Belonging Esther: 7. 1-6 9-19, 9. 20-22 James: 5. 13-20 Mark: 9. 38 – 50
Esther would not be the first woman in history to utilise her beauty to find a way around her cultural powerlessness and so achieve a significant goal.
Her techniques had similarities to another event that took place in Jesus’ time when Herodias’s daughter Salome danced provocatively before a drunken King Herod, who, like Artexerxes 500 years earlier, had promised up to half the Kingdom to whatever request was made.
Esther lived some two and a half thousand years ago; a Jewish woman married to the King of Persia. So total was the power exercised by King Artaxexes that no-one came into his presence without an invite, which was of course tantamount to a summons.
For a woman – even the King’s wife - to appear in his presence without an invite was to seriously risk summary execution. Esther relied on her relationship with the King and her exceptional beauty, dressed in the finest robes available. ‘Splendid attire’ and ‘majestically adorned’ is how one version describes it.
As she appeared in his presence she was radiant and loving, but her heart was frozen with fear. The King was very angry at her intrusion initially, seeing only the grossly impertinent invasion of his presence – and by a woman no less. Esther must have feared her bold plan had failed in spite of its meticulous attention to detail. She expected to die and no doubt all those present with the king assumed that’s what would happen.
Here is where the contrast between the action of Esther and that of Herodias and Salome begin to be so apparent.
Esther presented in the full beauty and dignity of her status as the King’s wife.
Salome danced provocatively before a drunken Herod.
Esther acted out of love for her people. She sought to get rescinded an order that the King Artaxexes had been tricked into signing. Herodias was taking revenge by death on John the Baptist. She was tricking Herod into fulfilling a promise made in the heat of lust before his assembled dignitaries.
Esther was moved by love, Herodias by hate, Esther maintained her integrity by trusting in God, Herodias corrupted her daughter by exploiting Herod’s lasciviousness.
Esther’s goal was Life, Herodias’s death.
The Jewish people celebrate Esther and their deliverance at the feast of Purim, the second most important after the Passover.
This was not the first order given by a monarch or even a parliament to exterminate the Jewish population and there were many to follow. The highest number of deaths during the Crusades was not the infidels who occupied Jerusalem, but the Jewish communities that were destroyed throughout Europe as the Crusaders travelled back and forth. Three times English kings ordered the expulsion of the Jews from Britain, the confiscation of their property and death if they failed to comply.
Various popes ordered slaughters of the Jews and in total the Christian Church has killed more Jews than Hitler. The suffering of Jewish communities at the hands of others is one of the great disgraces of history.
Those times were not called the Dark Ages for nothing. Thanks to the Reformation and the Enlightenment and the development of education and travel, most of the Western world has long moved on from those times. We have also recognised that the persecution of any people is a grotesque violation of every Gospel value, but as we have seen, throughout the 20th and into this century some persecutions continue.
Esther dared to take a stand and through her beauty, her courage and her skill she persuaded the King to save her people’s lives.
Taking action for the welfare of others has always been central to our faith as Christian people.
I know how many of you put yourselves out to assist others around you.
Little acts of neighbourliness, visiting others in distress, affirming and encouraging all, mean a lot to both givers and receivers. These actions are what build community among us. Sometimes in church we celebrate a birthday – as we get older yet another one can seem a little alarming, but I say “Rejoice!” – never be ashamed of your years. Of course there’s something special about the young one’s birthdays – they reach in unseemly haste for ‘grown-up’ status where we of the senior tribe have a little less enthusiasm. Wasn’t it a delight last week to offer sixteen claps for Tatum?
Also, as we commemorate Hospital Chaplaincy week we are reminded of today’s Epistle from James urging us to minister to the sick, to seek and support the healing of bodies, minds and spirits. To be ministered to sensitively by a visitor who listens or who just sits with you and holds your hand when you are in hospital or sick at home is to receive true healing – Of course it can be tempting to off-load our own list of ills and ailments of cares and worries to the discomforted one, which can hardly enhance their healing.
We are surprised, I suppose, at how early in the Christian story there were networks outside the central group. Here were the disciples confronted with a man ministering in Jesus’ name without the official stamp of their approval.
We can’t have this! – especially if he appears to be successful.
Unsurprisingly, they demand he cease his ministrations.
Is this the earliest form of illegal down-loading – tapping in to Jesus’ ministry without paying the royalties? You can’t have people going round healing and leading people to faith – people that we don’t know about and haven’t approved! What will the world come to?
What if they’re Presbyterians (The twelve were all Anglicans of course)?
So there is a fear of others right there at the formation of Christian community. Authoritarian regimes of all kinds, religious or secular, are paranoid about their own vulnerability and employ sadistic militia to terrify or otherwise threaten any challenge to their own version of truth. There are always groups who deal with any alleged deviation by simply cutting the offenders off. I knew a woman in Rangiora who would pass her dearly-loved mother in the street and receive not a hint of recognition – the girl’s crime was to marry a Christian man who was Anglican and was therefore deemed to be lost to the true faith and thus by direct link she would join her husband on his way to Hell.
It is a risk we will take, I think, for one of our great strengths is a willingness to allow all Anglicans to develop their faith in ways that work for them, and apart from a few basic foundational beliefs enjoy the freedom to explore in any direction we like. This can create problems – when asked ‘What do Anglicans believe?' we can declare that we believe that God is love and that all of us are called to rejoice in this truth and seek to practice it in our lives and perhaps also that we believe that our faith is an unfolding journey of discovery and what we know today we may change tomorrow and praise God for the freedom to do so.
So Jesus was adamant that those who were ministering effectively and obviously with God’s blessing should neither be forbidden to do so nor forced into the disciples’ mould.
That says a great deal about Jesus' confidence in himself and his ministry – he was not afraid of being out-done by a competitor.
It must have been a little humbling to have to return and say to this man – “We’re sorry, we should not have interfered – you are doing good in Jesus’ name and he is very happy for you to continue doing so.”
I’m intrigued that Jesus went on to first affirm that every act of good is an act of God, even the simple task of providing a glass of water. It’s every speaker’s dread that half way through your most eloquent speech ever a nasty tickle rises up in the throat and refuses to be denied. The thoughtfulness of the water deliverer is greatly appreciated.
Then he changed tack and issued a warning against misleading, dishonouring, and destroying the faith of the little ones who believe in him. Little ones referred not only to children but also to those of the lowest social order who lived the hardest lives and had the least hope. Faith in Jesus lifted them above their rock-bottom status and made them the equal of everyone else. They had hope for a better life, a vision of a future with substance. To take all that away was indeed a dreadful thing to do. Jesus emphasises his disgust at such destructive behaviour with powerful hyperbole about cut-off hands and feet and suffering with the worm that never dies and the fire that never goes out. Not a bedtime story and one greatly abused by those who take it literally in order to turn Jesus into a tyrant who visits eternal damnation on those who disagree with him. What those who would turn us into terrified wailers and teeth-gnashers are really looking for is more power for themselves and more power to scare their followers into submission.
We began with the potent story of Esther, who risked death to secure freedom for her people and by her courage and the comparative benevolence of King Artaxexes saw the re-establishment of the Hebrew people in their own land. She loved her neighbours and saw them filled with joy.
A model, perhaps, of Jesus, who gave his life to secure freedom for all people and by whose courage we are established as members of the Kingdom of heaven.
Is it not interesting that today’s Gospel concludes with Jesus’ call to be at peace with each other?
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