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27th September 2015 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
25 September 2015

Readings

Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10 , 9:20-22

Esther is one of the women in the Bible who saves the people during a time of exile.  She was the ward of her cousin Mordecai and became queen of Persia and Media by winning a royal beauty contest after queen Vashti is discarded.  Maurice Andrew notes that the men in the opening part of the story are ridiculous and her banishment unjust.  She is silenced for her courage and Maurice presumes that is the reason that a New Zealand feminist paper is called Vashti’s Voices.[1]

Mark 9: 38-50

In the first section of this reading the disciples are rebuked for their exclusive attitude and Hooker suggests that it may reflect disputes within the early community where some leaders might have wanted to exercise a monopoly of certain gifts. 

The second section is a series of sayings about commitment to discipleship and ridding ourselves of the things that hold us back from the discipleship journey.  The word translated hell in some Bibles is Gehenna which is the name of the valley near Jerusalem where human sacrifices were once offered to the god Moloch.  At the time of Jesus it was used as a city rubbish tip, where fires burned continually, as they often do in rubbish dumps.  The requirement to avoid such obscurity and annihilation is to be salt—the chemical that in minimal amounts brings out the flavour in food and disciples that do not show the characteristics of disciples are not disciples just as salt without its food enhancing quality is not salt.  The good news is that it does not take much salt to make a huge difference.

Sermon

Our Old Testament reading this morning takes a tiny dip into the Book of Esther and I would well and truly suggest that you read that small book for homework.  It is a delightful story about a woman in a man’s world who, as Gunn and Fewell point out, started out in her story submissively pleasing men, but ends by playing the political game with all the independence, the shrewdness, and perhaps ruthlessness, that any man might display.[2]

The reading and expounding on scripture is central to reformed worship practice but the Bible is not a collection of divinely dictated legislation.  The divine voice speaks most eloquently when we read each complete Bible story and allow our imagination to transport us into the world of the story.  That is how we learn, grow and collect images in our mind that continue to be prompted by everyday events.  More importantly those promptings ask questions about our day to day life. 

Even after all the years I still  remember that I was gripped by the books of Mark Twain and whenever I drive past the lower reaches of the Waikato River I think of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin.  Those refreshed memories continue to ask about slavery, racism, and the innocence of youth.  They were serious questions that I didn’t ask when I read the stories and was simply inspired to build ineffective rafts on our too small creek.  Later in my teenage years those stories still fired my imagination as I paddled my kayak under the willows up the mysterious slow flowing creeks that found their way through swampy banks into Lake Horowhenua.  However by then the hidden empathy and race questions were also oozing out of the stored memory and informing who I was becoming.

The story of Esther is one of the really great stories that has found its way into the Bible and probably had a life in other ancient cultures before it was adapted to explain the festival of Purim.  Just as Christmas and Easter had non Christian beginnings the festival of Purim was also adapted from an even older non-Jewish festival and Esther’s story gives it a place in Jewish tradition.

Esther becomes Queen in a patriarchal society and the story begins with her predecessor, Vashti, being dismissed for failing to perform for the king’s friends at a drunken party.  Esther, a slave, is then chosen from a beauty contest to be the next queen.  However she is only able to visit the king when the king asks and the penalty for disobeying that rule is death.  Her cousin and guardian Mordecai exploits her position in the royal household for his own social and influential benefit.  In so doing he makes Harman so jealous that he plots to kill Mordecai and builds a gallows for that purpose.  He then gets the king to sign an order to kill Mordecai along with all the Jews in the kingdom including of course Esther.  Mordecai convinces Esther to risk her life by approaching the king and telling him of the plot which results in Harman being hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai.  The full text of Esther’s story is filled with interesting irony which speaks to the reader about truth, justice and divine intervention. 

Often repeated in the story is the idea that the laws of the Persians and the Medes may not be altered but because of love, empathy and compassion they are either ignored or rescinded by the king.

Furthermore although the story is set in an extremely patriarchal society it is Esther who in fact controls the men in her life.  Esther is treated like a chattel by her guardian and an expendable slave wife, by her husband.  But it is Esther’s story and it is Esther who saves her people and has the traitor executed so the real power was with Esther which is often the case in patriarchal societies.  

For those who are fond of quoting proof texts and treating them like legislation there is also a strong message in this story that empathy and love have more power than even the laws of the Medes and the Persians which everyone knows cannot be broken.

