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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Esther 7:1–6, 9–10, 9:20–22; James 5:12–20 & Mark 9:38–50

Today’s first reading was from the Book of Esther, and I thought that it might be helpful to provide a summary of the book so as to give you some context for today’s reading.

The book is set during the reign of King Ahasuerus, otherwise known as Xerxes, the Persian king who is perhaps most well known for his ill fated invasion of Greece in 480BC, which has been immortalised in the story of the 300 Spartans, who resisted the advance of Xerxes’ great army for 3 days at the Battle of Thermopylae.

The refusal of the Persian queen (Vashti) to put in a public appearance at her husband’s banquet, and her consequent dismissal, create an opportunity for a young Jewish woman named Esther. She will be chosen as Vashti’s successor, while all the time concealing her Jewish identity. 

An orphan, Esther is cared for and adopted by her cousin Mordecai. When she is taken into the king’s palace as his wife, Mordecai is not far away, sitting just outside at the king’s gate. There, he happens to overhear a planned conspiracy on the king’s life. He passes this information along to Esther, who in turn transmits it to her husband. The culprits are arrested and hanged for their crime.

King Xerxes’ second-in-command is Haman. Because Mordecai refuses to bow before and honour Haman, Haman is so enraged that he determines to kill both Mordecai and his people, whom he now knows are Jews. To that end, he persuades Xerxes, after he casts a lot to determine the date of the killings, to authorise a royal command that will call for the elimination of the Jews on the forthcoming twelfth day of the month of Adar.

When he learns of the command, Mordecai implores Esther to use her position to speak on behalf of him and the Jewish people before her royal husband. At first hesitant, she subsequently agrees to get involved, even if it comes at the cost of her own life. Her strategy is first of all to host a banquet to which her husband and Haman are invited. Without revealing any of her agenda, Esther asks her husband to join her for a second banquet the following day.

In between these two banquets, Mordecai manages to offend and anger Haman a second time. Haman’s wife, Zeresh, advises him to have Mordecai hanged on a seventy-five-foot-high gallows before he attends the second banquet later that evening. At this second banquet Esther reveals herself as a Jew and Haman as the villain who would mastermind the killing of the Jews, including her. Interestingly, Xerxes has Haman hung on the gallows that Haman built for Mordecai. He doesn’t have Haman executed because of his hatred of the Jewish people, but because Haman was observed trying “to make a move” on his beloved Esther. At least, that is the way it looked to the king.

Esther now pleads with her husband to retract his earlier command. While Xerxes cannot cancel this edict, he can publish another allowing the Jews to fight and defend themselves. The Jews fight and defend themselves exceedingly well, and on the very day of the very month that the earlier lot had designated for their annihilation, it is the Jewish people who prevail.

The day after the battle, the fourteenth of Adar, Jews throughout Persia celebrate the relief from their enemies. Because fighting continued a day longer in the capital Susa, the Jews living there hold their festive celebrations on the fifteenth of Adar. Mordecai dispatches letters to all the Jewish families calling on them to celebrate these two days, depending on where they live. These two days respectively are to be identified as “Purim.” Purim, which is also known as the ‘Festival of Lots’ is still celebrated by Jewish people throughout the world today. 

One of the unique features of the Book of Esther is the total absence of any reference to God. In that one respect the book is Godless. It is the one and only book in the Old Testament that contains no “God language”. The absence of any reference of God from such a dynamic narrative raises the following questions: Is God’s presence real even if his name is absent? Can the power and sovereignty of God be affirmed even if his name is not sounded? If God is unnamed, is he therefore uninvolved? 

All commentators on Esther agree that one of its meanings is the preservation of Israel in Persia when the odds against survival are so overwhelming. But how does one explain such survival? A stroke of good luck? An inept Persian king? An overzealous, bigoted Haman who can keep neither his mouth shut nor his racist feelings under control? All of the above? Or is the best answer to be found in an affirmation of the protective care of God for His chosen people?

Perhaps as equally troubling as these questions are several of the verses from today’s gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark, particularly those where Jesus instructs the disciples to cut off their hand or their foot, and to tear out their eye if these parts of the body should “cause them to stumble”. Jesus has already warned the disciples against causing a fellow believer to stumble, or in other words, to be lead astray. Jesus refers to these fellow believers as “one of these little ones”, which could mean a young child, but which also means a believer who is new to the faith and still learning about the faith, and therefore is more easily lead astray than someone who is more mature and sure in their faith.

There are various ways that a disciple could sin, and Jesus uses the hand, foot and eye as metaphors for different types of sin. Jesus uses hyperbole to stress the need for dire action to avoid committing sin. Jesus does not mean the literal removal of body parts since this cannot deal with sin, which, as he has already explained in Mark’s Gospel, is a matter of the heart. Physical deformity prevented priests and private individuals from full access to the temple. But in light of Jesus’ teaching on ritual purity in chapter 7 (verses 1–23) of Mark’s Gospel, sin that deforms the character is far more serious than ritual purity, since it disqualifies a person from eternal life in the world to come. Therefore causing oneself to stumble is just as serious as causing a little one (v. 42) to stumble, and so it requires radical measures to prevent it from happening, which is the point that Jesus is making.

Jesus was using these instructions to comment on the importance of the behaviour of members within the community of faith. Previously he had dealt with the issue of the disciples’ love of status, when he told them that, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37 NRSV) 

In today’s passage, when John tells Jesus they tried to stop a man teaching in his name who was not one of them, their self-importance leads them to think that they, like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, can define who is “in” and who is “out” of God’s people. However, for Jesus’ name to have effect, the man must have already “welcomed” Jesus Into his life. The disciples therefore must accept all who follow Jesus, whether or not they belong to the disciples’ particular group. 

I wonder sometimes if we in the church, like the disciples, get it wrong if we don’t accept other followers of Jesus, just because they belong to a different Christian denomination, or if they practice a different form or style of worship from us?

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