Proper 21 (RCL): Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22, and Mark 9:38-50
They were brought here as slaves. Our ancestors captured them and brought them to this country and put them to work, gave them new lives. Eventually they were allowed freedom and permitted to become part of the general populace, to become educated, to participate in the social and political life of the nation. Many of them became wealthy merchants and business leaders, and some of them even rose to national prominence, becoming important in government. But let’s face it! They were slaves! They aren’t really like us! And now one of them is at the very center of national power.The Book of Esther is a parable for today, but I’m at something of a loss to explain why a short portion of it drops out of the blue into our lectionary today. We haven’t been reading from it during the past few weeks and we won’t read from it again in coming weeks. I could understand this one-time shot of Esther if we were in, say, the month of March. Then we might be acknowledging our solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters. As we heard in the lesson, they were enjoined to have a holiday on the 14th and 15th of Adar, and they still do to this day. The holiday of Purim, the most joyous in Jewish calendar, celebrates the salvation of the Jews related in Esther’s story. But the middle of the month of Adar usually falls in March in our calendar. So solidarity with modern Jews can’t be the reason we here this bit of Esther today.
Let’s consider the whole story of Esther and maybe that can help us figure this out.
Remember that the leading citizens of Israel had been taken captive and transported as slaves to the Persian empire. Most had been resettled near the capital, near modern Tehran, but many had been resettled throughout the provinces of Persian. They had become a part of the society. Many were merchants, some had entered into the king’s government service, a few had risen to high rank. One, Mordecai, was an advisor to King Xerxes (called Ahasuerus in our reading today).
Xerxes was in need of a queen. His former wife, Vashti, had been disrespectful and disobedient, so he had divorced her and exiled her. So the King ordered a search for a new queen. All of the marriageable young women were to be brought before him to show off their comeliness and their talents in a sort of beauty pageant.
Mordecai’s orphaned cousin was Esther, a lovely young woman, whom no one knew to be a Jew. Mordecai arranged for her to take part in the king’s pageant and (guess what?) she won. She became queen of Persia.
Now Mordecai had run afoul of another government minister named Haman – Haman hated the Jews! All that ranting I did at the beginning of this sermon … that was Haman’s opinion of the Jews of Persia (though you might have thought it something else).
As far as Haman was concerned the Jews were so different … They looked different. Their skin color was different. Their facial structure was different. They had a different God (although God isn’t mentioned at all in the Book of Esther). They had different customs and traditions. They kept a different calendar. They had different holidays. They did strange things to their baby boys. … They were so different they had to be dealt with in a decisive way. So Haman came up with a plan.
Haman obtained the King’s seal; he was given supreme authority over the empire. So he sent out letters using the seal to the provincial governors and the leaders of the cities. The letters ordered that on a particular day at a particular time, all of the Jews were to be rounded up and killed. Mordecai learned of this plan and contacted Queen Esther so that she would ask the king to countermand Haman’s orders.
Esther decided to deal with the situation in this way: she invited the king and Haman to her apartments in the royal palace for a banquet. It must have been quite a feast for, as our lesson tells us, the king and Haman were still drinking wine on the second day! That’s when Xerxes told her she could have anything she requested. And so, she told him about Haman’s plan and asked for the lives of her people. The king granted her petition and, not only that, decided to hang Haman for this treachery. Haman had erected a tall gallows outside his home where he intended to hang Mordecai … but he ended up being hanged on it himself.
So here we have this story set side by side with a story from the Gospel of Mark in which John, typical of the disciples, doesn’t quite understand what the Good News is all about. Remember that John and his brother James had asked for the thrones of power in Jesus’ kingdom, but Jesus had used their request to teach about the overturning of society – that the first would be last and the last, first, and that the leader must be the servant. Now John, still thinking in terms of power and status, wants to hoard the healing authority he and the others have through Jesus. There’s someone else casting out demons and he wants them stopped. He couldn’t do it himself, so he asks Jesus to do so.
But Jesus won’t. “Whoever is not against us is with us,” says Jesus. John, like Haman, wants to exclude the outsider. John, like Haman, wants to draw a small, narrow circle with the insiders inside and those who are different left out. But Jesus won’t permit that. Jesus draws a wide and encompassing circle that includes anyone who does not specifically and intentionally put themselves outside of it. “Whoever is not against us is with us.”
And then Jesus goes on with all this disturbing talk of cutting off hands and feet, plucking out eyes. What on earth is that all about? Well, it’s metaphorical language for those attitudes and actions of exclusion that we all, unfortunately, share with John and Haman.
Has anyone ever done this to you (putting up a hand as if blocking passage)? “Talk to the hand!” “Keep out!” “Stand back!” Or have you ever been “kicked out” of some place or some group? Have you ever put up your to hand block someone … or used your foot to kick someone out? “No, no,” says Jesus. Better get rid of that blocking hand, that kicking-out foot … there is no place for exclusion in God’s kingdom. “Whoever is not against us is with us.”
In Jesus’ and John’s time people believed in the “evil eye”. They believed that a certain look could curse someone, and that was another way to deal with those who were different, to keep them away from the insiders.
So what Jesus is saying is … if you (like Haman, like John) have any attitudes, any actions, any habits that exclude others, that push them away, that kick them out, that see them as outside the circle, get rid of those attitudes, actions and habits. The circle is drawn wide. “Whoever is not against us is with us.”
And that’s why we got that bit of Esther today. A story of exclusion, a story of the worst way of relating to the outsider, to those who are different in some way, set side-by-side with Jesus’ circle of inclusion. A story of violence contrasted with an injunction to peace. Our Gospel lesson concludes as Jesus says to everyone within his ever-widening circle, “Be at peace with one another.” Despite all that may be different among us, unless we intentionally exclude ourselves, we are all within Jesus’ circle; be at peace with one another. Amen.