Thursday, September 25, 2014
Esther 7:1-10; Psalms 83; Acts 19:11-20; Luke 4:14-30
Esther’s second banquet has begun, and it, like the first, is involved with abundant wine. In the course of things, the king repeats his question to Esther with the same promise, “to the half of my kingdom.” It is then than she pleads for her life. Read carefully how she goes about it, maintaining deference to the king’s authority. After all, he signed the decree, though Haman wrote it. If it had only involved slavery or deportation, that she and her people could live with; but sold into annihilation? And notice how subtly she has announced that she too is a Jew. “Who,” asks the king, would presume to do this?” Only now she can say it: “Haman.” The king erupts in rage, so much so that he leaves the banquet chamber and goes into his garden to calm himself. Haman knows that he is in trouble, and in the king’s absence begins to beg Esther for his life, even to the point of crawling onto her couch with her. As the king returns he sees this, and interprets it as Haman trying to assault her, in his very presence. Harbonah, one of the king’s eunuchs, is standing nearby watching all of this, and reminds the king of the gallows Haman has constructed for Mordecai and suggests using it for Haman. The king consents, and Haman is hanged from his own gallows. But the story is far from over.
Psalm 83 is a cry for help in the midst of national crisis and severe adversity and has a very contemporary ring to it, reminding us that the struggles between Israel and its neighbors are ancient. The children of Lot—the nations that trace their lineage to him and who surround Israel—are in tumult and conspiring to destroy the Israelites from the face of the earth. They are named as hating the Lord and the people “the Lord protects.” It names the countries and nations that have stood against Israel, remembering how, in the past, God intervened again and again on Israel’s behalf. It is a recounting of the events of the exodus and the entrance into the land of promise, remembering how God acted on Israel’s behalf again and again, recounting the names of nations and kings we encounter in the books of Joshua and Judges. Even Philistia and Assyria have joined in the coalition of evil. The psalm ends with the plea that God make them all like “the whirling dust” and chaff driven by the wind, like the flame that consumes the forest so that that they may know that the Lord alone is Most High over all the earth.
Paul continues his ministry in Ephesus and God does many wondrous things through him to validate the message he is preaching. Even portions of his clothing were believed to be imbued with God’s power, so that aprons and handkerchiefs were taken from him to the sick and demented so that their diseases and their evil spirits left them. Always, the healings were done in the name of Jesus. Some traveling Jewish brothers who are exorcists, begin to attempt their exorcisms in Jesus’ name as well, saying, “I adjure in the name of the Jesus Paul proclaims, come out.” Among them were the seven sons of chief priest Sceva. But when the seven sons attempted this, the spirit responds, “I recognize Jesus, I know about Paul, but who are you?” Thereupon, the possessed man leaps upon them and subdues them to the point that the seven men must flee the house, running naked into the streets—as humiliating then as it would be today. This becomes widely known in the area and fear falls on all in Ephesus where Jesus’ name begins to be magnified and spoken of with awe and reverence. Many come to believe in Jesus, among those, people who practiced magic. Recognizing that the practice of magic is dabbling in the world of spirits and inconsistent with faith in Jesus, the magicians not only confess their practices, but actually bring their books of magic to be burned—books of great value in that world. We are told that the sum of their value was fifty thousand pieces of silver. So, the word of the Lord continues to grow and prevail.
