In an early episode of NBC’s sitcom The Office, corporate America boss-extraordinaire Michael Scott hosts a Secret Santa party for his employees. Each person is supposed to bring a gift of not more than $20 to exchange with another. But Michael, wanting to add some spice to the evening, brings a $400 video iPod (remember those?). Wearing a lopsided Santa hat, Michael explains his rationale: “[A gift… it’s] like this tangible thing that you can point to and say, ‘Hey man, I love you this many dollars’ worth.’”
I often use that illustration with my students when I try to help them reflect on the complications of gift giving. Is it any wonder, I ask them, that a gift like Michael’s caused his Secret Santa party to descend into chaos? (You’ll have to watch the “Christmas Party” episode to see the sad, hilarious debacle.) At one level, it’s just a gift and shouldn’t be expected to surprise anyone, least of all at a Christmas party. We all know the choreography of exchanging presents. And yet, by giving a gift out of all proportion with the rules of the game, Michael not only disrupts the social equilibrium of the office he manages but also raises questions for us, the viewers, about what counts as an appropriate gift—and what criteria we might use to warrant our answer.
A Long-Running Conversation
We sitcom viewers are hardly the first ones in history to wonder about best practices when it comes to giving and receiving gifts. Throughout antiquity, philosophers, dramatists, orators, and others were engaged in a lively conversation about gifts.
The early first-century Stoic philosopher Seneca, to choose just one exemplar, dispensed definite opinions on the subject. Sounding a note that would have seemed entirely uncontroversial in his day, Seneca insists that “the one who receives a gift, no matter how graciously he has received it, has not yet completed all his duty; for it still needs to be returned.” Gifts are social glue, according to Seneca, inviting reciprocation and thereby solidifying and propelling relationships between patrons and beneficiaries. Nineteen centuries after Seneca, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida explored the allure of the “pure gift”—a gift given with no strings attached—but for him it remained an unachievable ideal, a haunting possibility never to be realized.
John Barclay, the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in the UK, asserts that the apostle Paul is part of this same long-running conversation about gifts and reciprocity. In his landmark book Paul and the Gift, published in 2015, Barclay argued that Paul depicts God as the ultimate gift giver—the word most English versions of Paul’s letters translate as “grace” is the same word first-century Greek speakers used for ordinary gift exchanges—and Jesus Christ as God’s definitive, climactic gift to humanity.
The Christ-gift, however, flouted the usual conventions of gift giving. God gave Christ—his own Son—to people who weren’t appropriate or fitting recipients, to “the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6), to “sinners” (5:8). And God thereby permanently disrupted the social order, ensuring that no one—regardless of class, gender, race, or achievement—could understand himself to be worse or better off than anyone else when it came to receiving the gift.
This self-understanding, in turn, became the seedbed for radical social experiments in Paul’s churches. To take just one instance: if slaves shared in the same grace of God as their masters, then the honor due to masters would have to be given in both directions (see Ephesians 6:5, 9), establishing a reciprocity that would eventually upend the hierarchies that were then—and now—taken for granted.
A Scholarly Breakthrough
Barclay’s book was celebrated for how it charted a way beyond what many scholars viewed as a permanent impasse in the study of Paul. On the one hand, Martin Luther and his many fellow devotees of Paul have understood Paul’s basic message to be one of free grace to those who cannot fulfill the requirement of the law, bringing reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of sins. On the other side, since the late 1970s, many scholars have argued that Paul wasn’t writing primarily about a vertical relationship with God—on that matter, they say, he simply agreed with Judaism that it was “by grace”—so much as he was fighting for horizontal reconciliation between estranged people groups, chiefly Jews and Gentiles. This latter position, the self-styled “new perspective on Paul,” tarred the older interpretation as inherently anti-Judaic, as though Paul found some defect in the covenant itself and wanted to found a new religion.
Barclay cuts through this tangled debate by insisting, with the “new perspective,” that Paul wasn’t attacking Judaism per se. After all, many Jewish texts of Paul’s day insisted that salvation was by grace. But, to Barclay, Paul did redefine grace, stretching it into a shape most Jews—and Gentiles, for that matter—wouldn’t have recognized as plausible. Thus Luther’s understanding became almost an inevitable outworking, in his very different medieval context, of Paul’s basic insight. Because God gave Christ indiscriminately to uncircumcised Gentiles as well as law-observing Jews, as Paul came to see firsthand on his missionary journeys, grace must be understood as incongruous, disclosing a mismatch between its staggering promise and its recipients’ status, whether their worth is pinned to ethnicity, social status, or moral achievement.
Anyone who read Paul and the Gift when it appeared was immediately struck by two things. The first was that this was a once-in-a-generation study of Paul, a feat of careful exegetical research and truly creative theological problem solving that all future serious study of Paul would have to reckon with. The second was that the book, especially in its later, commentary-style chapters, sounded inspiringly like a sermon, with a proclamatory force worthy of Luther and an existential urgency reminiscent of Karl Barth.
It was no surprise that the book ended up not only being debated on panels at the Society of Biblical Literature but also finding its way into sermons and Bible studies, despite its unwieldly scholarly apparatus. It quickly became clear that many working pastors and seminary professors needed a distillation of Barclay’s insights that they could pass along to students and studious congregants who weren’t looking to engage the full academic dimensions of Barclay’s argument.
Extending the Gift
At the prompting of many, then, Barclay has now written such a distillation, titled Paul and the Power of Grace. At roughly 200 pages, it’s less than a third of the length of Paul and the Gift yet somehow manages to keep all the highlights and even adds new material that teases out some of the practical implications left unspecified in the previous book.
The first three chapters set the scene by insisting that grace is a malleable term, capable of being extended—or “perfected,” as Barclay prefers—in multiple directions. Grace can be described, for example, as God’s giving exercised toward us prior to any of our movements toward God. Or, not necessarily alternatively but differently, grace can be understood as God’s giving in such a way that he prompts some action or response on our part—grace as “efficacious,” in theological jargon. Turning to Jewish texts with which Paul was likely familiar, Barclay argues that many of them perfect grace in various, not just singular, ways: “Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same.”
The ensuing chapters offer close readings of Galatians and Romans, arguing that Paul departs from dominant understandings of grace insofar as he perfects it in the direction of incongruity: Because of how Christ died and for whom he died, grace must be permanently understood as unconditioned by anything resident in us. Instead, it is a gift prompted wholly on God’s side, creating, rather than finding, worth in its recipients.
The final part of the book explores new territory. Rather than connect Paul’s message directly to contemporary hostilities between ethnic and other people groups, as many contemporary Pauline scholars do for understandable reasons, Barclay zeroes in on how the category of worth seems to shape the contemporary sensibilities of everyone from social media users to the beneficiaries of charity. He considers how Paul’s vision has the capacity to reframe the way we understand what constitutes worth: “In Paul’s good news,” he writes, “human worth is founded on the grace of God, which is not dependent on any form of symbolic capital, ascribed or achieved. No one can, and no one needs to, make themselves ‘worth it’ in the most important arena of all.”
I regularly teach Paul’s letters to future priests and other ministers, and I plan on thrusting this book into the hands of them all in every course on Paul I teach from here on. Paul’s unique understanding that the Christ-gift is a gift of incongruous grace has been the salutary firebomb for multiple generations of readers, from Augustine to John Wesley to Karl Barth, who have found it burning away all self-reliance and rooting them firmly in a hope anchored outside their own failures and private triumphs. Barclay’s books—and especially, perhaps, this newest one—have the potential to unleash that transformative fire in our generation. I’m doing my part to herald their gift far and wide.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and an assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Pittsburgh. His books include Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters and The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father.
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