Proper 21: Esther 7.1-6, 9-10; 9.20-22; Psalm 124; James 5.13-end; Mark 9.38-end
Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you: pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself, and so bring us at last to your heavenly city where we shall see you face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THIS week’s extract from the Book of Esther begins at the story’s denouement, when the wicked oppressor of the Jews, who are living in exile under Persian rule, is exposed as a traitor, and punished. The book is read in full each year at the start of the Jewish feast of Purim, and its brevity lends itself to that treatment.
For Jewish communities, it is a re-creation of an event that ended persecution, and deserved a celebration (Esther 9.20-22). But is it history? Jack Sasson suggests that its lists of names, Persian terminology, formulaic phrases (for example, Esther 5.3 and 7.2), and record of exotic customs have more in common with the Arabian Nights. He marvels that it is “constantly — and . . . unnecessarily — subjected to historical analysis” (“Esther” in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (eds), The Literary Guide to the Bible, Fontana, 1987).
The story hinges on a staged opposition between Mordecai, the righteous Jew of the tribe of Benjamin (Esther 2.5), and Haman the Agagite, who is promoted to be the chief state official (Esther 3.1). This recalls Saul’s victory against an Amalekite army led by Agag (1 Samuel 15), in which he disobeyed God’s instructions by taking Agag prisoner rather than executing him, and seizing booty instead of destroying it. Saul’s family lost the kingdom as a result.
Mordecai sets the record right through the mediation of his beautiful cousin Esther, whose position as queen he has partly engineered (Esther 2.1-18). Esther herself has her finest moment in revealing Haman as the villain who has plotted against the Jews, and, in so doing, damaging the king’s reputation (Esther 7.4).
Her character is given a little more complexity in the Apocryphal Greek version of the book. What she offers, through her persuasion of the king and in the generous dispensation that marks the happy ending of the matter, Sasson proposes, is an illustration of how good Diaspora Jews should live.
The Jews of this narrative find a deliverer in the pompous — even gullible — King Ahasuerus. He is not consciously an agent of God’s covenant with a particular people, but he is susceptible to influence, good and bad. In Esther, coached by Mordecai, good prevails.
Jesus is not resistant to good works done by those who do not follow him. When John comes to report the activities of the stranger who has been casting out demons, the fact that the man is not “one of them” interests Jesus far less than his invocation of Jesus’s name does (Mark 9.38-39).
Why should someone who recognises Jesus as the source of healing power, and uses it for good, be an enemy (Mark 9.40)? A touch of self-consciousness may colour the disciples’ anxiety to protect their teacher’s ministry. Not so long before, he had rebuked them for their lack of faith in failing to heal a boy afflicted with an evil spirit (Mark 9.14-29).
They still have much to learn about trusting the intentions and abilities of others — no doubt a formative lesson for the future builders of the Church, who would discover that, for some, commitment is a gradual process. For every Cornelius (Acts 10.22-48), there would be a Nicodemus (John 3.1-21; 19.38-40).
Those who approach Jesus in this more cautious way, trusting his name, but not abandoning all to become disciples, are surely the “little ones” of whom he speaks. Their first moves towards faith are precious to him, precious enough to make him issue a graphic condemnation of anyone who makes it hard for them to come nearer to him (Mark 9.42).
Committed followers are not immune from becoming stumbling blocks to themselves, either (Mark 9.43-48). Jesus is probably not actually commending amputation and deoculation as preferable to succumbing to temptation, but he is presenting an unmistakable choice of life or self-destruction — the worm-ridden rubbish heap of Gehenna.
Dennis Nineham points readers of this harsh passage to Isaiah 66.24 (Saint Mark, Penguin, 1963). The whole final chapter of Isaiah makes a backdrop to Mark’s perplexing words, setting the new Jerusalem, and a return for exiles to their rightful place against the destruction of those who choose not to be part of God’s promise of salvation. Mark knows the promise, but is not yet ready to show his readers how it is to be fulfilled.