Jesus returns from his temptations in the wilderness full of the Spirit and goes to Galilee, teaching and preaching on his way. On the sabbath he goes to his home synagogue in Nazareth and, as was the practice of the day, is given the honor of reading the scriptures for the day and making comment on them. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah is given to him, and Jesus reads from Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2, declaring that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, anointing him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of God’s favor—each a major theme that will unfold in Luke’s Gospel. Closing the scroll, Jesus returns it to the attendant and goes back to his place in the synagogue. As everyone’s eyes are focused on him, Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke tells us “all spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words.” Yet, at the same time, they were asking themselves about him and what he had just said about himself. After all, they knew him; he is Joseph’s son—one of them! Jesus continues, “Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here the things we have heard you did in Capernaum.’ But the truth is, ‘no prophet is accepted in his home town.’” Jesus goes on to remind them that there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah when there was famine and no rain, but God sent Elijah to the widow of Zarephath in Sidon—a Gentile! There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, but none of them were cleansed by Elisha except Naaman the Syrian—another Gentile outsider! Upon hearing this, the people in the synagogue rise up in anger at Jesus and, in their rage, try to drag him to the edge of Nazareth in order to throw him off the brow of the hill and stone him. But, Luke tells us, Jesus passed through their midst and went his way. Jesus’ ministry has begun.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Esther 6:1-14; Psalm 119:97-120; Acts 19:1-10; Luke 4:1-13
While Haman relishes in his plans to hang Mordecai, the king cannot sleep, and asks that the annals of his reign be brought and read to him. In them, he learns of Mordecai’s role in foiling the plot the two eunuchs had designed to kill him, and asks, “What has been done to honor Mordecai for his help in saving the king? “Nothing!” is the reply. At that moment, Haman has appeared in court, prepared to make his request to have Mordecai hanged. The king asks that Haman be brought in and asks, “What is to be done for the man whom the king desires to honor?” Haman is convinced that it is himself the king wishes to honor, and so describes a lavish act: clothe the man in the finest robes the king himself has worn and mount him on one of the king’s royal horses, and let the king’s most noble officials lead the man and the horse through the city proclaiming to all, “Thus it shall be done to the man the king wishes to honor.” Imagine the look on Haman’s face when the king instructs him to do just this for Mordecai, who is sitting at the gate in sackcloth and ashes. So Haman does, and notice: it is Haman who must lead the horse mounted by Mordecai through the city, and with his own mouth, announce the king’s favor for Mordecai, further humiliating Haman in the eyes of those to whom this story is told. When it is over, Mordecai returns to the city gate, but Haman covers his head so as not to be recognized and slinks home in mourning to tell the whole thing to his wife. When she hears of it, Zeresh speaks an oracle: “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish origin, you will not overcome him, but fall.” And as those words leave her mouth, two eunuchs from the king come to bring Haman to the second banquet that Esther has prepared for him and the king.
Psalm 119 is not only the longest psalm but also the longest chapter of any book in the Bible with 176 verses! It is the prayer of one who delights in God’s Torah—its statutes and instruction. An acrostic psalm, it is broken into twenty-two sections, each for a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each of the eight verses within each section beginning with a letter of that alphabet, in descending order. Today’s portion, verses 97 through 120, begins as mem (M) then nun (N), and finally samek (S) and starts with a statement of how the psalmist loves God’s Law. Following the injunction of Psalm 1, the psalmist meditates on it day and night. It makes him wiser than his enemies and more understanding than his teachers or his elders. It keeps his feet in check and is sweeter on his tongue than honey. The second section, verses 105 through 112, begins with the well-known words, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” and then takes up the theme of fulfilling the vow that has been taken to study it. Yet, as he does, he finds himself severely afflicted and prays for relief. Though he holds his life in his hands—is responsible for it on a day to day basis—his enemies beset him. Yet, he does not forget God’s law but maintains his vow, for it is his heritage and the joy of his heart. The third section, verses 113 through 120, condemns the “double minded”—those who confess and profess to live by God’s commandments, but do not. The psalmist has learned that God is his hiding place and shield; therefore, he hopes in God’s word. Pleading for protection in his circumstances, he blesses God for spurning all who turn away from God’s word, counting them as dross. Finally, God’s triumph and judgments in such circumstances simply leave him in awe and fear.
