Saturday, September 11, 2021

September 26, 2021 - 18th Sunday after Pentecost

                                    Biblical Words                                [735]

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22;  Psalm 124;  James 5:13-20;  Mark 9:38-50

Threats 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 (8:11-12; 9:1-19).  This is a deep fantasy for subjugated peoples, that those who hate and harass them will, at a divinely fixed time, be themselves eliminated and killed instead. 

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 their names. 

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. 

Psalm 124.  

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. 

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
      when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
      when their anger was kindled against us (verses 2-3, NRSV). 

The threat is restated with cosmic overtones –

the flood would have swept us away,

                  the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
      the raging waters (verses 4-5). 

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 “deep” of Genesis 1:2, and tehom rabbah, “great deep” of Isaiah 51:10, are echoes of the Babylonian tiamat. 

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

      from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
      and we have escaped (verse 7). 

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! 

The elders 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, NRSV). 

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). 

The epistle 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 world. 

The people of God are also saved from outside threats, one by one! 

 Mark 9:38-50. 

The Gospel reading (only 9:38-41 will be addressed here) presents the issue of outsiders in relation to the chosen group.  The outsiders here are not hostile, they are only competitors, at least as the disciples see them. 

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”! 

This passage 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, NRSV). 

There is 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 community! 

These 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 Rome, around 49 CE.  (Mentioned in the Latin biographer Suetonius’ Life of Claudius, 25.4.)  Things done and lives changed “in the name of Christ” were beginning to make a difference in the Roman world. 

Our Gospel passage suggests that the coming of God’uggests that the coming of God'od called all sorts of people to serve the common good.   will -- whether their political or rels reign (kingdom) is happening among many people of good will – whether their political or religious beliefs fit our exact requirements or not.  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. 

That human world, the oikoumenē, was the mission field where God empowered all sorts of people to serve the common good. 


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