INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
ESTHER 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22. The Book of Esther tells the heroic story of a Jewish woman married the king of Persia, Xerxes (in the Bible, Ahasuerus), who saved her people in the 5th century BC. It is a well-told tale still read in its entirety in synagogues on the Jewish Feast of Purim, said to have originated in this event. It also has relevance for the 20th century history of the Holocaust.
PSALM 124. Yet another of the so-called “Songs of Ascent” believed to have been sung by pilgrims approaching Jerusalem. It thanks God for deliverance from the assaults of some unknown enemy, possibly during a period of political instability and civil strife.
NUMBERS 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29. (Alternate) This confrontation between God, Moses and the Israelites arose because the people hungered for better food than the manna they had been given. Moses complained that he had too much responsibility, so God had him gather seventy elders who were also to share the prophetic spirit Moses had been given. Two others, not among the seventy, also received the same spirit, but Moses rebuked those who would limit the gift to the chosen seventy.
PSALM 19:7-14. (Alternate) This portion of a well-loved psalm rejoices in the sanctity of God’s moral law and asks for divine help in obeying it. The closing verse is often used as a prayer offered before a sermon.
JAMES 5:13-20. In an age when scientific medicine was still very primitive, healing the sick had spiritual as well as physical significance, as it still has for many. Anointing the sick with oil and prayer were seen as valid treatment. Repentance, confession and seeking forgiveness were also a very important part of the healing process. Note that the treatment James prescribed was perceived as God’s action, not that of the church elders.
MARK 9:38-50. The issue in this passage still troubles many: Who really is a follower of Jesus? In response to this dilemma posed by John, the son of Zebedee, Jesus appears to broaden the scope of discipleship: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” At the same time, there is a severity in Jesus’ words spoken in crisp metaphors. Preventing others from following Jesus in even the simplest of ways can be virtually unpardonable sin.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
The Book of Esther tells the heroic story of a Jewish woman married the king of Persia, Xerxes (in the Bible, Ahasuerus), who saved her people in the 5th century BC. It is a well-told tale still read in its entirety in synagogues on the Jewish Feast of Purim, which is said to have originated in this event. This passage not only gives us the climax to the story of a courageous woman, but of a people’s freedom from fear and from annihilation its enemies.
ESTHER 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
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Scholars believe that the Book of Esther is one of the latest in the OT to have been written. Dates as far apart as the 5th century BCE soon after the reign of Xerxes (486-465 BCE) and the Maccabean period (c. 165 BCE) have been proposed. No certain historical clues are evident in the text. Its provenance, however, is thought to have been the eastern Diaspora in Persia (modern Iraq and Iran). More than likely it came into the oral tradition through repeated telling from generation to generation. A Greek manuscript in the possession of the Vatican Library (Codex Vaticanus) contains no less than six additions not in the best Hebrew manuscripts. These are all thought to have been created by authors not happy with the original. The name of Yahweh appears nowhere in the Hebrew text, whereas the deity and sacred rites of Judaism appear everywhere in the additions.
The triumph of good over evil, the courage of the heroine and fortuitous circumstances still have relevance for the 20th century history of the Holocaust. Generally speaking, an optimistic view of history permeates the narrative. It is a secular and humanist story rather than a religious one. As Gene M. Tucker, of Emory University, Atlanta, GA, described it in his article in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, the Jews took care of themselves, but they were also very fortunate in making use of their opportunities. In so doing, they controlled their own destiny. This gave them a sense of identity which enabled them to survive in the face of impending catastrophe. This is certainly the way the people of Israel lived through the several conflicts of the 20th century and now are involved in a similar struggle in the 21st century. That is the primary significance of the story of Esther.
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This psalm purports to be yet another of the so-called “Songs of Ascent” possibly sung by pilgrims approaching Jerusalem. It thanks God for deliverance from the assaults of some unknown enemy during a period of political instability and civil strife. Extended periods of Persian and Greek domination in post-exilic times provided many opportunities for conspiracies against overlords. Threats of retaliatory reactions might well have been the occasion for this strife. Or the ever present perils of travel in ancient times may have been the real threats behind this song of deliverance. The psalmist makes the point that without Yahweh’s help, there would have been no escape from destruction.
Several powerful images intensify the message of the psalm. Every line manifests fear. These could well be vignettes from the pilgrims’ journey to Jerusalem. They also render vividness to the poem suggesting that the pilgrims had experienced some very traumatic threats in the recent past. In vs. 3, we catch sight of a fierce attack by angry wild beasts bent on devouring weaker members of the group. In vss. 4-5, a raging flood plunges down a dry wadi through which their path to the holy city lies. The road up from Jericho to Jerusalem has many such dangerous places. The wild beasts again threaten in vs. 6. A bird escaping from a fowlers’ snare in vs. 7 reiterates the peril from which the pilgrims have been delivered.