Paul continues, in this third missionary journey, his travels across Asia and returns to Ephesus where he finds some disciples, about twelve men. He asks them about the Holy Spirit, but they have never heard of it. He asks them about their baptism, and they tell him they were baptized into John’s. Paul, therefore, instructs them in the difference, baptizes them in the name of Jesus, lays hands upon them, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them so that they begin to speak in tongues and prophesy (preach the word). Paul returns to the synagogue he had initially visited on his return to Antioch from Corinth, and, for about three months, he presents the gospel, reasoning with them about the kingdom of God. But some in the synagogue become hardened by this and begin to speak evil of “the Way.” Consequently, Paul withdraws and takes the disciples with him to the lecture hall of Tyrannus—evidently one of the schools of philosophy in Ephesus, also an intellectual center in Asia–and, there, for two years, Paul reasoned with them daily, so that all in the country (both Greeks and Jews) hear the word of the Lord.
We hear the temptation narrative from Luke’s perspective. Jesus returns from his baptism in the Jordan and is “led” by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, whereas, in Mark, Jesus is “driven” there by the Holy Spirit. He fasts for forty days and is famished. It is only then that the devil tests him with the questions asked in the other two synoptic gospels, “If you are the son of God….” The challenges are the same but in different order: “turn these stones to bread,” “worship me and I will give you what is mine; all the kingdoms of the world,” and, “if you trust God so, throw yourself off the temple that he might rescue you,”—these latter two reversed from Mark and Matthew’s order. Jesus responds to the first two challenges with quotations from scripture, which leads the devil to quoting scripture against Jesus, “It is written, he will give his angels charge over you.” Yes, even the devil can quote scripture, and, frankly, better than any of us can! Jesus responds again with scripture, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test!” Not only is he telling the devil that he, Jesus, will not put his Father to such a test, but also, the devil is not to put his Lord—Jesus—to the test. Remember, he is Lord of all, and the devil knows it. Therefore, he withdraws from Jesus “until an opportune time.” That time will be the Passion. For now, he is gone, and Jesus returns to Galilee in the power of the Holy Spirit, while the news about him spreads throughout the region.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Esther 5:1-14; Psalm 78:1-39; Acts 18:12-28; Luke 3:15-22
Esther completes her fast and, on the third day, prepares herself and goes to the king unbidden, who is sitting on his throne opposite the site in the inner court where Esther stands. He extends his royal scepter, Esther touches the top of it and is admitted into his presence, and he asks what is troubling her. Why else would Esther risk her life in this way? Something very serious is afoot. What is her request? She may have up to half of the kingdom if need be. Notice that rather than blurt out a request, Esther asks that the king and Haman come to a banquet she has prepared for them. In that day and age, one took time and did not press the issue immediately (diplomacy is not a new science!). The king agrees and the three sit down to eat and drink. Again, the king asks Esther what it is she desires. Again, she postpones the request, asking for a second banquet the next day. If so, then she will tell the king. He agrees. Haman leaves that banquet filled with confidence; he has just dined with the king and queen, and is invited to return tomorrow. As he passes Mordecai, who again fails to acknowledge Haman’s presence, he is filled with anger and rage but contains himself. Rather, he goes to his home, knowing that his plan will soon mean he is rid of not just Mordecai but all his people. At home he calls for his wife and friends to join him and recounts to them the glories of his position with the king and queen and his importance not only to the king, but now, even to the queen, who has invited him back to a second banquet. But, in spite of all this importance, Mordecai, “the Jew” who sits at the city gate still fails to acknowledge his greatness. What to do? Haman’s wife, Zeresh and his friends, recommend building a gallows 50 cubits high (approximately 150 feet), and ask the king to hang Mordecai from it in the morning before the banquet. Haman is pleased with the advice and has the gallows built overnight.
