Another peek at our recent Humor Issue (which we’re starting to run low on — grab yours before it sells out…!):

We all have a list of our favorite Seinfeld episodes. Mine are mainly clustered around seasons five and six (The Puffy Shirt, The Lip Reader, The Marine Biologist), with a special affection for season nine’s cartoonish absurdity (Festivus, Merv Griffin, etc). But with the exception of a couple from season one, there are virtually no episodes I’d switch off, so tight was the quality control on this show. Instead of a “best of” then, we’ve collected a few of the many instances where Seinfeld did the work of a good sermon.

1. “The Suit” (S6E7). The etiquette of gift-giving was one of Jerry and co’s favorite topics, and one from which they wrung a remarkable amount of material: which occasions warranted a gift (“The Dinner Party”), what kind and size was appropriate given the relationship involved (“The Deal”), under what circumstances if any you could rescind a gift (“The Pen”), etc. I’m pretty sure they coined the term “re-gift,” which has since passed into our popular vernacular. In “The Suit”, Jerry is offered a free Armani suit by fellow comic Kenny Bania, which he begrudgingly accepts, only to find himself ensnared by the hilariously elusive small-print of what constitutes a suitable ‘thank-you’. As the conditions of the gift shift, Jerry grows increasingly impatient, eventually giving the suit back. It is a bait-and-switch for the ages, and as such, works as an inadvertent yet biting commentary on Christian salvation. As anyone who has grown up in a pietistic setting knows, gifts that come with stipulations, relational or otherwise, aren’t really gifts at all, or you might say, the Gospel is only good news if God is not a cosmic Bania.

2. “The Library” (S3E5). Also known as the episode in which Philip Baker Hall steals the show as the no-nonsense “library detective” Mr. Bookman. In his outrageously scrupulous interchanges with Jerry, Mr. Bookman conflates the civic and moral uses of the law in such a way THAT will set an Arminian’s head spinning. Of course, as any pastor worth their salt will tell you, the distinctions between uses of the law are far more fluid in practice than we would care to admit. Which explains why a solitary question about a seemingly innocuous chore like doing the dishes can set a marriage on edge. The law is merciless, whatever form it takes; we put our trust in it at our own peril (Gal 2:21). If that wasn’t enough, the episode also contains Kramer’s immortal declaration, “The Dewey Decimal System – what a scam that was!”

3. “The Opposite” (S5E21) The all-time classic of Seinfeld (low-)anthropology and one of its single funniest episodes. “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right,” Jerry counsels a crestfallen George at the episode’s beginning, kicking off an escalating series of turnarounds for the would-be architect. You could call it a vision of depravity, or an extreme picture of Romans 7-style bondage, but that would be charitable—to George. On the other hand, the freedom George experiences, however brief, also hints at what a life free from fear, judgment, and contingency might actually look like. Brilliant.

4. “The Andrea Doria” (S8E10). We all know what it’s like to feel entitled to good things in life according to our virtue. We believe we deserve something—from the world, from God—in return for our hard work or sacrifice or devotion. But the Seinfeld writers understood that we often feel the same way about our grief. We insist that our tears are not in vain, that they earn us something. Exhibit A being this all-too-timely episode, in which George attempts to leverage his miserable history (and perceived victimhood) with a local co-op board in order to win a plush new apartment. When it comes to hard knocks, “I could go toe-to-toe with anyone on the planet!” he tells Jerry, lampooning the ways we create hierarchies of suffering by fashioning an actual bracket. In classic fashion, the gambit backfires at the last minute when moral currency proves no match for the harder kind ($$). A great illustration of justification by grievance—and where such a mentality leads.

5. “The Apology” (S9E9). Expressions of both gratitude and remorse were another hot topic for the New York Four. Together, they agonized over when an apology or thank-you was required, how large a time-window was permissible, what an appropriate response would be, and so on. But only in “The Apology” do we come anywhere close to repentance and—gasp!—forgiveness. A childhood friend of George’s named Hanky (played by a superb James Spader) is in recovery from alcoholism and going through step nine (“the making of amends”). George gleefully waits for his friend to issue him the apology he feels he has long deserved, but when Hanky refuses, it makes George so angry that he winds up in a rage-o-holic meeting. The episode milks our default assumptions about forgiveness for laughs a plenty, namely, we extend clemency only to those who have expressed sufficient remorse, meaning, only to those who have earned We then project this dynamic onto God, claiming that absolution is predicated on earnest repentance and/or “amendment of life.” Come to find out, if God waited for appropriate contrition, he would wait forever. God, fortunately for you and me, is not George Costanza any more than He is Kenny Bania.

6. “The Bottle Deposit” (S7E20) and “The Caddy” (S7E12). A tie, since both episodes feature Sue Ellen Mischke, bra-less wonder, heir to the Oh Henry candybar fortune(!), and Elaine’s long-time nemesis. Sue Ellen is everything Elaine is not—statuesque, beloved, non-neurotic—a walking condemnation of Elaine’s inadequacy you might say, or in theological terms, the embodiment of the Law. Many of us have such people in our lives, whose very existence represents a judgment on our own. Needless to say, Sue Ellen’s resurfacing prompts even more misanthropic behavior than normal in Elaine, particularly in “The Bottle Deposit” episode, where a crazed Ms. Benes, dead-set on bettering Sue Ellen for once—i.e., justifying herself—sets in motion a ludicrous sequence of events that ends in the destruction of JFK’s golf clubs and the explosion of a US Postal vehicle. This is the great irony of the law: it cannot inspire what it commands. If anything—and if these episodes are to be trusted—it inspires, well, the opposite. To drive the point home even more, “The Caddy” episode ends in an actual courtroom, rendering the characters’ implicit reality explicit for once. It goes without saying that all of Elaine’s attempts to vindicate herself before the judge backfire 100%. The law will not be mocked.

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