Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Eyes, Feet, Hands for God

Scripture for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost includes Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Ah, yes. The amputation metaphors. “This collection of sayings is very difficult for Christians to hear,” writes one commentator. Do you think? Not to mention what non-Christians might make of it…

A Christian friend of mine made a perfect response to these verses. She lives with aphasia; speech is hard for her. Her response to these verses: Arrrghh! Seems entirely reasonable to me.

The commentator adds, Jesus’s audience would have had no difficulty recognizing the fact that he was speaking metaphorically and not literally. Which still leaves us challenged to figure out what Jesus is saying to us about our own discipleship.

His metaphors of body parts include sensory organs of perception and limbs of ambulation and outreach.

First, eyes. How often do we express disillusionment in words like, “Now I’ve seen it all!”? Jesus trains disciples to see by faith, to witness the worst with eyes that have seen the best-- evidence of resurrection-- and will keep looking for grace in every encounter. A popular blessing challenges us to see Jesus in every face we see.

Second, feet. A common word associated with faith is “walk”, as in walking the walk. By contrast, we often feel we’re walking in circles and running out of steam and, as James says today, wandering from the truth. By contrast, running the race that is set before us-- looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith-- has global positioning built into it, and walking the way of the cross is all about finding it to be the way of life. Pilgrimage is not aimless, both because it has a destination and because the journey itself is every bit as important as the arrival.

Then, hands. What our hands reach for is determined by where and how our hearts are attached. Think of Michelangelo’s Sistine fresco, the outstretched hand of God impelled by love to create, the receptive hand of Adam showing more than a need for A hand—the need for THE hand that establishes covenant relationship.

So if all this is the positive message, why the negative language, why the verbal extremism? Violence in the language of this part of Mark’s Gospel is thought to be the symptom of sharp disputes going on when Mark wrote this first of the four Gospels. Last Sunday, we heard about the disciples disputing among themselves who was greatest: that was a foretaste of human arguments that would persist in the early Church, magnified mightily by the wicked persecutions waged by the Roman empire, and preachers like Mark (modeling their approach on their bold assertive teacher Jesus) didn’t hesitate to employ a shock factor to rein-in erring church leaders.

Salt and fire are puzzling images, aren’t they? In that day, they’d have been understood as being all about preserving food, preventing decay and poisoning and waste and hunger. These chemical tools are good, as the Gospel says, but as chemical tools they involve reaction and change. We may think that agents of preservation represent the status quo, but in fact they represent change, transformation. In Mark’s hands salt and fire become emblematic of how everyone gets tested in life, and we’re probably meant to be reminded of psalms and other Hebrew scriptures that speak of God refining God’s people to reveal their integrity and prepare them to be agents of God’s own demanding love. The Bible is the many-centuried witness to the puzzling truth that those who are closest to the heart of God are also likeliest to be tested. Think of Jesus. Think of the Jews.

And our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today, the eccentric Book of Esther, gets us doing just that: thinking of the Jews. We need some commentary. “The underlying question of the book,” says one commentator, “ (is) the question of destruction or survival for Jews under persecution…”, a religious question. But nowhere in the book is God mentioned. Prayer is noticeably absent. “The spirit of vengeance is considerably more prominent than the spirit of devotion.”

But what a story it tells! We get its denouement today wildly out of the blue. A bit of background: “Esther, a beautiful Jewish maiden living in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire, was selected for the king’s harem, and so delighted King Ahasuerus… that he made her his queen. Then Haman, the prime minister, influenced the king to issue an edict authorizing the annihilation of all Jews in the Empire. In this emergency Esther was able to persuade Ahasuerus to proclaim a second edict reversing the situation, thus saving the lives of her people, and accomplishing the annihilation of their enemies. The rejoicing following this victory, the two days of feasting and gladness on the fourteenth and fifteenth (days of the Hebrew month) Adar, was then fixed by Queen Esther as an annual celebration, the festival of Purim.”

Mordecai, the fellow who escaped the fate that befell Haman, was Esther’s cousin and guardian. Though Haman had set him up to seem a traitor, at the last minute Mordecai is discovered by the king as the one whose intervention at just the right moment had thwarted an assassination attempt on the king by one of his top officials. Suddenly, in a true uh-oh moment, Haman’s eagerness to do away with Mordecai appears to the king to be damning evidence. And the tables turn. This is an exciting story of court intrigue, and it’s no wonder that it’s retold annually.

But it’s pretty clear that the story’s origins are not Jewish. Its non-religious character, and the Persian names of the characters in the story, combined with the fact that nowhere in Jewish law is observance of Purim required, all suggest that here we have an example of the profound principle Jesus believes: that whoever is not against us is for us. This Jewish festival of deliverance is rooted in a non-Jewish drama taken over by Jews from their Persian neighbors.

This is delicious, and well worth noticing. I wonder if this isn’t a witness to the wisdom of recognizing how interdependent we all are, in the experience of being human—how we need one another’s best stories.

When your religion motivates you to give a cup of water to a thirsty person, when your faith prompts you to help a person wrapped in anxiety find freedom, when your piety frees you to pray for the suffering and sing songs of praise with the cheerful, then you are tapping into a universal love that will teach you about the divine. And it is then, with the humility and the intensity of beginners, that disciples of Yahweh who is revealed by the law and the prophets, disciples of Jesus incarnating Abba Father and Lady Wisdom, disciples of Allah whose ways are expressed by the Prophet in the Koran, disciples of Lord Buddha emulated in mindfulness, and who knows who else, will discover the salt and fire of being for, not against one another.

May that day keep coming. Remember that the journey there is as important as the arrival—but may the day noticeably arrive, in our lifetime, in that of our children, and may we help it happen by bearing the holy fruits of peace and understanding.

Dorothea Ward Harvey’s article on the Book of Esther is found in Volume 2 of The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon Press, 1962).