Pentecost 18B (30 September 2012)



  • Esther 7:1-6,9-10;9:20-22 and Psalm 124
  • James 5:13-20
  • Mark 9:38-50

First Reading: Esther

This week the RCL provides for a reading from the Book of Esther as part of its series of texts from the Wisdom literature of ancient Israel. The excerpt from Esther comes from the climax of the story, when Esther achieves the reversal of a royal decree calling for the murder of Jews across the Persian empire and has its author executed.

The following extract provides a helpful summary of the book:

The Book of Esther is named after its Jewish heroine. It tells the story of the plot of Haman the Agagite, jealous and powerful vizier of King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) of Persia (485-464 B.C.), to destroy in a single day all the Jews living in the Persian Empire. He is moved to this out of hatred for the Jewish servant Mordecai, who for religious motives refuses to render him homage. The day of the proposed massacre is determined by lot. Meanwhile Esther, niece and adopted daughter of Mordecai, is chosen queen by King Xerxes in place of Vashti. She averts the pogrom planned against her people and has the royal decree of extermination reversed against Haman and the enemies of the Jews. Mordecai replaces Haman, and together with Esther, works for the welfare of their people. The event is celebrated with feasting and great joy, and the memory of it is to be perpetuated by the annual observance of the feast of Purim (lots), when the lot of destruction for the Jews was reversed for one of deliverance and triumph by Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai. (New American Bible)

Within the Hebrew Bible, Esther is the last of the five scrolls (Heb: megilloth) that are read on special feasts of the Jewish liturgical year. It is the liturgical text for the feast of Purim.

Esther is not a historical document, but more like a story set in a past historical situation. It reflects the reality that the Jewish community has often been the object of racial and communal violence, and it celebrates the hope that God will intervene to rescue the covenant people. Similar themes are celebrated in the biblical story of Joseph (Gen 37 & 39-45) and in the deuterocanonical story of Judith (Jud 8-16).

Like the account of the Innocent Victim in WisSol 2:12-5:23, such stories of the oppressed innocents triumphing over all foes provided the model for early Christians to understand Jesus as the vindicated one. Paul’s statement “that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:4) reflect precisely these “scriptures.” A similar idea can be seen in the interpretation of Psalm 16 (“you will not abandon my soul to hades, nor let your Holy One see corruption”) attributed to Peter in Acts 2:22-28.

The Book of Esther is a story that assumes communal violence and celebrates a vindictive attitude towards the enemies of the covenant community. These themes are not restricted to Esther, but are to be found in many parts of the Hebrew Bible and — in spectacular form — in the Book of Revelation within the NT. Apocalyptic literature is especially prone to such violent imagery as it emerges from communities in crisis and draws hope from the dream of divine violence against the enemies of the present victims.

A reading of Scripture that is informed by the wisdom and spirit of Jesus will reject such violent imagery for the divine re-ordering of society. While some of the canonical representations of Jesus found in the NT have themselves mortgaged the legacy of Jesus to such violent apocalyptic fantasies, the core of Jesus’ teaching and the clear example of his own practice is non-violent even when confronting lethal oppression.

Unlike the story of Esther, which finds its climax in the hanging of Haman, in the story of Jesus it is the Holy One who hangs on the cross. In that counter story of redemption, God draws the violence into her own self rather than projecting it upon the enemies of the Beloved.

Alternative first reading: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29

At the heart of this passage is the story of Moses’ divine blessing being shared with a wider circle of people, rather than being restricted to him alone. The focus is clearly the declaration of Moses:

Are you jealous for my sake?
Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,
and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!

This celebration of a generosity of spirit on the part of both Moses and God is one of the key texts for an inclusive interpretation of faith, one able to embrace diversity and eschew clutching at exclusive privileges. It is a similar “mind set” to that attributed to the Christ figure in the early hymn cited by Paul in Phil 2:5ff:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave …

This is a very different “spirit” from that seen in a defensive traditionalism that needs to exclude those who are different and restrict the life-giving presence of the Spirit to certain groups or classes of people. The outlook celebrated in this ancient story seems more akin to that attributed to Jesus in the Sayings Gospel Q:

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine,
and you say, ‘He has a demon;’
the Son of Man has come eating and drinking,
and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children. [Luke 7:33–35]

Second Reading: James 5:13-20

One of the many themes that James shares with the early Jesus traditions is a suspicion of wealth. These are uncomfortable words for those of us wealthy enough to own and use a computer, as that indicator alone places us high in the relative prosperity stakes.

Prayer and Healing

The RCL reading takes up the classic NT text for the sacrament of Holy Unction, or anointing.

Prayer for healing continues to be an important part of many Christian communities, and its appearance in James is yet another of the points where this book seems to be preserving authentic traditions that have their roots in the practice and teachings of Jesus.

However we seek to explain this dimension of Christian practice, it remains the case that Christians find strength and healing (if not always a “cure”) when prayers are said on their behalf. The emphasis on miraculous cures in some Pentecostal communities may strike us as exaggerated, but it is one expression of the same instinct expressed in James as much as the votive candles lit for the sick at a Mass for Healing.

* See also Jesus as Healer

Gospel: Gentle words, hard words

The Gospel extract presents us with some “comfortable words” as well as some of the most harsh teachings attributed to Jesus.

The gentler words are to be found in Jesus’ response to the self-serving angst of the disciples who have just “bounced” an unauthorized exorcist who was invoking the name of Jesus to heal people but was not one of their band. Jesus rebukes the disciples and encourages a more open and inclusive attitude on their part.

Of course, elsewhere in the tradition Jesus is remembered as saying precisely the opposite: 057 For and Against

Following these attractive sentiments, Jesus is represented as giving his disciples some very stern instructions and warnings:

These injunctions are expressed in the severe terms we now know as Sharia law from the Muslim world, and their presence in the Jesus tradition may remind us that the Christian community has had periods of barbarity and injustice in the way it dealt with those who deviated from communal expectations.

It seems likely that Jesus is using hyperbole as an instructional device; exaggeration for the sake of impact.

In the wisdom of the Church, it has not been normative to take these words literally:

  • Few Christians amputate limbs or excise their eyes in obedience to these words. If they did so, most of us would support legislation to ban such inhumane interpretations.
  • The same hermeneutical generosity is not always applied to biblical texts that condemn homosexuality, even though it is often claimed for those who have been divorced.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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