-bound legalistic religion of slaves and the religion of Love (for God is Love), between an eye-for-an-eye credit and debit system and for-give-ness, in short between the pharisee and the gift.”

One must content the “always” in the first sentence. Derrida is right: Matthew doesn’t post this contrast, and Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD demonstrates that early Christians were much in Matthew’s mold. The duel as stated is really the duel between a certain, post-Kantian form of liberal Protestantism.

Making allowances for the historical overstatement, I would turn Derrida’s description of the duel on its head: Christianity’s structure is more foundationally reciprocal, more “circular” than Judaism’s. With his secular hyper-Judaism, Derrida quite consistently imagines dissemination without end, bread cast on the waters without harvest or hope of harvest. Christians believe that the Messiah has come. This is not, strictly, the close of a circle, since the Messiah’s Advent, and even His future final Advent, open out even as they close up. Yet, in believing that the Messiah has come and will come again, we confess that hope is rewarded and that exiles return.

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