Nuechterlein on Mimetic Servanthood

Excerpt from Paul Nuechterlein, “Holy Communion,” Contagion, Vol. 3, Spring 1996, pp. 204-206.

Mimetic servanthood as remedy to mimetic rivalry

I contend that the primary theme raised in connection with the table sacrament in the New Testament is that of servanthood. And, in light of mimetic theory, this proposed theme of the Eucharist might be said to be a remedy offered for mimetic rivalry. Such rivalry feeds the need to dominate the other, or to succumb and be dominated. A life nourished with the substance of Christ’s servanthood, on the other hand, offers the possibility of a new way of living outside of mimetic rivalry. Girardian anthropology postulates that there is nothing more basic to human life than mimetic desire and the rivalry which results from it. It would be fitting, then, for this most basic Christian practice — as basic as eating a meal — to sustain the believer in a life freed from the rivalrous effects of mimetic desire. I will attempt to show that this is precisely the picture of the sacrament which the New Testament presents to us with its theme of servanthood.

The four gospel accounts of the “Last Supper” are among the passages that deal most directly with the institution of the table sacrament. Beginning with the synoptic versions of the Lord’s Supper, Luke’s version is the one that stands out as significantly different. Luke adds an insertion to Mark’s narrative immediately after the instituting words: It is a parallel version of the “dispute about greatness.” Whereas Mark’s version comes near the middle of his story (10:41-45), Luke has placed it at the climax of his story as part of the passion narrative, adjacent to the institution of the Lord’s Supper. This “dispute” is an obvious instance of mimetic rivalry, (1) that has broken out despite the fact that the disciples have just received a taste of its remedy. They will need to continue to “do this in remembrance” (22:19) of the one who offers it to them. Apparently, a regular feeding will be required. Jesus goes on to explain the point of such an unusual diet:

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (22:25b-27)

In short, the disciples are to live in a way that subverts the normal order of things. In Luke’s order of things, such an explanation immediately follows the meal they will need to nourish them for this subverted manner of living — a meal to continually feed them with the substance of the Lord who came to serve.

Luke’s conjunction of the two passages causes one to wonder if the connection can also be traced to his synoptic partners, Matthew and Mark. A look at the context of the “Dispute about Greatness” shows some obvious sacramental language. When the Sons of Zebedee ask to be seated at Jesus’ side when he comes into his glory, Jesus responds, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matt. 20:22). Mark goes one better by adding a reference to baptism: “or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38). Placing the “dispute” passage near the story’s mid-point, with both a reference backwards to Jesus’ baptism and ahead to the Lord’s Supper and Passion, Mark has placed both sacraments under a banner of servanthood: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

The evidence of a connection between the table sacrament and the theme of servanthood goes beyond the synoptic gospels. St. Paul places a version of the synoptic Words of Institution in the wider context of his scolding of the Corinthians for their abuses at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34). The abuses are quite specific: contrary to modern worries about including the wrong people, (2) Paul claims that the Corinthians are wrongly excluding people from their meal — specifically, those of lesser material means. The more well-to-do members of the congregation are overdrinking and overeating, while poorer members go away hungry. We might conjecture that the wealthier members are caught up in a mimetic rivalry that results in their ignoring, or “sacrificing,” the needy among them. Paul’s remedy for mimetic rivalry is mimetic servanthood. He invokes the Words of Institution, emphasizing the phrase “Do this for the remembrance of me.” (3) I suggest his point is that a more fitting memorial for the crucified one would be to practice the kind of servanthood which he himself lived when he gave up his body and poured out his blood for all people. In short, disciples are to imitate their Lord in serving.

If Luke and Paul still seem only to imply the connection between the table sacrament and servanthood, John makes it boldly explicit. John 13:1-17 takes the tradition of the Lord’s Supper itself and substitutes for the traditional narrative (i.e., one containing the Words of Institution) a narrative whose entire focus is that of servanthood. The focus is not on the eating of bread and the sharing of the cup, but rather on the master’s kneeling down as a servant and washing his disciples’ feet. Jesus’ explanation in verses 16-17 — “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” — bears resemblance to features we have noted in both Luke and Paul. The first line bears resemblance to Luke’s discussion about who is greater. The second line carries Paul’s emphasis on doing, turning it into a beatitude. Moreover, this entire episode of modeling servanthood might be considered as an example of positive mimesis. Jesus is explicitly calling for imitation: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (13:15) Disciples who imitate this master who serves have a greater chance of avoiding the pitfall of mimetic rivalry.

These passages — Luke 22:14-27 (and parallels), 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, John 13:1-17 — present a strong case for servanthood as the theme that is most positively connected with the table sacrament in the New Testament.

1. “Dispute” is the NRSV translation of philoneikia; Walter Wink suggests that Luke 22:24-27 illustrates “just what Girard means by mimetic rivalry” (1992, 111).

2. Many church denominations have used Paul’s words (11:28: “Examine yourselves”) to require all manners of self-examination — thereby using the passage as an excuse for exclusion rather than as the exhortation for inclusion that I am suggesting.

3. Paul’s version of the Words of Institution is the only of the four which repeats “Do this in remembrance of me” after both the bread and cup; Luke records the phrase after the bread, while Mark and Matthew lack it altogether. We might even wonder if , “to remember,” and , “to imitate,” are etymologically related words.

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