Nonetheless, there is a larger vision in the mind of the psalmist. The theological concept of God as Lord of History, prevalent throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, has all but vanished from our modern, secular frame of mind. Yet the fear associated with civil strife or international conflicts is ever present. Authorities warn us of the dangers of criminal elements to even the most stable societies. Despite the steadily decreasing incidence of violent crime, political opportunists never cease to cry out hysterically for more severe penalties and longer incarceration for the convicted. More and more armaments flood into every possible war zone to kill and maim the most vulnerable. Diplomats struggle with the difficulties inherent in any intervention in the apparently incessant, vest-pocket wars which have followed the end of colonial exploitation and the ideological confrontations of the Cold War.
In 1945, the noted historian of Christian missions, Kenneth Scott Latourette, published a penchant seventh volume to his History of the Expansion of Christianity. He reviewed the global tragedies of World Wars I and II and the Great Depression when the tide of 19th century liberalism and missionary enthusiasm came to an abrupt end on the battlefields of Europe and Asia. He came to the conclusion that although the Christian church had failed miserably and had been forced to retrench in many parts of the world, it may well have been more potent at mid-century than at the beginning of the period with which he was dealing.
In1992, British mystery writer, P.D. James, set her futurist novel Children of Men in Oxford, England, in 2021. Her parable described how a declining birthrate, tribal, racial and civil conflicts, socially sanctioned violence by security forces, extended imprisonment and capital punishment for criminals brought England to the point of total social, economic and political collapse. Hope lay in the love of God for this confused, conflicted, terrified world, manifested in a baby born to powerless parents in a rude shelter amid the degradation and despair of all but a small, humble, faithful minority committed to reconciliation, freedom and peace. The parallel with the story of the first Christmas is obvious.
This is the same Spirit that motivated the psalmist to proclaim trust in Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth. However imperfect our witness to faith and obedience to Jesus Christ, we still stumble forward into the 21st century, for God is with us.
NUMBERS 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
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(Alternate) This confrontation between God, Moses and the Israelites arose because the people hungered for better food than the manna they had been given. Moses complained that he had too much responsibility, so God had him gather seventy elders who were also to share the prophetic spirit Moses had been given. Two others, not among the seventy gathered at the tabernacle, also received the same spirit, but Moses rebuked those who would limit the gift to the chosen seventy.
This story has all the signs of being a composite of at least two or more traditions. The complaints about manna has many similarities with the Exodus narrative in which the Israelites wished they had not left the flesh pots of Egypt. They had strong memories of plentiful and delicious food. The people weeping at the doors of their tents (vs. 10a & b) and Yahweh’s angry response mark a transition to another story. The remainder of the selected readings (vss.10c-29) form a coherent narrative of the institution of the seventy elders. There is some debate about the exact way in which the stories have been conflated.
Moses’ lament about having too much responsibility (vss. 11-15) sounds petulant but also realistic. He may have been the first spiritual leader, but certainly not the last, to complain about the burden laid on him by his call to service. Is there a good preaching text in that excerpt, especially for the installation of a new pastor?
The final segment of the reading raises an interesting question: How is spiritual leadership to be shared? Various traditions arrange this in different ways. In the lifetime of this writer, my own denomination has moved from a very exclusive concept of ministry to one that is now the most open of any. The male ordained minister with strict character qualifications was regarded as the special leader of the congregation without equal, despite the existence of lay elders ordained to assist. Spiritual leadership now extends to all members of the church regardless of order, gender and sexual orientation. The only requisites are faith in Jesus Christ and commonly discerned spiritual gifts. As vs. 29 implies prophecy is the gift of God.
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(Alternate) This portion of a well-loved psalm rejoices in the sanctity of God’s moral law and asks for divine help in obeying it. The closing verse is often used as a prayer offered before a sermon.
This second part of the much moved psalm reflects the Persian period (6th-4th centuries BCE) when the tradition of a renewed commitment to Mosaic law dominated every aspect of life in Israel. The numerous synonyms for the law, five in all, also recall the Wisdom literature such as Psalm 119 and Proverbs. So too do the phrases “making wise the simple” (vs. 7) and “the fear of the Lord” (vs. 9). The poem places great emphasis on separation of the faithful Israelite from his pagan neighbors by maintaining rigid adherence to the law and its provision for ritual purity and personal innocence. He prays to be guarded from even the most inadvertent sin (vs. 13) that might corrupt him. The poet is imbued with the spirit if not the actual influence of the 5th century prophet Ezra.