Psalm 78:1-39 is both a psalm of praise for God’s saving actions, but it also recounts for later generations their ancestors’ continuing fickleness and faithlessness, in spite of God’s gracious responses to their needs. It begins as a wisdom psalm, much of it built on two-strophe Hebrew parallelisms—the second line repeating, by way of synonym, what the first line has introduced. It celebrates the gift of God’s instructions to Israel, starting with Jacob, and encourages the people to teach God’s Torah and God’s wondrous ways to their children, so that they not forget God and God’s ways as their ancestors have done. The tribe of Ephraim is used as the primary example of unfaithfulness, having turned back when called to battle. Though their ancestors witnessed God’s power during the plagues in the fields of Zoan, in the Egyptian Delta, and then the division of the sea, the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, and water coming forth from the rock, still, they were rebellious. “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” they asked. But of course; that is precisely what God did. In spite of God’s anger at their lack of faith in him, still, God continued to provide the things the psalm recounts in magnificent imagery—bread of angels, water gushing from the rock, birds falling at their feet around their camps—reciting God’s acts of provision during Israel’s time in the wilderness. Still, the people sinned and did not believe in the wonders God did. And so, God made their days vanish like a breath—reference to God’s judgment of the generation coming out of Egypt. Yet, in spite of all of that, God remained compassionate and did not kill them all. He restrained his anger and wrath, remembering that they were but flesh; a wind that passes over and does not return.
Paul’s time in Corinth is coming to an end. After about a year and a half there, the Jews rise up and bring charges against Paul with the governing authority of Acacia, Gallio, falsely accusing Paul about matters of worship. As Paul is about to defend himself, Gallio announces that if this were about a wrong or a vicious crime, he would “put up” with them. But since this is about words, names and their own worship life, he will not listen. They need to judge it themselves. Outraged at the rebuff, the Jews take the leader of their own synagogue, Sosthenes, and begin to beat him in public—we know not why. Is he the one who designed the plot to take the accusation to Gallio, and they have now turned against him? Or, is he also a follower of the Way still active in synagogue leadership? We do not know. However, Gallio pays no attention to them. But it is clear to Paul it is now time for him to leave Corinth. Taking Aquila and Priscilla with him, they leave from the port of Cenchreae for Syria. Before leaving, Paul has his hair cut, for, we are told, he has been under a vow, which is likely related to a spiritual vow like that of the Nazarites who did not cut their hair while under the vow (remember Sampson and Samuel). Paul stops in Ephesus along the way, disembarking in order to visit the synagogue—his first time in Ephesus—and reasons with the men in there, who asked him to stay. He refuses but notes that if it is God’s will, he will return to them, as, indeed he later will. But for now, Paul sets sail for Caesarea, leaving Aquila and Pricilla behind in Ephesus. When Paul lands at Caesarea, he “goes up” to Jerusalem to “greet the church” there and then heads north (“down”) to Antioch, his old home and the base of his first two missionary journeys. Thereafter, he heads north and west, embarking on a third missionary journey, going back into the Galatian region to visit the churches of his first missionary journey to see how they are doing and to strengthen them in faith. The account now cuts away to Ephesus where a man from Alexandria (center of high learning in the ancient world), named Apollos, who was both eloquent and highly versed in the scriptures and who was a believer who spoke forcefully and rightly about Jesus as the Christ, is introduced into Luke’s narrative. However, we are told that Apollos only knew about the baptism of John and not baptism in the name of Jesus. As Apollos began to teach in Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla take him aside to more deeply instruct him in the faith—“The Way of God.” Remember, early Christians were called “the people of the Way.” Thereafter, Apollos wants to cross over to Acacia, and more specifically, Corinth, so Aquila and Priscilla write letters of introduction to the church there, asking that they welcome Apollos. When he arrives, he immediately demonstrates his spiritual and intellectual gifts and begins to confront and refute the Jews in Corinth, demonstrating by the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.
Luke presents the people in a state of wonder about John the Baptist; is he the Christ? John responds that he is not. He baptizes with mere water. The one coming after him, whose sandals John is not fit to untie, baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. John presents this coming one as an apocalyptic figure coming in judgment, as he preaches the gospel to the people. But John has also been critical of Herod, who has married his brother’s wife, which John considers a grievous sin. As John publically pronounces judgment upon the relationship, Herod has John arrested. With John off the scene, the story turns to Jesus’ baptism. He has joined the others coming to be baptized, but not by John, but, presumably, by John’s disciples. And when Jesus emerges from the water, the Spirit descends upon him bodily like a dove, and a voice from heaven announces to him, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Notice that this is different than the other accounts of Jesus’ baptism. Luke has taken pains to make the point that Jesus was not baptized by John, in all probability because, during Luke’s day, there were serious arguments about who was the greatest, Jesus or John. To have been baptized by John would have been a sign of Jesus’ inferiority to John in the eyes of many for whom this story is recounted.
Monday, September 22, 2014
Esther 4:4-17; Psalm 80; Acts 18:1-11; Luke (1:1-4), 3:1-14
Word comes to Esther, through her maids-in-waiting and the harem eunuchs, that Mordecai lies at the city gates in sackcloth and ashes and can come no further. She orders that new clothing be sent to him in order that he might enter, but Mordecai refuses to give up his penitential state. And so, Esther sends the king’s eunuch assigned to attend her, Hathach, to go to Mordecai and learn the reason for his distress. When Hathach returns with the news and the huge bribe paid by Haman to the king for the destruction of her people, the written decree from the king for the destruction of all the Jews, and Mordecai’s request that Esther go to the king and plead on behalf of her people, Esther writhes and shudders in deep anguish. She cannot go to the king unbidden, for the law states that any who approach the king unbidden shall die, unless, in that moment, the king stretches forth his golden scepter, a sign of his acceptance of the visit. She instructs Hathach to take this word back to Mordecai, who does. Mordecai reminds Esther that she too is a Jew and ought not to think that her place in the royal palace will spare her. If she remains silent at this time of relief, another will rise on behalf of the Jews (a faint reference to providence), but she and her father’s house (including Mordecai), will perish. She should consider that it may just be that she has become Queen for this particular time. Esther responds, asking that every Jew in Suza fast, as she and her maidens in waiting will fast, for the next three days. Thereafter, she will approach the king. If she perishes, she perishes.
Psalm 80 is a community lament at the time of national disaster brought on by an oppressing super-power. Some scholars think it can be traced to 722 BCE when Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom—note the specific reference to Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh, all northern tribes. It is directed to God as the “Shepherd of Israel” the one who leads Joseph’s flock, enthroned in the heavens. “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” This classic call for God’s presence to rise up and destroy the enemy is repeated at the conclusion of each of the psalm’s three sections. The first, the initial plea for salvation, the second, a description of Israel’s troubles, and the third, a beautiful allegory of Israel as God’s vine—uprooted from Egypt, brought into a new land and firmly planted there, but now in jeopardy of full destruction. “How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?”—their worship. From this psalm comes the memorable phrases “bread of tears,” and “tears to drink in full measure.” Near the end, it prays for God’s presence and strength for the king, the one at God’s right hand who God has made strong for God’s purposes. Later, this phrase will take on Messianic tones. For the psalmist, it is a plea for God to rise up and restore his people.
Paul moves south from Athens to Corinth, one of two very busy and important seaports in Greece. There, he encounters fellow Jewish Christians, Aquila and Priscilla, members of the church in Rome who have recently been forced to leave Rome and relocate, because Emperor Claudius had issued an edict expelling Jews from Rome. History records such an edict by Claudius because the Jews were “constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus”—a likely reference to controversies similar to those Paul had occasioned in visiting synagogues on both of his missionary journeys. At any rate, Paul went to meet them, and because Aquila was also a tent maker, settled with them, and worked together. This partnership will bear much fruit and will help lay the foundation for Paul’s later letter to the Romans. Paul has taken up his old trade of tent-making in order to support himself and be free from the charge that he is preaching for hire, a habit of many traveling spiritual preachers of the day and something his opponents will later accuse him of doing. And, as has been his custom, every Sabbath, Paul goes to the synagogue and tries to convince the Jews and Greeks there that Jesus is the Christ. When Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia, they go to work even more intentionally. When opposition and protest become too great, Paul, in turn, shakes the Corinthian Jews’ dust from his clothing—an act of protest and disclaimer—making the point that he is no longer responsible for their blood. Having heard the gospel and having rejected it, they no longer have any excuse. In leaving the synagogue, he goes to the house of a convert named Titius Justus, a Greek God-fearer who had become a believer, whose house was right next door to the synagogue. In addition, Crispus, the official of the synagogue, also has become a believer, along with his household. We are told that many in Corinth who hear Paul become believers and are baptized and enter the house-church that gathers in Titus Justus’ home. Tensions continue to rise in the city, so much so that the Lord appears to Paul in a vision and tells him to not fear, but speak and not be silent, “for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.” Consequently, Paul stays on in Corinth a year and a half, continuing his work with Silas, Timothy, Aquila and Priscilla.We leave John’s gospel for a while and take up the Gospel according to Luke. Luke is most noteworthy for its long introduction to and careful narration of Jesus’ birth—two chapters in length, as well as a long travel account, deep interest in the poor, marginalized and disposed, as well as the role of women. He is also the writer most interested in dates and names of rulers, giving a historic context to the gospel entering the world. Luke is also the repository of many parables and musical fragments and hymns, which we suspect came directly out of the worshipping community for which this gospel was written. In addition, Luke is the only gospel writer who feels the need to continue the story after Jesus’ ascension and writes a second volume we know as the Acts of the Apostles, which I have earlier said, could have as easily been named, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” After the prologue, in which Luke explains to his literary patron, Theophilus (a common name in the Roman world which means “God lover”), we jump the well- known birth narrative that concludes with Jesus’ Bar Mizvah in Jerusalem, and after a lengthy historical setting, we turn to the ministry of John the Baptist. Luke has already given considerable time to John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, as not only cousin, but as the forerunner of Jesus. By now, both John and Jesus are adults, and John has taken up his ministry in the wilderness (reminder of the place God formed Israel into God’s people), and he is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke then quotes the prophet Isaiah who opens his 40th chapter, often called “The Book of Consolation,” speaking of a voice crying in the wilderness, “Comfort,” and “Prepare the way of the Lord,” as biblical warrant for John and his ministry. However, John’s words are hardly comfort: “brood of vipers, who warned you to repent from the wrath to come?’ “The axe is lying at the root of the tree of Abraham, to cut off all who do not bear good fruit.” The crowd comes out to John and responds with a phrase we will hear in Luke/Acts again, “What then should we do?” John does not tell them to repent and be baptized. Rather he tells them that any who have two coats, must share one with someone who has none; so too with their food. The tax collectors who come to him are told to collect only what is prescribed, rather than gouge those subject to them, and soldiers are to abandon their abusive ways among civilians. It is not quite clear why John has chosen baptism as the sign of response. Was it the washing ritual Jews used on proselytes when they converted? Was it simply the rite of purification one went through after becoming ritually unclean, not unlike the mikvah? It was probably a bit of both, but first and foremost it is an act witnessing to submission, a way of realigning to the ways of God as proscribed in the Torah and the prophets.
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Esther 3:1-4:3; Psalms 93; James 1:19-27; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Time has passed and Queen Esther is firmly established. In that time, King Ahasuerus has promoted Haman the Agagite, descendent of King Agag of the Amalekites--the historic enemies of the Jews whose hatred goes back centuries (Exodus 17:8-16; Numbers 24:20 and 1 Samuel 15:8-33). Haman has become the king’s Chief Operations Officer, and, as such, is senior to all else. As Haman passes the king’s gate, all of the kings servants are to bow down to him. All do, but Mordecai. Why? It is not a religious prohibition, and, certainly, as one of Ahasuerus’ officials, he had to bow to the king. It seems rather to be the ancient ethnic hostility at work, since, when asked why he does not bow, he simply explains that he is a Jew. When this continues day after day, the others tell Haman, who though enraged at the insult decides it is beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone; rather, he will wipe out all of Mordecai’s people in Ahasuerus’ kingdom. He goes to the king with information mixed with half-truths and downright lies about the Jews: they are scattered all over the kings’ lands, their laws are different and they do not obey the king’s laws. It is true that they have their own laws—the Torah—but it is not true that they did not keep the laws of the land; they did. But, for the king it seems a minor irritation or distraction. He trusts Haman, and consents to his plan. He even signs a formal declaration that not even he, as king, can revoke. The amount of money in the bribe from Haman to the king’s treasury (note, it is not offered directly to the king), is huge—10,000 talents is 375 tons of silver—remember this is a novel! Letters are sent throughout the provinces. And so, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of the Empire is put into motion to carry out Haman’s murderous scheme to be rid of the Jews—every man, woman and child, old and young, in one day will be destroyed—the day that emerges through the casting of the “pur”—the lots. Haman sits down in great personal satisfaction to drink while the city of Susa is thrown into confusion. When word reaches Mordecai, he responds with traditional Jewish acts of repentance, tearing his clothes and donning sackcloth and ashes. He goes through the city wailing a bitter cry. He goes to the entrance of the king’s gate, but no further, for no one can cross it clothed as he is. Mordecai’s behavior is replicated in every city where the king’s edict is read, and the people fast as well.
Psalm 93, probably used during the annual enthronement of Israel’s king, has been appropriated by the church for Easter because, in his resurrection, Jesus has become King of kings and Lord of lords. The psalmist praises the majesty, strength and holiness of the Lord—Israel’s true king—and recalls how all creation has been fixed by God and shall not be moved. So, too, is God’s throne firmly fixed from of old and is “until everlasting.” Even the floods join their voices in praising God’s majesty. God’s reign is eternal, God’s decrees are sure, and only holiness is suitable for God’s house. In the enthronement, this psalm reminds Israel’s king of who it is who truly reigns in Israel, and to whom he is accountable—the Lord.
Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and even slower to anger for none of this produces righteousness of God. Put it all away, along with other acts of filthiness and remnants of wickedness, and, in humility, receive the word implanted in us that can save. Here, James may be referring to a special word spoken to new converts at their baptism, or the charge that is given in baptism. The point is, we are to be doers of that word and not merely hearers who delude ourselves into thinking that hearing and agreeing is enough. The image of looking at ourselves in a mirror is employed for those who hear but do not do. It is like seeing ourselves there in the mirror, then walking away and forgetting what we look like. What we see there, after all, is not truly real, but an image, itself a distortion (this was especially true of the polished bronze mirrors of the day). The Law, on the other hand, is perfect. Those who look on it—the Law of liberty as the rabbis spoke of it—and persevere will be blessed in their doing. Those who think themselves religious, but do not bridle their tongues, only deceive themselves; such religious behavior is worthless. True religion is then defined: it cares for the poor—widows, orphans and the homeless—and it separates itself from the false values of the world.
Much the same theme is picked up in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Piety is a good thing, but beware of the dangers of practicing it in public—note he said, “Beware” not “don’t”—for it has the capacity to cause us to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Piety practiced in public for the right reason can be a very good thing. But, if you are doing it to be noticed by others, you have already received your reward. Rather, when you give to the poor, do so secretly, and don’t trumpet it about, as the two-faced hypocrites do (that is what the word hypocrite means—two-faced), in order to be seen by others. Do your giving in secret, not letting your left hand know what your right is doing, and the Heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. The same is true for fasting. When you do it, do not walk around with a miserable look on your face, uttering complaints about how hungry you are because you are fasting. That is simply drawing attention to yourself for your own sake. Rather, wash your face, anoint your head, and move through the crowd as though you know nothing of hunger, and your Heavenly Father will fill your own hunger with abundance.
Author: The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.