Harmon attempted to use unbreakable laws to further his own greed and quest for revenge.  Attributes he would have been better to discard in the same way Jesus metaphorically suggests that if our hand causes us to stumble we should cut it off. (Mark9:43) 

Last week a 32-year old hedge fund manager purchased the rights to an essential medication used by cancer and HIV patients and raised the price from $13.50 per pill to $750.  In this communication age he has become despised at least by the majority of the Western World.  His actions certainly highlight the fears our medical profession has about the effects of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership and its ability to extend the life of patents.  Patent law may seem as unbending as the law of the Medes and Persians. However the book of Esther informs our imagination that empathy and love can even move those laws to one side.  Not all jurisdictions recognise other nations patent laws and Sir Ray Avery and Stephens Chemicals have demonstrated that a skilled chemist can go down to the local pharmacy, by a bottle of pills and work out their secret chemical content by lunchtime.

Shifting the price from $13.50 to $750 is certainly exploiting the vulnerable which Jesus metaphorically descries as putting ‘a stumbling block before one of these little ones.’ (Mark 9:42)

Jesus’ disciples may also have been looking to gain from their own ‘Jesus franchise’ and complain that someone is performing good works in the name of Jesus but was not part of their group. 

Jesus responds by saying Whoever is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:40.)

I am reminded of the quote from her father’s poem in Malala’s book ‘When the voice of truth rises from the minarets, the Buddha smiles, and the broken chain of history reconnects’[3]   With the exception of some misguided souls, who would also claim to be disciples of Mohammed, the world recognises the outstanding contribution that young woman makes to girls education but she is Moslem not Christian.  However in this reading Jesus’ acceptance of those who do good works as people who do the work of God regardless of how they recognise or don’t recognise the divine action in the world and that is a vital concept in the global society in which we live.  God continues to work through the beauty of unrecognised Esther’s and even scheming Mordecai’s of our world.  Furthermore such anonymous folk might not even understand the wider implications of their actions.  Who could know that getting shot on a school bus would win a Nobel Prise?  For that matter who would have guessed that crucifying an unknown wandering Jewish rabbi would change the world? 

The reality is that humanity is a communal species and it is our stories, not our laws, that connect us and help us grow.  The thoughts and actions of individuals ripple through the human community as those thoughts and actions disperse and grow. 

A tsunami starts with a major earthquake in a critical location that sends huge ripples around the globe several times before finally abating.  The ripples of change in the human community often start out with a very small action or even an unplanned event by a reluctant hero. Such thoughts and actions are the salt that brings out our true human flavour.   Even events like Mordecai manoeuvring the slave Esther into the Royal beauty contest then exploiting her position for his own gain transform our world. 

The reaction to a critical event or simply an idea shared with a friend can trigger a reaction in someone else that grows the idea or builds on the experience until a great wave of change surges through society.  That is the way new ideas become facts and that is the way change affects the human community. 

Even in Jesus’ lifetime his actions were influencing others and even though that bothered his disciples the world was beginning to change. 

This incident, and Jesus’ reaction to it, is part of the Jesus story and stories use metaphors and symbolism.

In seeking to understand Jesus’ symbolic language it is confusing that the word Gehenna has been translated into the word hell.  Hell is a concept that evolved much later in Christian tradition and when Jesus referred to Gehenna the word was a place name for the local rubbish tip.  The recent fire at the Burwood dump for demolition material reminded us that rubbish dumps ignite through spontaneous combustion and burn for days, weeks and even longer if more rubbish is dumped on them.

Jesus’ suggestions about cutting of various parts of the body that causes people to stumble are likewise metaphorical for our habits and inclinations that draw us away from inclinations towards love and empathy.  The greed illustrated by the young hedge fund manager who hiked the price of essential medicine is certainly likely to have relegated him to the rubbish tip of history just as Haman’s greed and quest for revenge in Esther’s story destined him to the company of all the condemned of all the world’s stories.

In making the comment that ‘whoever is not against us is for us’ (Mark 9:40.) Jesus drew attention to the truth that we cannot hold onto ideas that other people will use and develop for the greater good.  The story of Esther reminds us that rules can change as circumstances change and human society becomes more human through love empathy and compassion not inflexible law.

But above all both our readings remind us that no matter how insignificant our stories may seem they inevitably become part of a larger story that creates a greater good.  By contrast our self-centred effort to profit by controlling others simply rubbishes us.  Above all it is our Christ focussed ideals and actions that make us part of the much larger story that transforms us and transforms our world.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999),p.299

[2] D.M. Gunn and D. Nolan Fewell, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible, pp.80-82, in Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999),p.305

[3] Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb I am Malala (London: Phoenix, 2013), p.13

 

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