Meditating on such things played a large part in the religious tradition of Israel in late pre-Christian times. The Pharisees of New Testament, and in particular Saul of Tarsus, represented prime expressions of this legalist tradition. The closing verse is often used as a prayer offered before a sermon, but it has more to do with making a spiritual gift acceptable to God equal to a sacrifice on the altar.
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In an age when medicine was still very primitive, healing the sick had spiritual as well as physical significance. Prayer and anointing the sick with oil were seen as not only valid treatment, but at times the only treatment available. Note that the treatment James prescribed was perceived as God’s action, not that of the church elders (vss. 14-15). Repentance, confession and forgiveness of sin also played a part in dealing with illness. Furthermore, prayer and helping the wandering disciple return to God’s ways had effective moral and spiritual results.
The sky-rocketing costs of modern medical technology, pharmacology, public and private medical insurance plus the reduction in tax-funded medical services has increased public anxiety about health care to unprecedented levels. Infectious diseases once thought to have been conquered by antibiotics drugs have returned with renewed vigour. Greatly increased international travel has exposed every corner of the globe to diseases once confined to isolated regions. Scientific research has only begun to unravel the mysteries of the human genome or immune systems. Every political party has proclaimed its favoured solutions to the growing global problems of ill health due to overpopulation, environmental degradation and hopeless poverty. Television has brought scenes of unbelievable human suffering into every living room. In such circumstances, what good ever will come from prayer, praise, confession and anointing?
Although now practised only in limited ways, such disciplines as personal prayer, public healing services, anointing with oil and private confessions have never completely disappeared from the church. Nor should they, if we take this passage seriously. James advocated the spiritual approach to ill health in a world that knew little else. Of course this cannot be the only means we take today to respond to a global pandemic. Nor can medical science and technology be isolated from the spiritual foundations on which they were built. Many pioneers of modern medicine were devoted church members first and foremost. Motivated by faith, they began their research careers within the fellowship of the Christian church. They recognized that they were discovering the handiwork of God as they solved some of the riddles of healing, health and wellness.
A nurse with nearly 40 years of experience was stricken with breast cancer and forced into early retirement. Nearly thirty years later, she had lived through three traumatic courses of chemotherapy. Despite poverty and the physical limitations of advancing years, she still maintained active participation with other seniors in her local congregation. Although reluctant to share her deepest feelings or personal faith even with her closest relatives, her attitude received praise from her doctors and inquiries from a scholar researching the relationship between attitude, emotions and wellness in cancer patients. She died just short of her eightieth birthday still contributing to medical science’s search for experimental medications that would help find relief for her particular recurrent form of the disease that took her life.
Our language expresses the spiritual basis of all healing, health and wholeness. These ordinary English words – healing, health, wholeness and holy – have their derivation in their ancient Germanic root word hale.
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The issue in this passage still troubles many: Who really is a follower of Jesus? In response to this dilemma posed by John, the son of Zebedee, Jesus appears to broaden the scope of discipleship: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
How wide should we open this door? Some Christians would prefer that is be kept firmly guarded against all who do not confess Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour and Lord, or express a firm conviction by repetition of the creedal formula of the Holy Trinity. Others would regard all people of good will open to the inspiration of the Spirit and able to participate actively in the mission and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth to the contemporary world. Ambiguity remains.
Dialogue among different religious traditions, said a recent authoritative declaration of the Roman Catholic Church, begins with defining where we stand in relation to others who do not share the same doctrinal position. Yes, replied representatives of other Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions, but let us charitably work together for the common good of the whole community. A radical and rigid orthodoxy may speak the truth from the perspective of one tradition and may well be necessary for theological debate. However, such a declaration may actually impede ecumenical and interfaith dialogue in the short term. The spiritual reality to be hoped for is that we have not yet heard the last word.
A Buddhist writer quoted a frequently recited approach to living in the modern, pluralistic world: think globally and act locally. We need to contemplate the interdependence of all people and all things. Nothing exists except in relationship with all other things. Even our smallest actions have vastly greater consequences. Is this not what Mark quotes Jesus as saying in this passage?
At the same time, there was a severity in Jesus’ crisp metaphors in this passage. None of these exaggerated metaphors should be taken literally. Acting on any one of them would be disastrous to ourselves and to those with whom we are associated. The warning remains clear nonetheless. Preventing others from following Jesus in even the simplest of ways can be virtually an unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit.