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Sunday, September 30, 2012

God's Other Children

Texts:  Esther 7.1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22; Psalm 124; James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50

The Book of Esther  comes to us from a time when Jewish people were doing some serious rethinking about who they were and what God wanted them to do and be amongst the nations of the world.  Although the story is set in the Persian city of Susa at the height of that Empire’s power in the 470s and 460s BC, we believe it was written much later than that, probably during the reign in Palestine of the Priestly dynasty known as the Hasmoneans, between 150 and 100 BC.  This period was characterised by intense debate in Jewish circles about exactly how much a Jew might accept and adopt the cultural values and practices of their non-Jewish neighbours.  By this time, you see, most Jews no longer lived in Jerusalem or even Palestine.  As a result of the policies of three successive colonial masters – the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks – Jews had by this time become citizens not just of a small patch of land in Palestine, but of a whole Empire which stretched from Iran in the East to Greece in the West.  The most recent of their colonial masters, the Greeks, had been particularly effective in convincing Jewish people that it was not such a bad thing to participate in the politics, the religion, and the cultural life of non-Jews in general, and Greeks in particular.  But when a particular Greek King, a chap named Antiochus Epiphanes, pushed the policy a little to far by setting up an image of the Olympian god Zeus in the Temple at Jerusalem, he quickly discovered that there was a definite limit to Jewish multiculturalism.  The Palestinian Jews rebelled rather spectacularly, driving the Greeks out and setting up a rather puritanical dynasty of priest-kings in their stead.  The new rulers, the Hasmoneans, tried to turn Palestinian Jews back toward a more separatist policy.  They insisted upon a more literal approach to both the Torah, the Mosaic law, and the ritual life surrounding the Temple cult.  But while their reforms were embraced with single-minded fervour in Jerusalem itself, the wider Jewish community, now dispersed throughout the entire Near East, was at odds with itself as to the wisdom of this approach.

The book of Esther emerges out of the midst of this debate, and succeeds in throwing out some challenges to both sides of the controversy.  Where some Jews were very liberal with regard to the prevailing culture, arguing that it was quite o.k. to speak Greek, to observe Greek culture and customs, and even to adopt certain of the Greek’s religious beliefs and practices, the Book of Esther declares that there is a definite limit to such a strategy.  At its centre are two heroic Jewish characters who distinguish themselves by refusing to be so easily assimilated.  Mordecai and Esther are prepared to put their lives on the line in order to preserve their people, a people described in the book as being ‘different from other people, having their own laws, and not keeping the laws of the king’ (3.8). Indeed, Mordecai first gets into trouble when he refuses to bow before Haman, the king’s governor in Susa.

Now, as modern readers you may puzzle at this refusal.  What could possibly be wrong with honouring the land’s highest official?  At this stage in the story we have no evidence that Haman is a cruel or unethical man, or a despot.  So why will Mordecai not honour him?  The most likely answer has to do with that which the writers of Esther believe Jews ought never to compromise, and that is their monotheism, their belief in Yahweh as the one and only true God.  During the reigns of both Persian and Greek emperors, the king was usually regarded as one who shared in the divine nature of the gods themselves.  The obedience they commanded was therefore tinged with a religious as well as a political character.  To honour the king was also to worship him as a divine being, which monotheistic Jews would find difficult to do in any circumstance.  Mordecai’s refusal is therefore a religious refusal.  He will not bow down to the king’s representative because, from where he stands, this would be tantamount to worship.  In the narrative of Esther, Mordecai’s refusal becomes a distinguishing mark of Jewish identity.  For when Haman secures the king’s approval to an edict which will wipe out Jewish communities all over the empire, he does so by arguing that all Jewish people are like Mordecai – a people who are not to be tolerated because they will not obey the king (3.8).

This represents a loud and clear clarion-call to all those Jews of the ancient world who were compromising the faith of their ancestors by participating in Greek worship and religious devotion.  And who can doubt that this was actually happening?  A few years before this, in the ancient Israelite capital of Samaria, the Jewish priests had actually asked their Greek overlords to set up a shrine to Zeus in their temple.  Clearly these priests had completely absorbed the Greek idea that Zeus, the chief of the gods, had different faces and names in different cultures, so that it didn’t really matter whether you called him Zeus or Yahweh, as long as you worshipped him.  Indeed, this idea had recently gained a foothold in Jerusalem itself.  Several years before he set up the shrine to Zeus in the temple, Antiochus Epiphanes had sanctioned the construction of a gymnasium in Jerusalem, to which many of the leading citizens subscribed.  Unlike modern gymnasiums, Greek gymnasiums were institutes for the propagation of Greek culture and religion.  In order to become a member, you had to declare your allegiance to that particular gymnasium’s patron god.  These are the kinds of practices which the writers of Esther are wanting to target.  As far as they are concerned, Jewish identity stands or falls on its belief that only Yahweh is God, that only Yahweh may be worshipped as God.

And there is a challenge for us in this as well.  We live in a world which, in many ways, is very similar to that of the Ancient Persian and Greek Empires.  We live in a multi-cultural and multi-racial society where particular ethnic and religious heritages are constantly bumping into each other.  Now, if you believe the official rhetoric, all are tolerated.  Each of us are free to worship our own God, in our own way.   But underneath it all, I put it to you that only one God is being given special treatment, one God is being subtly pushed into our hearts and minds as more worthy of our devotion than any other.  And that God is not Zeus, as with the ancient Greeks, but Mammon.  It is Money, with a capital M.  Money is present everywhere.  Temples to Money are being built right across the land.  Huge shopping centres whose architecture resembles that of the temples and cathedrals of the ancient world.  The television beams the gospel of money into our living rooms night after night.  The gospel which says that you are free to do whatever you like, but you are not free from the need to have money, and as much of it as you can.  And here is that message’s stroke of genius, the spin that takes us all in:  ‘you all need money’ it says, ‘because without money you can never be free to do what you want’.

None of this means, however, that we should never participate in the society in which we find ourselves.  Against those who would urge us to ‘come out and be separate’, touching no unclean thing in case we are somehow poisoned, the book of Esther encourages us to live in the midst of our multi-cultural and multi-religious society with integrity and poise.  Note that both Mordecai and Esther are more than happy to participate in the government of Persia.  They are happy to assume positions of responsibility, and to further the good of the king with loyalty.  Remember that Esther becomes the Queen because of Mordecai’s good counsel, and that Mordecai becomes a prominent governor because of his willingness to alert the king to a plot against his life.  All of this shows us that it is possible for Christians to participate in, and even serve a society which we do not control, so long as we are not thereby persuaded to give away what is essential to our identity as Christians.

Mark’s gospel counsels us to a very similar understanding.  There the disciples are counselled to accept the action of another group of healers and exorcists, who are doing similar work to themselves and even using Jesus’ good name to accomplish it.  Now, this other group was probably Jewish, and it probably used Jesus’ name because it believed that Jesus was an important Rabbi whose authority was effective in the confrontation of evil.  In other words, they were probably like modern Jews, Muslims or Mahayana Buddhists, who believe that Jesus is an important prophet of God whose teaching and authority is to be respected - yet who do not believe, as we do, that Jesus is somehow pre-eminent, the ‘Son of God’.  “Whoever is not against us is for us”, Jesus tells his disciples, which means that we ought to be happy to work with anyone and everyone who shares our own, Christian, goals for society, even if these folk do not own the name of Christ in the same way as we do.

At the same time, and echoing the Book of Esther’s word of caution, Mark counsels Christians against sharing in whatever practices or allegiances would take us away from our essential identity in Christ.
If your hand causes you to stumble, then cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to gehenna, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.  It is better to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into gehenna.  And if your eye cause you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into gehenna, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.
There are some things that, for Christians, are unacceptable, and these have to do with our ultimate allegiance to Christ.  We are free in Christ, we are not free apart from Christ.  That means that we are not free to exchange the worship and following of Jesus for that of another god – like mammon, for example.  We are not free to participate in practices which will cause other people to fall into sin, to lose their way on the path towards God.  We are not free to pretend we are not Christians, and that Christ is only our Lord on certain days of the week, but not on others.

Each of us are called to ‘have salt in ourselves’, that is, to keep ourselves fresh in Christian identity and service.  But we are also called to ‘be at peace with one another’, to work with others (no matter what their beliefs or allegiances) in bringing the kingdom values of peace with justice to fruition in our communities.  Sometimes this is impossible, because the people who rule do not share our values in any way.  But, in the meantime, I would encourage you to read the book of Esther and find encouragement for a wise discipleship in this very multi-religious and multi-ethnic society in which we currently live and move and have our being.

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