Biblical Words 
come to God’s people from the outside, but the disciples also find people who
are not against them.
. Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
At this point in our readings, the Lectionary
interrupts the Solomonic-related selections to tell another (and much later)
story of a great king and his court, especially of his counselors and his
wives. We skip to the book of
Esther, set in Persian times. Our reading gives only the climax of the
story and the Jewish celebration based on it.
In Jewish tradition this is one of “the Five
Scrolls,” each of which was read at a Jewish
festival during the year. The last of
the “Five,” Esther, is read at the festival of Purim, a minor festival in the 12th month of
the year (approximately February-March), normally just one month before the
Passover. Purim, meaning “lots,” had to
do with casting lots to determine a date or destiny for the coming year, though
little is known about the ancient festival.
The scroll tells the story of an attempted
pogrom against the Judeans, an organized plot
to dispossess and kill the Judean people living in dispersion among a host
people, in this case the Persians.
The top-ranking Persian official Haman became
incensed because the Judean Mordecai refused to bow down to him. In his fury Haman initiated the plot to have
the Judeans in all the Persian provinces killed on a certain day. Haman cast a lot to fix a divinely chosen
date for the slaughter (3:7).
At the last moment, as our reading relates, the
beautiful Judean woman Esther, who had become the king’s favorite wife,
exposed Haman’s plot to the king and Haman was hung high on his own gallows,
intended for his Judean enemy Mordecai.
The date fixed by lot becomes a day of joy, festival, and gift-giving
instead of a day of doom and death for the Judeans, and Mordecai proclaimed
that Judeans everywhere should observe it (9:20-22).
There is also a darker side to the story, omitted from our reading. The plot of the evil Persians is turned
against them and the Judeans are permitted to slaughter them instead of being
their victims (
Both this darker element in the story and the
names of the leading Jewish characters
indicate that Purim and its story is a Judean adaptation of Babylonian seasonal rituals and their accompanying myths.
The names “Esther” and “Mordecai” are simply the
goddess Ishtar and the god Marduk with slightly different pronunciations of
The beautiful goddess appears before the high god
and secures the deliverance of her people from the threats of their enemies,
and the war-god Marduk defeats his enemy in the older council of the gods and
takes over his status and powers.
Reduced (or elevated) to the modest level of pious
Judean people of the Diaspora, the drama of the old Babylonian myths lives on
in local legend and the religious calendar.
While the story in Esther (in its Hebrew version) makes
no direct reference to God, the Psalm reading vigorously corrects that
oversight. The psalm is an ecstatic
thanksgiving for deliverance by the Lord from powerful enemies who have
threatened to swallow up the people.
The threat is restated with cosmic overtones –
the flood would have swept us away,
This is the kind of language used in celebrating the
Lord’s triumph over the floods of chaos in, for example, Psalm 93.
This water imagery of chaos was conventional
throughout the Mesopotamian cultural sphere, reflected graphically in Marduk’s
triumph over Tiamat (“the Deep”) in the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma
Elish. The Hebrew tehom, the
The psalm continues by blessing Yahweh for such a
deliverance of the people, now pictured as the rescue of an innocent bird from
a snare, very appropriate to the Esther story:
We have escaped like a bird
. James 5:13-20
The Epistle reading
brings us to the last selection from the letter of James.
The reading concerns the ministry within the assembly of God’s
people. The means of this ministry are
prayer and songs. The people are urged
to pray when they suffer and to sing when they are joyful!
in particular have a ministry to the sick,
with prayer and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord. The power of prayer by the righteous is
urged, with examples of Elijah using prayer to prevent rain for three and a
half years, and then using prayer again to bring rain and prosperity – alluding
to I Kings 17 and 18.
Related to healing the sick is the importance of
confessing sins, an action in which believers minister to each other: “confess your sins to one another, and pray
for one another…” (verse 16,
The last thought
of the epistle is poignant. Those who
have been inside the community of faith may sometimes wander away. “If anyone among you wanders from the truth
and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a
sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a
multitude of sins” (verses 19-20).
is addressed to a modest but enduring community from which members sometimes
stray off, presumably to other religious groups or to godless ways of
life. Each member of the Christian group
is challenged to work with such individuals in the hope of occasionally winning
one back so that all may rejoice in the soul recovered from the sickness of the
of God are also saved from outside threats, one by one!
The Gospel reading
Someone outside the circle of Jesus’
chosen disciples is performing healing miracles using Jesus’ name. Jesus instructs the disciples that if such
folks are doing good they are on our side.
“Whoever is not against us is for us.”
This is a potentially difficult saying, especially
for organized religion.
The world is divided here, not into two groups, “we” and “they,” but into three: (1) we, (2) those who are against us, and (3) those who are not against us.
As the decades passed, much of Christian life
in the larger world had to do with living with this large third group. Christian churches in our own
time live among these same three groups – especially among the great number who
are simply “not against us”!
reflects a time when the name “Christ” had become the mark of his
followers. Outside people may be
favorably disposed toward those who bear the name Christ, and such people are
included in some way in the benefits of Christ’s coming: “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink
because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward” (verse 41,
here a curious relation between those who are confessing Christians and those
who do not confess but think Christians are nice people and good for the
circumstances might reflect a situation in Rome as early as the time of
the Emperor Claudius (reigned 41-54 CE), when the larger Judean [“Jewish”] community
there was disrupted by disputes over a “Chrestus.” Because of these disorders Claudius banished
all Judeans from
passage suggests that the coming of God’ Days of persecution and
suffering were still ahead, but the Jesus followers were not unalterably set in
a we-they opposition to the human world.
world, the oikoumenē, was the mission field where God empowered all
sorts of people to serve the common good.